Tennis

Don't count out Serena Williams at the French Open

Top seed Naomi Osaka faces a tough task on clay

26 May 2019 - 00:00 By Reuters


Want to know who will win the women's French Open? Stick a pin in the draw. That has seldom rang more true than at this year's Roland Garros, where no players stand out and few seem to be hitting form in the run-up to the year's second major.
The nine women's claycourt tournaments so far this season have had nine different champions and nobody able to dominate.
"Anything can happen ... it's hard to pick a winner," three-times champion Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario told Reuters recently.
"It's an unusual situation . quite open. Anything can happen in two weeks." Certainly, if top seed and world No 1 Naomi Osaka is to add to her US and Australian Open titles, she will have to do it the hard way.
Assuming she navigates past Slovak Anna Karolina Schmiedlova in the first round, the Japanese star will face former world No 1 and Grand Slam champion Victoria Azarenka or dynamo 2017 champion Jelena Ostapenko.
Neither is a player Osaka will relish meeting in a second-round match, especially not on the Parisian clay, a surface on which she is still learning.
"Naomi looks to have staying power and she has become a huge star," the 1991 and 1992 men's champion Jim Courier said.
"Clay is not the surface that matches her style the best but she can beat anyone if she's sharp. She certainly knows how to close a tournament out so she'll have no fear if she goes deep at Roland Garros."
Osaka herself knows she needs to figure out clay, and fast. "Honestly, it's been a bit of a ride trying to figure out how to play better on clay throughout these years," she said at Roland Garros on Friday.
"But I think this year I have been playing well. So I'm really excited to see what happens here." Neither is world No 2 Karolina Pliskova a natural claycourter, but victory in Rome, where she beat Briton Jo Konta in the final, gave a nod to her Paris credentials.
A better bet, perhaps, may be Simona Halep, though. The Romanian defending champion is yet to win a title this year, but punched deep in Madrid this month, reaching the final, before a limp display in Rome.
She is the most comfortable on clay of the big guns, and is fancied by France's Marion Bartoli, a former Wimbledon champion who knows Roland Garros well.
"Simona is really a claycourt player," Bartoli said. "Her game is tailored for this surface. For her the main thing will be to control her emotions because she is the defending champion and it will be the first time she will feel that pressure.
"She is the favourite for me to win again - though Petra Kvitova is a real contender too." Halep's conqueror in Madrid, Dutchwoman Kiki Bertens, is winning plenty of admirers and has risen to fourth in the world on the back of some great performances. Already this year, in addition to Halep, she has beaten Osaka, Kvitova, Angelique Kerber and Sloane Stephens.
"Kiki has really surprised me," former champion Kim Clijsters told Reuters. "Not just recently, but over the years to stay and keep improving and build her level mentally and be a very big contender now to win a Slam."
With 23 Grand Slam singles titles to her name, it would be foolish to dismiss Serena Williams.
But after she withdrew from Rome with a knee injury, question marks remain.
"Hopefully Serena is healthy enough to play," Martin Blackman, GM for player development with the US Tennis Association (USTA), told Reuters.
"She's such a professional that she doesn't play unless she's healthy, especially Grand Slams. So if she does, I think with every match that she wins she becomes a bigger and bigger threat." Few would disagree. Last year, in only her third tournament back after giving birth, Williams reached the last 16 before injury struck.
"She can challenge, oh yeah," Clijsters said. "She has so much experience in knowing what she needs to do, how she needs to feel, even when she's not playing her best or not feeling so great.
"She still wants to keep improving and that's something that I really admire about her. She is not coming to the French Open to go shopping and show her family Paris, she is there to try to win the tournament and she is capable of doing that."

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