Last week, after her defeat in the Italian Open final, Simona Halep was asked who she thought was favourite to win the French Open women’s title this year. “About 15 players,” she replied.
And it is true. This French Open has got to be one of the most open women’s draw at any grand slam for a very long time.
Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova — winners of four of the past five French Open titles — are missing from the line-up, along with former world No 1 Victoria Azarenka, and the last major not to feature at least one of them was the 2002 Australian Open. But it is not just the absence of this trio which makes the women’s draw so unpredictable and exciting.
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There are a number of converging storylines. For one, Angelique Kerber, the world No 1, is going through a miserable time and has not beaten an opponent ranked higher than No 25 this season. Coming into the French Open, she has lost three of her five matches on European clay this season.
Garbine Muguruza, the defending French Open champion, is struggling as well, both with her form and fitness. The Spaniard has appeared in 18 WTA tournaments since her memorable triumph at Roland Garros, but she has not reached a final in these past 12 months. Muguruza has made three semi-final appearances though, including one in Rome last week where she was forced to retire with a neck injury.
Worryingly, it was her fourth injury/illness-forced default of 2017. Despite her patchy form, Muguruza is still No 3 on the list of favourites for the crown.
Halep was the most popular choice, but her participation itself is in doubt now because of a torn ankle ligament she suffered in the Rome final.
“I’m keeping my fingers crossed for RG [Roland Garros],” Halep, the 2014 French Open runner-up, wrote on Instagram. “Doctors say it’s 50/50 at the moment, but it’s made good improvement since Sunday.”
If Halep — owner of the WTA-best 12-2 record on clay courts this season and winner of 26 of her last 31 matches on the surface — fails to make it, then it could be a free-for-all for the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen.
“I’ve seen some draws that are wide open on the women’s side, but I’ve never seen a situation like this,” Pam Shriver, a former French Open four-time doubles champion, said.
“There are so many possibilities in the works.”
Many indeed ... about 15 favourites as Halep said. Elina Svitolina — winner of four titles this season, including the Italian Open last week, and No 1 on the WTA’s Race to Singapore ranking — is certainly one of them. She will move to the top of the favourite’s list should Halep fail to make it.
Then, of course, there is Kristina Mladenovic, the finalist in Stuttgart and Madrid. A late-bloomer, the Frenchwoman has a great chance of ending the host nation’s wait for their first native champion since Mary Pierce in 2000.
The 2009 champion Svetlana Kuznetsova could fancy her chances as well.
Or maybe one of the younger members of the Tour — the Madison Keys, Daria Kasatkinas or Jelena Ostapenkos — could do a Muguruza this time.
Shriver, however, likes the chances of Venus Williams, especially after her run to the final of the 2017 Australian Open.
“Can she win it? Why not?,” Shriver said. “She is a more capable clay-court player than most people think and when you consider the big hitters that have won — Sharapova twice in the last few years and Muguruza last year — Venus is definitely one of the possibilities.”
Not many might take Shriver’s advice seriously. But if you remember, the last grand slam that Serena missed — the 2011 French Open — a certain Li Na won the title defeating Francesca Schiavone in the final. And she had finished runner-up to Kim Clijsters at the Australian Open earlier that year.
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