PARIS (Reuters) - The French Open begins on Sunday. Here are eight women to watch on the Roland Garros clay.
SIMONA HALEP (Romania)
The lionhearted Romanian finally landed a Grand Slam title in Paris last year after seasons of sweat and it will take a tough cookie to wrestle the crown from her grasp.
Few players enjoy a scrap more than the 27-year-old but until she downed Sloane Stephens in last year’s final there were nagging doubts about her ability to strike a knockout blow.
That pressure has now been lifted and she will arrive happy and relaxed although wary of big-hitters like Kiki Bertens who got the better of her in the Madrid final.
NAOMI OSAKA (Japan)
Talk about reveling on the big stage. The Japanese world number one has only won three titles but arrives in Paris having won the last two Grand Slams on offer.
The 21-year-old still gives off the impression that she is a little nonplussed by all the fuss, preferring to make statements with her aggressive brand of tennis.
Clay is not her natural surface but she reached the quarter-finals in Madrid and again in Rome where a thumb injury meant she had to withdraw. If she’s fit she will be dangerous.
KAROLINA PLISKOVA (Czech Rep)
The tall Czech owns one of the biggest serves in women’s tennis and even on relatively slow Parisian clay it will give her every chance of claiming a first Grand Slam title.
Pliskova is one of several players in the women’s draw to have held the world number one ranking, but now appears to have harnessed her power to become a more consistent force.
Never a lover of clay, with the help of Spanish coach Conchita Martinez she appears to have finally got to grips with the surface as she demonstrated by winning the Rome title — a feat she described as “a miracle”.
KIKI BERTENS (Netherlands)
The 27-year-old became the highest-ranked Dutchwoman ever when she won the Madrid title this month to climb to number four. She beat four Grand Slam champions in the process, culminating in downing French Open champion Halep.
Until she reached the French Open semi-finals out of nowhere in 2016, however, Bertens was struggling to make an impact.
Even then she toyed with quitting the sport in 2017 but her decision to continue has been fully vindicated and with a hefty serve and powerful baseline game she now looks comfortable in the highest echelons of women’s tennis.
Along with Petra Kvitova and Pliskova, she is one of only three players to win multiple titles this year.
PETRA KVITOVA (Czech Rep)
Roland Garros has never been a happy hunting ground for Kvitova with a semi-final run in 2012 still her best effort.
A classic first-strike player, the 29-year-old is capable of overwhelming anyone on her day, especially on the Wimbledon lawns where she has twice claimed the title.
Her career was interrupted by a horrific knife attack in Dec. 2016 but she is back to her best and after winning the claycourt title in Stuttgart will be full of confidence.
With few points to defend in France and Wimbledon the number one ranking could be possible for the first time.
GARBINE MUGURUZA (Spain)
Inconsistency has seen her tumble down to 19th in the rankings heading to Paris but none of the top seeds will be happy to see her in their section of the draw.
The powerful Venezuelan-born Spaniard can be unplayable when she is firing on all cylinders and is one of those who can be relied on to bring her best game to the biggest stages.
She overwhelmed Serena Williams in the 2016 French Open final and did the same to Venus a year later at Wimbledon.
Reached the semi-final in Paris last year and expect to see her in the second week again, as long as a left thigh injury sustained in Rome clears up in time.
Write off the American 23-times Grand Slam singles champion at your peril. The 37-year-old has played only a handful of matches since reaching the Australian Open quarter-final, but she will not just be in Paris for a family outing.
Three times Williams has swept to the title in Paris and last year, in only her third tournament back after giving birth, reached the last 16 before injury struck.
No one doubts that she has the weapons and the court craft to make another title tilt and should she get on a roll in the first week her mere presence in the draw will start to sow some seeds of doubt into the heads of the favorites.
The cool as a cucumber American counter-puncher does not blast opponents off court, instead uses her incredible court coverage and unerring accuracy to wear them down.
Last year’s final against Halep was a battle of wills between two players with similar styles — Stephens eventually succumbing in a gripping three-set contest.
Results this year have not been spectacular but a semi-final run in Madrid was a clear message that she is warming up nicely for a strong challenge over the next fortnight.
Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by Toby Davis