French Open 2018 Preview: The Women (Your guess is as good as mine)

Last year, 23-time major champion Serena Williams missed the French Open while pregnant with her daughter, opening up the women’s game like it hadn’t seen in years.

The four slams in Serena’s absence have gone to four different players.

At Roland Garros last year, it was Jelena Ostapenko, 19 years old and unseeded at the time, who triumphed in a three-set thriller over Simona Halep.

Ostapenko played uber-aggressive tennis, smacking searing winners or errant errors with nearly every swing of the racket.

But the dominating story of the 2018 French Open will not be about the defending champion, but Williams. She’s supposed to compete, and it will be her first slam back on tour.

Serena Williams

Serena’s results since coming back have been a mixed bag, beating a couple respectable opponents in Indian Wells before losing to her seasoned big sister and then to a young up-and-comer in Naomi Osaka in Miami.

From those matches, it was clear Serena’s fitness and form needed improvement, but the unrivaled intensity never faded.

Serena has not played a match since the loss to Osaka, but it’s a sign that she only wants to enter tournaments she feels she can win. If her target is the French Open, you better believe she will bring her best.

It would be utterly silly to count out Serena. However, she could encounter tough matches early on as she will be unseeded.

Because the women’s field is as wide open as ever, it is easier to go seed by seed to analyze who could go the distance at Roland Garros this year.

№1: Simona Halep — In the final last year, Halep lost in devastating fashion, losing after being up a break in the third set. She repeated the crushing effort in this year’s Australian Open final.

But Melbourne seemed like a turning point for Halep. She competed valiantly in two matches where she saved match points, including winning 15–13 in a third set against American Lauren Davis. Heading into the Australian Open final (which resulted in a hospitalization), Halep spent more time on court than eventual men’s champion Roger Federer.

Halep’s composure will be key in her French Open campaign this year. She’s a scrappy and fleet-footed warrior, making clay a favorable surface for the Romanian.

She can be her own worst enemy on the court, although that has improved tremendously of late. But a 6–0 6–4 loss to Elina Svitolina in the Rome final suggests that Halep still has work to do.

№2: Caroline Wozniacki — The 2018 Australian Open champion has done little of note since winning her maiden slam.

It’s not terribly surprising, as Wozniacki had already achieved great success in her career before winning the big one, and clay is really not the surface for her to shine.

If the Dane exits before the second week, it’s really not a big deal. I expect her best stuff on hard courts.

№3: Garbiñe Muguruza — Muguruza won a small title in Monterrey in 2018, but has made little noise otherwise. It’s not exactly unexpected for Muguruza, who has shined brightest at the slams.

Garbiñe Muguruza

Tour struggles are not uncommon for the 2017 Wimbledon and 2016 French Open champion, which means her unimpressive clay results so far this year mean very little.

Muguruza, an agressive baseliner, will carry into Paris the experience of having done it before, having beaten the best (Serena at the 2016 French final, Venus in last year’s Wimbledon) in the process.

№4: Elina Svitolina — The Ukranian will have momentum going into Roland Garros, successfully defending her Rome title against the top-seeded player in the world in Halep.

Svitolina is a solid player who wins a lot. She is particularly successful playing in finals, winning her last eight.

However, a breakthrough at the slams has yet to come for the 23 year old, and you wonder if that’s in her head.

Playing injured, she lost meekly in the quarters of this year’s Australian Open to Elise Mertens. She squandered a break lead in the deciding set in the quarters of the 2017 US Open to Madison Keys (and the pro-Keys New York crowd).

Svitolina has youth on her side, but you wonder if her strong competitive nature can eclipse the fact that, at this point of her career, she lacks traits that make her considerably better than her peers.

№5: Jelena Ostapenko — I think Ostapenko will give a good effort in defending her title. While some might think of her victory in Paris last year as a fluke, what she has done since is just as encouraging.

Climbing to №5 in the world is not easy, and it shows that Ostapenko is consistently winning matches since her incredible breakthrough. She won her first non-slam title in Seoul last September, and she made the final of Miami, losing to a patient Sloane Stephens.

Jelena Ostapenko

What separates Ostapenko from the rest is her self belief. The Latvian feels entitled to every point, and will try to win each one by smacking the fuzz off the ball. It’s an erratic strategy, but she has proven she can win consistently with it.

With her title defense on the line, Ostapenko, as she does, will continue to go for broke.

№6: Karolína Plíšková — Watch out for Pliskova, in more ways than one.

Before a bad line call caused Pliskova to wreak havoc on an umpire’s chair, the typically staid Czech was delivering great results on clay.

It’s a bit unexpected for Pliskova, who’s strong serving and aggressive, flat groundstrokes make her better suited for grass and hard courts.

But it seems like she’s finding her footing on the dirt. Pliskova made the semifinals of the French last year, losing in three sets to Halep. She won in Stuttgart this year and lost to eventual champion and compatriot Petra Kvitova in the semifinals of Madrid.

