From Rome to Paris – Svitolina/Halep Favorites?

by Charles Friesen (Contributor)

The French Open is just around the corner and the favourite to win is far from clear. On the men’s side, only four men are given better than 25:1 odds by the bookies to take the crown, with Rafael Nadal a prohibitive favourite at 0.4 to 1. But the women’s draw is wide open with 14 players listed at 25:1 or better. With Svitolina and Halep meeting in the Rome final, they emerge as the closest thing to a favorite that the wide open women’s game can produce.

 

The clay swing so far…

Rome was deja vu with Elina Svitolina sweeping to the title over Simona Halep in the final. Svitolina went on to win a season-best 5 titles last year, with 3 of them at the 900/1000 level. But she only made the quarters of a slam, falling at Roland Garros to Halep after blowing a set and 5-1 lead.

Svitolina had a breakout year in 2017, winning multiple titles for the first time and making it into the top 10, cresting at #3. With that Rubicon crossed, this is her year to prove she belongs at the top. She was impressive in Rome. Other than a wake-up 0-6 blip to Daria Kasatkina in the third round, she swept through the tournament in straight sets without being pushed past 6-4. If she does get into a tight match in Paris, I expect she will not collapse under the pressure this year.

Despite the loss, Halep is the bookies favourite, just ahead of Svitolina. She’s now winless in three slam finals, but is so consistently good she leads the yearly points race. She’s fast and scrambly, hits well-placed deep shots, has decent pace, and shows great determination. But sometimes she lapses mentally at the end of a match and opens the door for her opponent like she did for Wozniacki in the Australian final. She’s been to two French finals already and clay seems her best surface, so she looks the best of a field without a clear front runner.

 

Former champs will be hungry for more

There are also five former champions in the field. Svetlana Kuznetsova is probably past her prime. Serena Williams has three titles at Roland Garros, but she’s 36 and has only played four matches this year. There’s a good chance she will be rusty, but if she can play into form she has enough game to strike fear into anyone in her draw.

Maria Sharapova got a big boost by making the quarters in Madrid and the semis in Rome, enough to get her seeded in Paris. She’s a two-time champ and has been showing flashes of the old slam-winning game, this time free of any Meldonium asterisks.

Last year’s surprise winner Jelena Ostapenko made the quarters in Rome and the final in Miami. Predicting her performance is a dice roll, but she is unquestionably dangerous. And the 2016 winner has been playing possum of late, Garbine Muguruza. This may be her pattern. Just when she seems down and out, she rises up and claims a slam, like at last year’s Wimbledon. But I’m not counting on it this year, she’s looked lost on clay.

Looking beyond former champions, Petra Kvitova has been the winningest woman of the year claiming 30 matches and four tournaments, just ahead of the three held by Svitolina and Elise Mertens. Kvitova has been strongest on grass, but it would be a fairy tale if she could claim a clay major just a year after coming back from a career-threatening stabbing.

 

Some outside contenders, who may just be pretenders

Other women worthy of mention include Caroline Wozniacki who won the Australian but has not done better than quarters in Paris. Karolina Pliskova made the semis last year and has been adapting her big-hitting game to clay. Caroline Garcia will be a hometown favourite and made the quarters last year. Sloane Stephens won Miami and is capable of big surprises, even if she hasn’t looked settled on clay. Angelique Kerber has been regaining the form that took her to #1, just not on clay. Elise Mertens has claimed three titles this year but can get out of her depth when all the big girls are playing. Kiki Bertens is close to being a clay-court speicialist and could have a very deep run at Roland Garros. Ditto Daria Kasatkina. Victoria Azarenka is a top class player who will likely not threaten the title in Paris.

At the end of the day, Halep, Svitolina, Serena, Sharapova, Kvitova, and Ostpenko seem the best picks to hoist the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen. And now that we’ve said it, it will surely be someone else.

  • Charles brings The Slice from Vancouver, Canada.

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