With Naomi Osaka prevailing at the Australian Open, the Japanese star rose to #1 in the WTA rankings. As she leads the field into the second major of the year at Roland Garros for the French Open, here’s a preview of what to expect as the tennis world descends on Paris:
Roland Garros Women’s seed report
1. Naomi Osaka: Won a thriller in the final over Petra Kvitova in Melbourne to cement herself as the best player in the world. Despite a flawed ranking system, she’s held onto her status as #1, but clay is not her best surface. Her best result is a semifinal in Stuttgart, where she was forced to withdraw. Ditto for Rome. Her draw does her no favors with a second-round encounter with 2017 champion Jelena Ostapenko or two-time major champion Victoria Azarenka.
2. Karolina Pliskova: Won a Premier-level clay tournament for the second straight year, topping Johanna Konta in the Rome final. As with Stuttgart last year when she defeated Coco Vandeweghe, the Czech’s finals opponents are not particularly strong (generally on clay), but, thanks to her win in the Italian capital, she’s in the easier half of the draw by earning the #2 seed and has reached the last four here previously. I continue to say she’ll win a major under Conchita Martinez’ guidance, but it won’t be here.
3. Simona Halep: The good news for the defending champion is that, unlike the circumstances surrounding her prior to Melbourne, she has a coach in place (Daniel Dobre), seems to be managing her back injury well and gave Serena Williams a good run in their Round of 16 clash Down Under. The bad news is that she hasn’t won a title this year and was thoroughly outclassed in the Madrid final against Kiki Bertens for the last set and a half. Her saving grace in her title defense is an incredibly good draw to the quarterfinals, where she may see Petra Kvitova.
4. Kiki Bertens: Despite her upset loss to Konta in the Rome semifinals, she’s the favorite to win the title based on her performance in Madrid, where she beat four former Grand Slam champions, not dropping a set along the way, the first WTA player to do that. Clay is clearly her best surface and she comes into Paris in brilliant form. Although she’s in a quarter with last year’s finalist Sloane Stephens, Elina Svitolina and Belinda Bencic, the Dutchwoman looks on course for her first major title.
5. Angelique Kerber: As she prepares for her first attempt at completing the career Grand Slam on what is by far her worst surface, the German said she feels no pressure at trying to accomplish this feat. It’s not like she’s had no success here, reaching the quarterfinals on two previous occasions. The issue for Kerber is her early round draw, starting with 18-year old Anastasia Potapova followed by rising 19-year old Marketa Vondrousova. If she can navigate these two matches, she could give herself an opportunity to play on the final weekend with a meeting against Pliskova in the quarters.
6. Petra Kvitova: The sentimental favorite in Melbourne, she came oh-so-close to taking home her third major title against Osaka. A calf injury forced her out of her match in Rome against Maria Sakkari, but won Stuttgart for her 27th career title (taking out Bertens along the way) and reached the last eight of her title defense in Madrid. A former semifinalist at Roland Garros, she’s a threat on any surface even if her draw is not the easiest.
7. Sloane Stephens: Was two games away from winning the title against Halep (she led by a set and a break) before a third-set meltdown gave the Romanian her first major. Blew a golden opportunity to perhaps reach the final weekend in Melbourne with her fourth-round upset loss to Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. With Sven Groenefeld as her new coach, perhaps Stephens can finally find the consistent level and game style that will allow her talents to fully blossom. In a quarter with Bertens, she’s not likely to reach the final, but a good showing will her set up well for the rest of 2019.
8. Ashleigh Barty: Her standout year continues, reaching her first major quarterfinal at home in Melbourne, knocked out by Kvitova. Got revenge on the Czech in Miami en route to the title. Rising into the Top 10 for the first time in her career, clay doesn’t suit her game best and a fourth-round match against Serena (who took her out here last year in three sets) looms, but it’s a pleasure to watch her game evolve and mature. She’ll be a serious threat again starting with the grass season.
9. Elina Svitolina: So many times, I and others have tipped her to win that elusive first major. Not this time. Her form is nowhere near the last couple of years and although she can most likely get through Venus Williams at this stage of their careers, the rest of her draw is challenging to say the least: Kateryna Kozlova in round two, 2015 champion Garbine Muguruza in round three and then Stephens and possibly Bertens. Perhaps the lowered expectations and pressure will serve her well, but the breakthrough won’t be here even if that’s the case.
