French Open 2016 Women’s Preview: Serena Williams vs the field

The second grand slam of the year is almost here!

On Sunday at 11 am in Paris, the gates to the Stade Roland Garros will open and tennis players will battle for two weeks on the punishing terre battue. At the end of the fortnight, one man will be left standing with the Coupe des Mousquetaires and one woman with the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen.

On the women’s side, the two months building up to the French Open have thrown up some interesting results. All the top seeds faced their share of ups and downs, and the WTA’s perpetual state of chaos reigned supreme.

The clay season started with the sole green dirt tournament in Charleston, where Sloan Stephens lifted her third trophy of 2016. The tour then moved to the indoor clay courts of Stuttgart, where Stephens lost in the second round but Angelique Kerber regained some much-needed form to win the title. Kerber went on to lose in the first round she played at Madrid Open and Rome in the following weeks. Simona Halep, who has struggled this year, triumphed in Madrid but was knocked out of the Italian Open in the very first round she played. (Do you see a pattern building here?) Finally, in Rome, the number one-ranked Serena Williams swept the field to end her title-drought of nine months.

With such a topsy-turvy run-up to the French Open, here’s a look at the potential title contenders and how they stack up.

Serena Williams (1)

Titles won this season: Rome
French Open history:
Best result - Won three times (2002, 2013 and 2015)
Last year’s result - Won

Serena Williams is once again the favourite at a Grand Slam. Getty Images

Serena Williams is once again the favourite at a Grand Slam. Getty Images

The defending champion’s timely peak in form makes her the outright favourite for French Open 2016. This will be her third attempt to equal Steffi Graf’s record of 22 grand slams and the American will be eager to get past this landmark after narrowly missing out on at the U.S. Open and Australian Open. She will also be looking to complete a rare quadruple career grand slam, having won each of the other three majors six times. Williams, who suffered defeats to Kerber, Victoria Azarenka and Svetlana Kuznetsova in 2016, had been plagued with fitness issues after the hard court season. The Italian Open is the only other claycourt tournament that she has played this year, but her dominance in Rome (winning the tournament without dropping a set) showed that she’s back competing at full throttle.

Angelique Kerber (3)

Titles won this season: Australian Open, Stuttgart
French Open history:
Best result - Quarter-finals (2012)
Last year’s result - Third round

Reigning Australian Open champion Angelique Kerber will be gunning for her second slam. Getty Images

Reigning Australian Open champion Angelique Kerber will be gunning for her second slam. Getty Images

The Australian Open champion has historically struggled at Roland Garros, making it past the fourth round only once. However, Kerber can be comfortable on clay indoors, as she displayed at Stuttgart by defending her title. She also notched two back-to-back wins on the red dirt against talented clay-courters Simona Halep and Irina-Camelia Begu. The German had a brilliant 2015 - lifting four trophies - but failed to achieve the same results at the majors, never going past past the third round last year. This year, she already has proven that trend wrong by defeating Azarenka and Williams on her way to her first Grand Slam. If she can produce the same consistency and play with confidence in Paris, she has a good chance of replicating her Melbourne success.

Garbine Muguruza (4)

Titles won this season: None
French Open history:
Best result - Quarter-finals (2014 and 2015)
Last year’s result - Quarter-finals

22-year-old Garbine Muguruza is one of the most impressive young talents on the tour. Getty Images

22-year-old Garbine Muguruza is one of the most impressive young talents on the tour. Getty Images

The Spaniard grabbed people’s attention when she shocked Serena Williams 6-2, 6-2 at the French Open to make quarter-finals in 2014. She made another run to the last eight in Paris in 2015, defeating Kerber and Flavia Penetta on the way. Since then, she has amassed two titles, reached Wimbledon finals and climbed to number four in the world rankings. Touted as the “next big thing” on the women’s tour, Muguruza had failed to live up to the promise. But she comes to Roland Garros on the heels of some great results – including a win over Swiss Timea Bacsinszky - in Rome, where she eventually lost to Madison Keys in the semis. The 22-year-old relies on a power game that is perfect for clay. Her big serving and attacking ground strokes will be her asset.

