PARIS, France - Everyone is going to be gunning for Naomi Osaka in Paris - they will all want to beat the WTA World No.1 at a Slam, and they'll feel emboldened by playing her on clay. They'll know that clay is Osaka's weakest surface, that there's no better opportunity to beat her than at the French Open.
I still think Osaka has a chance of taking a third consecutive Grand Slam title, adding to her hard-court victories at last year's US Open and this year's Australian Open, as she has the game to win on any surface. When she's on, she can hit through anybody, even on a clay court. But much will depend on how Osaka handles both the surface, and the possible heavy conditions, as well as playing her first major as the No.1.
In my view, it's a little too early to tell whether Osaka is comfortable being at the top of the rankings, and whether she carries herself like a No.1. Since winning the Australian Open in January, which bought her that ranking, she hasn't won another title or even been in another final.
It seems to me as though she's getting used to all the off-court attention that come with that status. I think that's easier to handle than playing the actual matches, finding that suddenly everyone is fired up to play against you with no pressure on them whatsoever. Beating a world No.1 is a big feather in anyone’s cap and also the players will think they have a greater chance against her on clay. On top of that, this is her first major after splitting up with her coach Sascha Bajin. So there's pressure on Osaka on many fronts, but in majors she seems to handle that OK.
Big hitters like Osaka can still prosper on the clay of Roland Garros. It helps that the balls are lighter than they used to be, so it's a bit easier to win points with winners and forced errors, rather than through defending. Osaka's movement on clay seems to be OK. She likes to take the ball early. As long as she is defending well enough, she should be OK, but there's no doubt that clay is the trickiest surface for her.
The conditions are going to be another important factor for Osaka. The lighter the conditions, the better it will be for her. If it gets heavy in Paris, that could get tricky. If she's playing a late match and it's been drizzling, and it's damp and thick and heavy, the balls are heavy, and the atmosphere is kind of weird, and it's nine o'clock in the evening, that's not going to do her any favours. There always seems to be this kind of a situation that really tests you to your limits.
Serena Williams will be an unknown quantity in Paris, as she really hasn't competed at all - since losing in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open, she has played just four matches. But she's the only player who can come into a Grand Slam tournament unprepared, and not at all match tough, and still overcome that and win the title. It's much harder for an unprepared Serena on clay than it is on the Wimbledon grass, but I think she's a contender. Serena might just play herself into the tournament.
All that being said, I have to go with Simona Halep as the favorite. She's the defending champion, and she has to be feeling confident, as she's had some decent results and she's healthy. With her combination of defense and offence, she's capable of playing better tennis on the surface than anyone else. As well as Halep moves on other surfaces, I feel as though she moves even better on clay. She's really smooth and covers the court so well, getting a lot of balls back, and forcing players to hit so many more balls before the point is over, extracting some errors along the way.
It's going to be hard for someone to play through Halep. All of the big hitters - Osaka, Serena, Karolina Pliskova and Petra Kvitova - will have a chance against her, but they're going to have to play some really good tennis to stand a chance. But with the depth in women’s tennis, with so many different tournament winners already this year, there is an equally good chance that the winner will be a player that wasn’t even mentioned here. We will know in two weeks.
It's possible to be a sweet person and still succeed in this gladiatorial sport of ours. Just look at Lucie Safarova, who is retiring after Roland Garros.
I've only got nice things to say about Lucie, who has had a great career, including reaching the final of the 2015 French Open, where she came so close to beating Serena. She also won a bunch of doubles majors, and represented the Czech Republic so well in the Fed Cup. On top of all that, Lucie has always been a fun player to watch. I wish her a happy retirement.