10. Serena Williams: She’s the ultimate wild card here. The only surface where she’s not the favorite, the 23-time major champion is still a threat because, well, she’s Serena. The concern is withdrawing from three straight events, including her only clay tuneup in Rome before a second-rounder with Venus with a knee injury. I won’t pick her to win, but because of a great-looking draw, she can get to at least the quarterfinals provided she’s healthy.
11. Aryna Sabalenka: She just lost her semifinal in Strasbourg to Dayana Yastremska and clay somewhat negates her tremendous power game. Didn’t handle the expectations placed on her heading into Melbourne, getting crushed by Amanda Anisimova in the third round (placing her in the Top 10 for the first time in her career), who she may see again in the second round here if she can get past a tricky opener against Dominika Cibulkova. Did claim the “Sunshine Double” in doubles with Elise Mertens.
12. Anastasija Sevastova: Got demolished in the third round of Madrid by Bertens (who didn’t?) and lost to Bencic in the first round of Rome. Fortunate to be in the easier half, the Latvian has won two of her three career titles on clay. Pavlyuchenkova could be her second round opponent, Mertens in the third round and any of Kerber, Potapova, Vondrousova or Carla Suarez Navarro in the Round of 16. Don’t expect to see her deep into the second week.
13. Caroline Wozniacki: This has been her most non-descript season to date, not helped by a diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis last October. She was never most comfortable on clay despite her extremely defensive style. Lost to Madison Keys in the Charleston final and with plenty of hard hitters in her section (Pliskova, Julia Goerges, Kristina Mladenovic), the Dane won’t be in Paris for very long and a further slide down the rankings may inevitably follow.
14. Madison Keys: Made the semifinals last year, losing to Stephens. Took home Charleston against Wozniacki. She’s in a brutal part of the draw with Osaka, Ostapenko, Azarenka, Serena, Sakkari and Caroline Garcia. Often guilty of overhitting too much, she’ll be facing opponents who will (with the exception of Sakkari) be giving her pace to work with. If she can keep the errors down, she may progress. If not, a first-week exit is likely.
15. Belinda Bencic: Her remarkable resurgence continues and her win in Dubai (coincidentally alongside Roger Federer, who won his 100th career title there) saw her defeat Sabalenka, Svitolina, Halep and Kvitova, the second Premier 5 title of her career also the second time she’s beaten four top ten players in a tournament at the Premier level. Wins over Osaka and Pliskova saw her reach the semifinals in Miami. She beat the world #1 again on her way to the semis in Madrid. She’s hot in 2019, but is unfortunate to be in Bertens’ section. Still, it’s only a matter of time before the Swiss star gets to a major semifinal.
16. Qiang Wang: Reached her maiden Premier Mandatory quarterfinal in Miami which propelled her into the Top 16 for the first time. Lost to Donna Vekic and Katerina Siniakova in the first round of Madrid and Rome, respectively. It’s clear the dirt is not her favorite surface and with Halep and Daria Kasatkina awaiting, a fourth round showing is the absolute best she can hope for.
17. Anett Kontaveit: The Estonian continues to climb the rankings, reaching the final in Stuttgart (aided by an Osaka walkover) and a semifinal in Miami, losing to Barty. Her last memory of Roland Garros is not a pleasant one: clobbered by Stephens in the fourth round, winning just two games. She’s a better player with each passing tournament and with her highest seed at a major, her draw, despite being in the tougher top half, may allow her to reach the Round of 16 again.
18. Julia Goerges: In some ways, but not as pronounced, like Sabalenka, she’s not being tipped for a deep run. Started the fairytale run of Danielle Collins in Melbourne after failing to convert a match point in their first-round match. Retired against Mihaela Buzarnescu at 4-4 in the third set of their Rome encounter and if she’s fit, being in Wozniacki’s section provides her the opportunity to get a crack at Pliskova in the 16’s.
19. Garbine Muguruza: I’ve long been critical of the Spaniard’s seemingly senseless decision to part ways with Martinez as coach, but she did reach the semifinals in 2018 and is a former champion, so you can never totally count her out. Won Monterrey, but retired in Rome against Azarenka. Svitolina and Stephens are in her section and while this is her best surface and tournament to beat either one of them (based on history here), I wouldn’t count on it. Will continue to be seeded around this range despite her talents and achievements.