Victoria Azarenka (5)

Titles won this season to: Brisbane, Indian Wells, Miami
French Open history:
Best result - Semi-finals (2013)
Last year’s result - Third round

Victoria Azarenka will aim to continue her climb back to the top of the women's rankings at Roland Garros. Getty Images

Victoria Azarenka will aim to continue her climb back to the top of the women's rankings at Roland Garros. Getty Images

The two-time Grand Slam champion has fought her way back from injuries to the top five of the rankings in women’s tennis this year. She started her year with a title at Brisbane, lost the Australian Open quarters to eventual champion Kerber, and then produced some of her best tennis – including a straight sets win over Serena Williams in - to complete the Sunshine double in Indian Wells and Miami. The Belarusian then defeated two talented upcoming Russians, Daria Kasatkina and Margarita Gasparyan, on clay in the Fed Cup. Her winning streak on clay, her least preferred surface, was interrupted by a back injury. She was then forced to withdraw in the third round in Madrid and struggled with movement during her second-round loss to red-hot Irina-Camelia Begu at Rome. If Azarenka can regain her rhythm next week, she will be a strong contender to watch out for in the second week of the Slam. She has a winning head-to-head against three of the top four, and a favourable draw could help her cause further.

Simona Halep (6)

Titles won this season: Madrid
French Open history:
Best result - Finals (2014)
Last year’s result - Second round

Simona Halep of Romania will hope to make another deep run at the French Open. Getty Images

Simona Halep of Romania will hope to make another deep run at the French Open. Getty Images

Clay is by far Halep’s favourite surface, with four titles and three other finals on this surface. Two of those final losses came in 2014 - her first year in the top 10 - at the hands of Maria Sharapova over three tight sets in both instances. And one of those was in at Roland Garros. Halep suffered a sophomore slump of sorts in 2015, with plenty of early-round exits, including her second-round defeat at French Open. This year, she has experienced a roller-coaster ride on the tour, with a poor showing at the Australian Open but decent quarter-final runs at Indian Wells and Miami. On clay, she may have just discovered form at the right time, winning the Madrid Open with the loss of just one set. With coach Darren Cahill in her corner, her defensive skills cannot be ignored. If she can keep her composure, she can make in-roads into the second week.

Dark Horses:

Romania’s Irina-Camelia Begu started the year ranked at 31. In the clay season, she made two quarters and one semi to rise to 28. With her seeding of 25 at the French Open, she is one player that most of the top seeds would like to avoid. She is also my pick of the underdogs to watch out for. Having already defeated Muguruza and Azarenka, she will definitely look to continue her scalps.

21-year-old American Madison Keys impressed in Rome by reaching the finals and seems to have found her footing on clay. She defeated Muguruza and Petra Kvitova in her strong run, losing out to champion Serena Williams. Seeded 15th, she could continue to be a threat to other higher-ranked players.

Two-time Wimbledon champion Kvitova (10) has always been unpredictable and could spring a surprise or two if she gains some confidence early on. Then there is 8th seed Bacsinszky, who captured her first title of 2016 in Rabat and reached the quarters in Madrid. Last year’s finalist, Lucie Safarova, has a clay-court title under her belt this year as well. Though her campaign was derailed by food poisoning, she comes to Paris well-rested and ready for a challenge.

It’s not often that a second seed is considered a dark horse, but for Agnieszka Radwanska, clay has been an evident weakness. Nevertheless, her consistency over the past 12 months should give her a confidence boost in Paris to get past some of the easier early rounds. On the other end of the pendulum, is seasoned clay-courter Carla Suarez Navarro. The Spaniard is seeded 12th and the hallowed courts of Roland Garros fall right in her comfort zone. Sloane Stephens and Dominika Cibulkova, with a clay title apiece, are dangerous seeds at 19 and 23 respectively.

Apart from Serena Williams, the only other active former champions in the draw are Svetlana Kuznetsova, Francesca Schiavone and Ana Ivanovic. Maria Sharapova is absent due to the provisional suspension that she is serving for testing positive for meldonium. Of the other women to have lifted the French Open trophy, Kuznetsova is the most likely dark horse. She has had a solid clay season and can still upset the proverbial apple cart.

Updated Date: May 20, 2016 19:18 PM

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