Swiatek serene as questions linger over French Open rivals

·4-min read

Iga Swiatek heads into the French Open trying to become the first player since Serena Williams at Wimbledon in 2016 to successfully defend a women's Grand Slam singles title, with injuries and poor clay form clouding the hopes of several of her chief rivals.

Following her victory in Rome, culminating in a ruthless 46-minute takedown of Karolina Pliskova, Poland's first Grand Slam singles champion returns to Roland Garros just seven months on with a far greater weight of expectation.

Swiatek, who turns 20 next week, was the lowest-ranked woman, then 54th in the world, to win the French Open, shifted from its traditional May-June slot last year due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Like Jelena Ostapenko in 2017, it was her first title at tour level. Unlike the Latvian, who has struggled to reproduce her best tennis regularly, Swiatek appears better equipped to stay at the top.

She entered the top 10 for the first time last week, and has cited the consistency of Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer as a goal for which she can strive.

"I'm really proud of myself that I'm actually starting to be more consistent, because that was my goal from the beginning," said Swiatek.

"I feel right now that I am doing huge progress in that matter. But it was actually a bit frustrating after the French Open, because sometimes you can't see the result of your work.

"Obviously winning a Grand Slam is great, but after that comes rankings, and this year it was different.

"I'm really proud that I'm gonna have in my resume that I'm top 10, because I always wanted that. I also want to be consistent. So right now our goal is to keep me in that place and go further."

Ashleigh Barty vacated her Roland Garros title after skipping much of the 2020 season citing health and travel risks.

The world number one has won three titles this year and reached the Madrid final, but an arm injury at the Italian Open forced her out of the quarter-finals and cast doubt over her fitness in Paris.

"The pain was becoming too severe, so it was important that I listen to my body and of course try and do the right thing," Barty said after retiring against 17-year-old Coco Gauff.

"It just pops up every now and again," she added, "but we're confident we know how to manage it."

- Halep ruled out -

While the Australian sounded optimistic, the same cannot be said for Simona Halep, the 2018 French Open winner and reigning Wimbledon champion who will miss the event with a torn calf muscle.

"The thought of not being in Paris fills me with sadness, but I will focus my energy on recovery," tweeted Halep, who was thumped by Swiatek in the last 16 of last year's tournament.

As for Williams, now 39, she has won just one of three matches on clay this month having returned after nearly three months away following the Australian Open.

The American remains on 23 Grand Slam titles, one behind Margaret Court's all-time record, and has not gone beyond the last 16 in Paris since losing the 2016 final to Garbine Muguruza.

Her coach Patrick Mouratoglou admitted it was unlikely Williams would win her first major since the 2017 Australian Open in Paris.

With few obvious viable candidates for the trophy, this edition could offer Naomi Osaka a chance to step up on clay.

However, all seven of her career titles, including her four majors, have come on hard surfaces.

The Japanese star was knocked out early in both Madrid and Rome. Her best performance at Roland Garros in four attempts is the third round.

Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus claimed her biggest title to date at the Madrid Open. She will look to build on her run to the last 16 in Melbourne knowing that nine of the past 15 women's majors have yielded first-time winners.

Bianca Andreescu, the 2019 US Open champion, could be one to watch if she hits form but she has struggled with injuries. On Tuesday, she pulled out of the Strasbourg clay-court tournament after winning her round-of-16 match, saying "I don't want to take any risks" ahead of Roland Garros.

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