20. Elise Mertens: Like Bencic, she kick-started her year with a win in the Middle East, taking home her first career Premier-level title in Doha, outlasting Halep in the final. Coach David Taylor left the Belgian in March to coach Daria Gavrilova, contributing in her inability to sustain the momentum she gained in Qatar. As previously mentioned, she teamed up with Sabalenka to sweep the Sunshine Double. Her first-round opponent Tamara Zidansek is in the final of Strasbourg. If she can get past that, a second week appearance is a possibility.
21. Daria Kasatkina: It was great to see the Russian reach the quarterfinals here, finally showing off her talent at a major. She made the last eight at Wimbledon as well and her draws this clay season have been a bit unlucky: a first-round loss to Azarenka in Madrid and a third-round defeat at the hands of Vondrousova, who also knocked her out of Indian Wells. Monica Puig could be a test for her in the second round. Otherwise, a fourth round matchup with Halep seems likely.
22. Bianca Andreescu: Talk about a breakthrough: she roared into the Auckland final and collected the championship at Indian Wells, defeating Wozniacki, Venus, Svitolina, Muguruza and Kerber in those two events. Her ten-match winning streak was stopped after a shoulder injury forced her to retire against Kontaveit in Miami (where she beat Kerber again). An unknown quantity in Paris because of her injury (she played no clay warmup events) and her inexperience at this level, the future nonetheless looks brilliant for the Canadian.
23. Donna Vekic: Reached the final in St. Petersburg almost immediately after the Australian Open, losing to Bertens. The Croat has had an interesting, if not disappointing clay season: she blew a third-set tiebreaker to Osaka in the Stuttgart quarterfinals, retired in tears in the third set against Petra Martic in Madrid and pulled out of Rome. If healthy, a third round match with Bencic is likely and a fourth-rounder with Bertens awaits if she gets past that.
24. Caroline Garcia: She’s scheduled to face Yastremska in the Strasbourg final, so she’ll have some form going into her home Slam, where she’s a former quarterfinalist. Despite her incredibly tough section with Osaka, Ostapenko, Sakkari, Azarenka and Keys, she may benefit from them beating up on each other, putting a last eight appearance for the second time in three years in play.
25. Su-wei Hsieh: Continues to delight with her lovely game. Had Osaka on the ropes in Melbourne, but failed to close out a third set that she led by a double break. Kontaveit also staged a big comeback against her in Miami after she got revenge on the world number one, but Garcia and Goerges handled her in Madrid and Rome, respectively. Clay is not really her strength, but let’s just watch her work her magic regardless of the results.
26. Johanna Konta: Will this be the year the Brit finally wins a match at Roland Garros? If her clay-court form is any indication, reaching the finals of Rabat and Rome, the answer is yes. Antonia Lottner is her first-round opponent, not the easiest of the qualifiers to draw (she beat Bencic in the first round of Lugano earlier this year). The third round is the farthest she’ll go where she won’t surprise Bertens again. As long as she doesn’t lose to Lottner, it’s been Konta’s best ever clay season and she’ll look to carry this form through the rest of 2019.
27. Lesia Tsurenko: She’s not one for the dirt, but at least the draw gave her a headline opponent in former semifinalist Eugenie Bouchard. Halep will handle the Ukrainian in the third round if she gets that far, but, like others in this article, will look to the grass and hard courts for more success this year.
28. Carla Suarez Navarro: Still possesses that wonderful one-handed backhand, but Yastremska in the opening round is no easy proposition, after the teenager beat Garcia to win Strasbourg. Took Bertens to three sets in Rome. If she slips past the Ukranian, a second week showing is a real possibility.
29. Maria Sakkari: This is the player i’m most excited to see who has broken through to become a seed at a major. Won her first career title over Konta in Rabat and reached the semifinals in Rome where she was beaten by Pliskova. Her game is not powerful, but she’s a terrific baseliner and her draw would see her get one of Osaka, Ostapenko or Azarenka in the third round. If she can negotiate that, she could emulate countryman Stefanos Tsitsipas’ run to the semifinals in Melbourne.
30. Mihaela Buzarnescu: At least her first round opponent (Ekaterina Alexandrova) is easier here than what she faced in Melbourne (Venus). Did upset Svitolina here last year. Lost in the second round of Madrid to Sevastova and the third round of Rome to Osaka. The Round of 32 sounds about right for the Romanian, where she’ll exit against Kvitova.
