PARIS, France - The breadth and depth of the field is once again on display in a fascinating draw for the French Open qualifying rounds, which begin tomorrow at Roland Garros.
Former champion Francesca Schiavone is the oldest and most accomplished player in the field - and one of the most beloved, the Italian having delighted audiences across the world with her heart and flair, which reached a pinnacle with her Cinderella run to the title here in 2010. Though the 37-year-old has had a lean year, having played just six matches - losing them all, and falling to World No.265 - there were glimpses of her old magic in a three-set loss in Rome to Dominika Cibulkova. Schiavone, who faces No.23 seed Carol Zhao in the first round, has also been known to turn the clock back on a wave of inspiration before.
At the other end of the age spectrum is 15-year-old Marta Kostyuk, the Ukrainian wunderkind who announced her arrival in stunning fashion at the Australian Open. Having reached the third round as a qualifier there, Kostyuk has just carried on flying up the rankings, notching up an ITF $60,000 title in Burnie, another final at the same level in Shenzhen, a second Top 30 win over Daria Gavrilova in the first round of Fed Cup and winning her first Premier main draw match in Stuttgart as a qualifier - before pushing World No.7 Caroline Garcia all the way in a 6-1, 3-6, 7-5 defeat.
The youngest player in the Top 700 and the second-youngest in the qualifying draw (two months older than unranked wildcard Diane Parry), Kostyuk is now perched at No.142 - with no points to defend for the rest of the year. She takes on Japanese No.5 Eri Hozumi, with No.16 seed Françoise Abanda her projected second-round opponent and No.11 seed Sara Sorribes Tormo potentially awaiting in the final qualifying round.
Beneath the main Premier showcases, the Internationals and ITF tournaments of the European red clay swing have been packed with players looking for a breakthrough, and a number of in-form up-and-comers have stamped their mark already - none more so than No.1 seed Vera Lapko.
The 19-year-old Belarusian raised her ranking to a career high of No.77 this week thanks to a 10-match winning streak that incorporated high-level ITF titles in Khimki and Saint-Gaudens. The 2016 Australian Open girls' champion also impressed with her smooth hitting in April when she made her maiden WTA semifinal in Lugano, defeating Anett Kontaveit en route.
Lapko has a stern test in her Paris opener in the form of 17-year-old Canadian talent Bianca Andreescu, who reached the quarterfinals in Washington, DC last year. The teenagers are also in the same section as another of the most intriguing first-round clashes, between Ons Jabeur - who made history to become the first Arab player to reach the third round of a Slam here last year - and 2005 quarterfinalist Sesil Karatantcheva.
Form could well clash with past experience in another section, too. 2014 semifinalist Eugenie Bouchard has been relegated to the preliminary rounds of a Slam for the first time since the 2013 Australian Open. Now ranked No.167, the Canadian last set foot on court in Fed Cup competition in April. If she manages to upset No.13 seed Dalila Jakupovic in the first round, Bouchard could face Kathinka Von Deichmann, who is seeking to make history by becoming the first player from Liechtenstein to qualify for a Grand Slam, in the second round. 24-year-old Von Deichmann won her maiden WTA match in Lugano in April and has followed it up with a 10-match winning streak, taking ITF $25,000 titles in Wiesbaden and La Bisbal.
Another name who has turned heads on red clay is No.2 seed Rebecca Peterson, who did not drop a set en route to the stacked ITF $100,000 title in Cagnes-sur-Mer two weeks ago, breaking the Top 100 as a result - as well as ending Johanna Larsson's five-year reign as Swedish No.1. This time last year, the 22-year-old was still on a seven-month hiatus as she healed a shoulder injury; this week, she starts her campaign to qualify for her second Grand Slam against former World No.30 Misaki Doi.
In-form players also include 20-year-old Tamara Zidansek, who put together a 14-match winning streak in April by capturing back-to-back ITF $25,000 titles in Santa Margherita di Pula, then qualifying for - and winning a round at - her first WTA tournament in Rabat. The Slovenian starts against Renata Zarazua, a Slam qualifying debutante who is seeking to become the first Mexican to play a major main draw since Angelica Gavaldon at the 2000 Australian Open, with No.3 seed Arantxa Rus potentially awaiting in the final round.
Thank you sir @narendramodi for believing in a little girl’s dream way back in October 2013 and supporting me in pursuit of my dreams. On my May 22nd I’ll be playing my first Grand Slam ever. #gratitude #firstgrandslamever #dreamcometrue #jaihind pic.twitter.com/gJAhjjSL5l
— Ankita Raina (@ankita_champ) May 4, 2018
Another competitor hitting milestones for her country is Ankita Raina, also playing her first Slam. The 25-year-old, who won her second ITF $25,000 title in Gwalior in March, is the first Indian to both crack the Top 200 and to compete in a major since Sania Mirza, whose last singles appearance was at the 2012 Australian Open. Raina takes on No.10 seed Evgeniya Rodina in the first round, with either Antonia Lottner or Sabina Sharipova awaiting in the second round.
There's no shortage of promising teenage talent to keep an eye on in the preliminary rounds. As well as Kostyuk, Lapko and Andreescu, there's last year's junior runner-up (and Wimbledon champion) Claire Liu, who won her first two WTA matches in Miami and Charleston this year. The 17-year-old faces former World No.46 Danka Kovinic, the No.9 seed here, in the first round - and a potential first encounter against fellow 2000-born Destanee Aiava could await in the third round.
This year's Australian Open girls' runner-up Clara Burel has been awarded a wildcard for her junior exploits. The 17-year-old, ranked No.959, meets last year's Nurnberg finalist Barbora Krejcikova in the first round, with the winner potentially facing No.18 seed Anhelina Kalinina in the second.
The 21-year-old Ukrainian has won three ITF trophies this year and currently sits at a career high of World No.127; her own opening opponent is Danielle Lao. For the American, playing Roland Garros will be extra-special: Lao, who goes by the name The Little Giant on social media, made the trip all the way to Australia in January, only to miss the cut by one spot.
There's a truly heartwarming Parisian debut, meanwhile, for Daniela Seguel. The 25-year-old garnered the sympathies of the tennis world in 2016 when tragedy struck as her father, watching courtside as Seguel played an ITF final, fell ill and died. Understandably, the Chilean's form suffered following her loss - but this year she has come back strongly, reaching her maiden WTA quarterfinal in Bogota and raising her ranking to a career high of No.164.
Seguel opens against Bulgaria's Viktoriya Tomova, and then has a formidable challenge in the second round in the shape of the Lapko/Andreescu victor.