Pliskova has turned around her season by rediscovering her dangerous serve. Play can be inconsistent at times on the women’s tour, so a reliable serve can make a world of difference, even on clay.

№7: Caroline Garcia — The third Caroline in the top 10 with the third different pronunciation (like “lean”) will have the Parisian crowd on her side. The Frenchwoman had her career-best slam results at last year’s French Open by getting to the quarterfinals.

But Garcia really exploded onto the scene during last year’s Asian swing, picking up consecutive titles in Wuhan and Beijing and reaching the semifinals of the WTA finals.

Since then, there has been a bit of a letdown for Garcia, who can win impressively but also suffer losses where she puts up little resistance.

Still, of the seeded Frenchwomen (which include Kristina Mladenovic and Alize Cornet), Garcia has the best chance to do her country proud.

№8: Petra Kvitova — The latest chapter in the Czech’s career is perhaps the most incredible.

Petra Kvitova

Kvitova will be returning to the French Open, the first tournament she played after a horrifying knife attack in a home invasion resulted in injuries to her playing hand and threatened her career last year.

Since returning to tour, Kvitova has won titles on every surface, including two recently on clay, the surface where she has the least belief in herself.

It’s easy to see why — Kvitova’s game is about strong lefty serving, a reliable backhand and one of the most lethal forehands in the women’s game. It helped her win Wimbledon twice, but does not necessarily spell French Open champion.

But it seems Kvitova is discovering her clay prowess at the right time. The affable Czech will become a bigger threat with the more matches she wins.

When Kvitova can sink her teeth into a tournament, she’s hard to stop, and she’s become legendary (#P3tra) for triumphing in deciding sets.

№9: Venus Williams — Never count out a Williams. Seven-time major champion Venus had a resurgent 2017, making two slam finals and the WTA tour finals, although a title never came.

Wimbledon is Venus’s best shot at adding to her collection, but you cannot underestimate her determination as she continues to set records for the length of her incredible career.

№10: Sloane Stephens — Who knows what to expect from Sloane Stephens anymore?

The 2017 US Open champ so masterfully swept through the field last September after coming off an injury, you wondered where this girl had been.

Then the struggles came, and Stephens began to make a little more sense. She won a few matches in 2018 before again bulldozing through all challengers for another big title, this time in Miami.

So what gives? When Stephens is motivated, she’s a top 10 player like her ranking suggests. But, even after her amazing slam run, that is not guaranteed.

Sloane Stephens

On paper, Stephens, with her mighty defense, on clay should work, although she’s never been past the fourth round at the French. It’s fair to question if she should only be deemed a significant threat at home tournaments.

All that said, I like Stephens here. A listless performance is possible, yes, but she possesses all the tools to win the whole dang thing.

Who else?

Kiki Bertens might be the most skilled women’s player on clay, winning a title in Charleston and reaching the final in Madrid.

Top 20 Americans CoCo Vandeweghe and Madison Keys got nice results on the dirt (final of Stuttgart for Vandeweghe and semis of Charleston for Keys), but clay is far from ideal for their aggressive games. Same goes for Naomi Osaka.

Daria Kasatkina, a finalist at Indian Wells, is a 21-year-old Russian with a skillful game that, when locked in, is stunning and angular. You would think the clay would suit her, and she beat Ostapenko in the 2017 Charleston final, but her results on the dirt this year have been less inspiring.

Angelique Kerber started 2018 as hot as she’s ever been, winning 10 straight matches before she held match points in a semifinal loss to Halep in Australia. She’s cooled off since then, but a two-time slam champion is always a contender.

Maria Sharapova posted her best results since returning from a doping ban when she reached the semifinals of Rome, losing to Halep in three sets. The two-time Roland Garros champion loves the clay, but her chances will dwindle if she is tested often in long matches.

Elise Mertens, a 22-year-old Belgian, made the semifinals of Australia and followed up with two consecutive titles in Lugano and Marocco, her first on the clay.

The crafty Anett Kontaveit is another wildcard. The 22-year-old Estonian reached the second week of the Australian Open and has beat several top players, including Venus Williams and Wozniacki, on clay this year.

Like Serena, Victoria Azarenka will be an unseeded former major champion, but she is less formidable on clay.

Former French Open champions Svetlana Kuznetsova and Francesca Schiavone will also be in the mix, but their best play might be behind them.

The 2018 French Open women’s champion might not even be named here. Serena’s absence has opened the floodgates on the women’s tour, but what’s encouraging is that players are rising to the challenge.

Ostapenko and Stephens are stellar examples of this, as predicting them to win their respective slams a year ago would have been ludicrous.

It’s fair to say the ATP might lack intrigue at the French, so I’m more than happy to embrace the entertaining chaos of the WTA.