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PREVIEW: 2023 French Open – Women’s Draw

With Iga Swiatek’s vice-like grip on the women’s game appearing to be loosening slightly ahead of the 2023 French Open, could the door be left ajar for the likes of Sabalenka, Jabeur and Rybakina? Damien Kayat previews.

Iga Swiatek - French Open
Image Copyright - Steve Haag Sports

With Iga Swiatek’s vice-like grip on the women’s game appearing to be loosening slightly ahead of the 2023 French Open, could the door be left ajar for the likes of Sabalenka, Jabeur and Rybakina? Damien Kayat previews.

Two women looking excitedly at cellphone

2023 WTA Tour
Grand Slam Tennis
Women’s French Open Championships
Stade Roland Garros, Paris, France (Outdoor Clay)
28th May- 13th June

At a glance, it wouldn’t appear as if not much has changed in the world of women’s tennis over the last 12 months. Iga Swiatek still reigns supreme as World No.1 (adding last year’s French Open and US Open titles to her Grand Slam collection).

But the reality is this: Swiatek’s vice-like grip on the women’s game has begun to slip this year. Not that she is in disastrous form (the Pole has two titles to her name this season). But she has lost the aura of invincibility that propelled her to a 37-match winning streak last season.

She also comes into this event under a slight injury cloud and her rivals won’t need a second invitation to dethrone the queen of Paris.

Recently minted Grand Slam champions Aryna Sabalenka and Elena Rybakina have become immense big-match rivals. Both will feel that they currently hold the mental edge over the industrious Pole.

Belarusian Sabalenka won her maiden Grand Slam at this year’s Aussie Open and has not looked back. She actually has a chance of usurping Swiatek as the world’s number one player this week (a feat that would have seemed impossible about six months back).

Women’s Slams have been hard to predict of late and I think this year’s French Open will be no exception. Let’s take a look at some of 2023’s contenders.

Past Winners

While the women’s draw at Roland Garros hasn’t been dominated by a single entity in the same way that Nadal has reigned over the men’s side of the draw, a certain Pole has just started to tighten her grip on proceedings since 2020.

  • 2022: Iga Swiatek bt Coco Gauff (6-1, 6-3)
  • 2021: Barbora Krejcikova bt Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (6-1, 2-6, 6-4)
  • 2020: Iga Swiatek bt Sofia Kenin (6-4, 6-1)
  • 2019: Ashleigh Barty bt Marketa Vondrousova (6-1, 6-3)
  • 2018: Simona Halep bt Sloane Stephens (3-6, 6-4, 6-1)

This Season's Clay-Court Precursors

There have been plenty of different winners across this season’s big clay-court events. With nobody truly dominating on the sticky stuff thus far, hopefully, we’ll see some ultra-competitive tennis on show at the French Open this year. 

Take a look at some of this season’s winners on clay, but keep in mind that the Morocco Open and Internationaux de Strasbourg are both still in progress at the time of writing. 

  • Charleston Open: Ons Jabeur bt Belinda Bencic (7-6, 6-4)
  • Copa Colsanitas: Tatjana Maria bt Peyton Stearns (6-3, 2-6, 6-4)
  • Stuttgart Open: Iga Swiatek bt Aryna Sabalenka (6-3, 6-4)
  • Madrid Open: Aryna Sabalenka bt Iga Swiatek (6-3, 3-6, 6-3)
  • Italian Open: Elena Rybakina bt Anhelina Kalinina (6-4, 1-0 ret)
  • Morocco Open and Internationaux de Strasbourg: in progress

Battle For World No. 1 - Swiatek and Sabalenka

There are two undisputed favourites for the 2023 edition of the French Open, Swiatek and Aryna Sabalenka. Will one of these two reign supreme this year? Time will tell. 

Iga Swiatek

Unbelievably, Iga Swiatek will be aiming to become the first woman to win back-to-back French Open titles in 16 years. Clay-court goddess Justin Henin was the last woman to win consecutive Roland Garros titles, producing a remarkable threepeat between 2005 and 2007.

Even Serena Williams wasn’t able to manage consecutive Paris titles. As I noted earlier, Swiatek has won two titles this year, defending both her Qatar and Stuttgart titles. But she has also started to look fallible on the big occasion.

She lost to Rybakina in straight-sets in both the fourth round of the Aussie Open and in the Indian Wells semi-final. She also recently lost to Sabalenka in the Madrid final. The Pole withdrew from her Rome quarterfinal with Rybakina due to a niggle.

I think that was mainly precautionary. I also think Swiatek was mindful of the psychological impact of losing to the Kazakh in three consecutive matches. I don’t know, there just seems to be a slight mental vulnerability with Swiatek at this very moment. I’m sure I could be proven wrong.

Aryna Sabalenka

Sabalenka probably wasn’t too disappointed with losing to Sofia Kenin in the opening round of the Italian Open. It has been an exhausting year for the Belarusian and she probably needed the mental break before this year’s second Slam.

A perennial underachiever in Slams, Sabalenka finally made the final leap forward with a dominant victory at this year’s Aussie Open. She drew her line in the clay-court sand with a stunning three-set victory against arch-nemesis Swiatek in the Madrid final.

Sure, the Madrid courts are substantially quicker than those in Paris. But she certainly has become far more patient in extended rallies. Also, she has crucially managed to exorcise most of those serving demons.

She is currently 29-5 for the season and will fear no one in this draw. I think she actually has an excellent chance of replacing Swiatek as World No. 1 this year.