31. Petra Martic: Has quietly had a terrific year on clay, rallying to beat Vondrousova in the finals of Istanbul to win her first career title, reached the semifinals in Charleston, picking up a win over Bencic and the quarters in Madrid. Could see a semi-resurgent Mladenovic in the second round and Pliskova in the third.
32. Aliaksandra Sasnovich: Has a couple of wins over Kontaveit and did well to reach the fourth round in Melbourne. Prague champion Polona Hercog is first up for the Belarusian and Stephens likely awaits in the third round. She’s caused upsets in Slams before (knocked out Kvitova at Wimbledon last year), so she won’t be and shouldn’t be taken lightly to cause a couple more even if clay isn’t her favorite surface.
Unseeded players to watch
Marketa Vondrousova: Since a second-round loss to Martic in Melbourne, the Czech is 22-5 with three Premier-level quarterfinals (Indian Wells, Miami, Rome), a pair of wins over Halep and Ostapenko and finals in Budapest and Istanbul. She’s led in four of those five matches (including both finals), so her record could be even better. Only 19, she’s at a career-high 38th in the latest rankings and her considerable talent should take her much higher. If she can beat Kerber, she may join the list of unexpected major semifinalists.
The winner of the Ostapenko/Azarenka match: This is one of those matches we could wind up looking back on and seeing that it influenced the tournament greatly, if not decided it. For all of her serve problems, Ostapenko is still one of the scariest players to face off the ground when she’s in rhythm. Playing Azarenka and then (likely) Osaka could do just that, which is not good news for the rest of the field (remember that she hit 299 winners to 271 errors when she won in 2017.)
If the two-time Grand Slam champion gets through this, she’ll relish the chance to claim a win over Osaka. Staged an epic comeback to beat Svitolina and was leading Muguruza in Rome when the Spaniard retired midway through the second set to reach the quarterfinals. It hasn’t been the comeback Azarenka has hoped for (yet), but this may be just what she needs to turn that around. Plus, she’s been to the semifinals once and the quarterfinals twice in Paris.
First-round matches to watch
Ostapenko vs Azarenka: This is the blockbuster of the opening round pitting two former Grand Slam champions. As I mentioned above, the winner has a chance to upset Osaka and go a very, very long way. This is one of those rare first-round matchups at a major you MUST NOT miss.
Venus vs Svitolina: If only because she’s a legend and has the far better pedigree could she be catching Svitolina at the right time, Venus may be able to get through this. Will be interesting to see where the Ukrainian is after a poor clay campaign by her standards.
Sabalenka vs Cibulkova: There’s going to be a ton of huge hitting in this match and while i’ve always mentioned how inconsistent the Slovakian is, this is one of those openers you dread if you’re Sabalenka. Hard to call a winner here, but let’s hope it goes three.
Kerber vs Potapova: Well documented elsewhere in this article is what the German is facing and drawing the 18-year old Russian is (on clay) not an easy task at all. Potapova has already reached a final on clay (2018 Moscow International), her favorite surface and has enough weaponry to surprise Kerber.
Roland Garros Predictions
Semifinals: Kvitova def. Ostapenko. I must confess that the Czech is my favorite player, but that’s not why i’m picking her. She has a comfortable draw to the fourth round (Sabalenka or Kontaveit) and she’ll end Halep’s title defense in the quarters. As already discussed, if Ostapenko gets this far, she’ll likely be in the “zone” that carried her to the championship in 2017. This is the matchup where the serving problems will be exposed and Kvitova will do something she’s never done before: reach back-to-back major finals.
Bertens def. Pliskova: These two met in the Round of 16 at Wimbledon last year with Bertens emerging as the winner on her worst surface and the Czech’s best (go figure). Now on a surface that leans heavily towards the Dutchwoman, she can counter Pliskova’s big serving and groundstrokes with terrific movement. As she proved in London, she’s a more than capable returner of a big serve and that will again carry her through here.
Final: Bertens def. Kvitova. These two played a classic final in Madrid last year with Kvitova barely coming out on top. They met again at that very same event this year with Bertens scoring a convincing victory on her way to the title. The experience factor leans heavily towards the Czech and while the Dutchwoman will again face a player who can blow the ball by her, she’ll channel the form of their last meeting and take home her first major championship at Roland Garros.