Damien Kayat takes a look at the women's draw of the 2021 French Open.
WTA Tour 2021
Grand Slam Tennis
Roland Garros, Paris, France (Outdoor Clay-Court)
30th May- 13th June
In recent years, the women’s French Open has proved to be the complete antithesis of the men’s event. The winner’s list reads like a veritable lucky-packet, a stark contrast to Rafa Nadal’s annual coronation.
There have been seven different winners in the last seven years. Furthermore, both Jelena Ostapenko and defending champion Iga Swiatek were unseeded entering the tournament.
This schizophrenic madness is actually quite a refreshing alternative to the predictability of the men’s event. You only tend to tune into the men’s draw during the 2nd week, fairly assured of minimal upsets.
The women’s event often plays out like an M.Night Shyamalan movie binge: twist after twist. Top seed Ashleigh Barty returns to Paris after deciding to jettison last year’s event due to Covid. She is in sparkling form and will be looking to finally capture her 2nd Grand Slam.
The Favourites- Ashleigh Barty and Iga Swiatek
Barty has looked really motivated this year following Naomi Osaka’s dominance of recent Slams. She has knuckled down and really owned the number one ranking with real authority.
She has won three titles this year including the Miami Open. She has looked imperious on clay, claiming the title in Stuttgart before losing the Madrid Final.
Barty’s crafty style of play and wild varieties make her a great fit for clay. She is reminiscent of both Martina Hingis and Justine Henin. Now she needs to replicate that form at the Grand Slam level again.
She says that she has gotten over the arm injury that forced her to withdraw from the Italian Open. I think that Barty is in a better place to defend her title this year then if she had played last year.
Iga Swiatek is seeded 8th this week and she actually enters the event in the same half of the draw as Barty. Swiatek is really the embodiment of the modern tennis pro.
She is all-action, all the time. She has the type of risk-reward style that made Jelena Ostapenko so captivating. But can she avoid the Ostapenko dilemma and retain more consistency in her game?
Results in 2021 seem to suggest that she can. She won her 2nd title in Adelaide and claimed a massive victory in Rome- the major precursor leading into Roland Garros.
A firm fan’s favourite, I do think she is the underdog in a Barty head-to-head. The Aussie recently beat the Pole in straight sets in Madrid. Barty is able use her dynamism to absorb Swiatek’s massive forehand.
Sleeping Giants- Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams
Naomi Osaka has become the dominant figure in women’s Grand Slam tennis, picking up the mantle previously held by Grand Slam queen Serena Williams. She has four Grand Slams to her name, including the last two she attended.
She is the Brooks Koepka of women’s tennis. She doesn’t need to be playing particularly well to contend in these massive events. However, 2021 has been particularly arduous for the Japanese megastar.
Her record is 4-3 since the Aussie Open (1-2 on clay). Her decision to skip media conferences at the French Open has rankled some. There have been accusations of mental fragility lobbied at Osaka.
Listen, no one wins four Slams if they’re mentally fragile. But she’s never made it past the 3rd round here and I think there are too many other dangerous players this year.
And what of 39-year-old Serena Williams? The American hasn’t won a Grand Slam since the 2017 Aussie Open. She has barely swung a racquet in earnest this year and her 2021 clay-court record reads 1-2.
The French Open has certainly been her least successful Slam. She hasn’t reached a final here since 2016. Mats Wilander summed it up perfectly, saying that Williams’ game hasn’t evolved in recent years.
There was a time when Williams could just nonchalantly blast opponents away from the back of the court. But times have changed. She hasn’t attempted to mix her game up while many of the other women can match her power.
For that reason, I’m inclined to think that Williams may be in a similar boat to Roger Federer this year.
Bottom Half Pick: Aryna Sabalenka
Belarusian Aryna Sabalenka is still yet to reach her first Grand Slam quarterfinal. But I’m much more inclined to bet on her this week than the likes of former champions Garbine Muguruza and Simona Halep.
Sabalenka’s raw power has given her some brilliant results recently. She ended 2020 with titles in Ostrava and Linz and started 2021 with her 3rd consecutive title in Abu Dhabi.
Things petered out slightly for a spell but the clay-court swing has seen her rise back to prominence. Her huge serve and groundstrokes are able to penetrate these slower surfaces.
She lost in the Stuttgart final to Ashleigh Barty before avenging that loss in the Madrid Final. I think this could be the opportunity for a deep Sabalenka run.
The way she overturned that Barty result in the space of two weeks was indicative of a real maturation.
Dark Horses: Elina Svitolina, Coco Gauff and Marketa Vondrousova
I know that it’s slightly fanciful to label 5th seed Elina Svitolina a ‘dark horse’. But nobody is seriously talking about the consistent Ukrainian.
She is a three-time quarterfinalist here and she reached two Grand Slam semi-finals in 2019. She reached the semi-finals in Miami and recently in Stuttgart.
The former Rome champion has clay-court kudos and I think she is routinely underestimated.
You have to love the romance of Gauff as a pick this week. Yes, the 17-year-old could potentially face Barty in the 4th round. But as I alluded to earlier, you have to be prepared for all contingencies in this event.
Coco Gauff is the youngest woman to be seeded at a Slam since 2006, and was a semi-finalist in Rome and she just won the Parma event.
My last choice is the slightly less obvious Marketa Vondrousova. The 21-year-old actually enters this event on the back of three consecutive clay-court losses.
But this is how it is with Vondrousova. She has wild swings in form. Lest we forget, the Czech star reached the final here in 2019. She also reached the semi-final of last year’s Rome Open.
There is a definite clay-court pedigree at play here. Vondrousova loves to mix it up with aggression and subtlety. Her heavy topspin forehand is also a massive weapon that causes all sorts of problems on these courts.