Top 10 Contenders: Rybakina and Jabeur

I’m not a massive fan of Jessica Pegula’s chances this year. The current World No.3 has been the epitome of consistency this season, reaching the Qatar final and a further three semi-finals. She also reached her fifth Grand Slam quarterfinal at the Aussie Open.

But that’s the issue: she can’t seem to go beyond that hurdle. She is almost the Andrey Rublev of the women’s draw. She is a solid clay-court player, reaching last year’s Madrid Open final and the quarterfinal stage of this event. But I just don’t think she quite has the groundstroke authority to threaten the top brass this week.

A losing finalist last year, Coco Gauff hasn’t won more than once successive match since Indian Wells. She seems to have struggled since her split from coach Diego Moyano and I think she could be swerved this year.

Caroline Garcia has been far too inconsistent of late and clay doesn’t exactly play into her current strengths. Sakkari certainly ticks a lot of boxes when it comes to the current top ten players. But I’m ultimately opting for two players: Elena Rybakina and Ons Jabeur.

Elena Rybakina

Elena Rybakina’s has enjoyed a meteoric rise over the past year. At this moment, the big-serving, hard-hitting Kazakh is arguably the most feared player on Tour. The reigning Wimbledon champion reached her second Grand Slam final at this year’s Aussie Open.

She once again showcased her penchant for performing on the big stage with back-to-back finals at the ‘Sunshine Double’ (winning at Indian Wells). She silenced the clay-court naysayers with a towering victory in Rome (she only dropped one set in the entire tournament).

I think her style of precision-based power-hitting has actually gotten into Swiatek’s head a little. I think she will steamroll her way through the early part of the tournament and I think she has every of reaching yet another Grand Slam final.

Ons Jabeur

Ons Jabeur is arguably the most well-liked player on the entire tour. And she really came to the fore last year, reaching back-to-back Grand Slam finals at Wimbledon and the US Open.

I find it surprising that she has never gone beyond the fourth round of this great tournament. She is a brilliant clay-court player, using her outrageous slices and drop-shots to change the rhythm of matches.

Last year she reached consecutive WTA 1000 clay-court finals in Madrid and Rome (winning the title in Madrid). This year she won the Charleston Open before retiring from the semi-final in Stuttgart. And that’s my one area of concern: fitness. Jabeur missed much of the early part of the season due to right-knee surgery.

And she was forced to withdraw from her Madrid title defence due to the issue she picked up in Stuttgart. She has had plenty of rest following a first-round defeat in Rome. She should go deep if her body permits it.

Mid-Tier Choices: Krejcikova And Ostapenko

It’s never a surprise to see someone from the pack catapult themselves into contention with a deep French Open run. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if that’s the case once again this year. 

Barbora Krejcikova

I’m really liking the look of Barbora Krejcikova this year. She memorably won both the singles and doubles titles in 2021, using her tremendous defensive skills to grind down her opposition. She made the wrong type of history last year, becoming only the third defending champion to be knocked out in the first round.

But she roared back to prominence this season, beating both Swiatek and Sabalenka to claim her maiden WTA 1000 title in Dubai. She has since suffered at the hands of Sabalenka, losing to the Belarusian powerhouse in three consecutive tournaments.

She has voiced her desire to be spoken of in the same breath as the Big Three (Swaitek, Sabalenka and Rybakina). A strong performance here could go some way to achieving that.

Jelena Ostapenko

I must be some kind of masochistic. Why choose Jelena Ostapenko- the most erratic player on earth- when you have more solid mid-tier options like Kudermetova and Samsonova?

She has hardly covered herself in clay-court glory since winning that unlikely 2017 French Open title. She has actually only won twice here in five subsequent attempts. But I just feel like there could be something special brewing for the huge-hitting Latvian.

She reached her first Grand Slam quarterfinal in five years at this year’s Aussie Open. And she has shown signs of real progression during this clay-court swing. She narrowly lost to Ons Jabeur at this year’s Stuttgart Open.

And she is fresh off an exceptional semi-final run at the Italian Open (where she overcame the likes of Kasatkina and Badosa). Her clean hitting and ability to penetrate the court always makes her a dangerous opponent. I’m just hoping that run in Rome means we might get a little more consistency this year.

The Longshots: Badosa and Stephens

Let’s bring the curtain down on this preview by looking at two players – likely to be near the middle/bottom of the betting boards – who could go on an unlikely French Open charge. 

Paula Badosa

Paula Badosa is slowly starting to reclaim the type of form that saw her reach number two in the world rankings. The former Indian Wells champion picked up a series of niggles that disrupted the end of her 2022 campaign: she lost eight of her final ten matches on tour.

She then had to withdraw from this year’s Aussie Open due to an abductor injury. But the switch to clay has slowly started to bring out some of the 2021 French Open quarterfinalist’s best tennis.

She has gone 11-4 on the clay courts this year, picking up victories over the likes of Jabeur, Gauff and Kasatkina. She is fresh off a respectable quarterfinal run in Rome and I think she is approaching peak physical condition.

Sloane Stephens

We all know about the persistent criticism levelled at former US Open champion Sloane Stephens- she’s not motivated enough, doesn’t care enough about the game, etc. And those may be valid points.

It doesn’t mean that any of the top players want to run into her in the early rounds. The 2018 French Open runner-up just has a knack for picking up deep runs in this event. She made it to the quarterfinals last year without any preceding form.

And she did win a WTA 125 event on clay a few weeks back. She is also in the quarterfinals of the ongoing Morocco Open. She could have a few surprises instore for us this year.

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