I just arrived in Paris and am on my way to Roland Garros for what promises to be an unforgettable fortnight to close out the 2020 Grand Slam season.

Roland Garros is a reflection of how the French do things. Everything has an extra touch of class and style. Comparing it to the other three major tournaments, Paris is by far the most chic and cool. The city is full of fashionable people, and the dinners are like none other. Whenever I pack my bags for this tournament, I always bring the most 'A-List,' glamorous outfits from my wardrobe!

This tournament was good to me as a player. There’s such nice atmosphere, especially around the outer courts during the first week, when matches are happening all over. When I made the fourth round for the first time in 2002, I played Monica Seles, who was my childhood hero. The fans were always kind and respectful, even when I played against French girls like Nathalie Dechy, who I ended up beating in a 10-8 final set back in 2006.

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The match I played against Caroline Wozniacki here in 2011 really stands out for me. It was one of the best matches I ever played and she was World No.1 at the time. I also won the mixed doubles in 2005 with Fabrice Santoro, who I’m working with again, this time in the commentary booth. I remember taking out the top seeds together on Court No.2. We had unreal crowd support; we could hardly hear one another between points! After we beat Martina Navratilova and Leander Paes in the finals, we celebrated with French fries in the player’s lounge.

I loved treating myself with a sweet after a win, and few cities have better sweets than Paris. Whether it was a Nutella crêpe, or some truffles, I think I remember those moments more than the wins themselves! My team would take walks around Saint-Germain after dinner, and so I have many beautiful memories of the city.

This year marks the debut of a new roof over Court Phillipe-Chatrier. It looks amazing, and it will be interesting to take in the sounds and the visual of how matches will look when it’s closed.

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You never know what you’re going to get when it comes to the weather. It’s been so beautiful in Europe until yesterday when things got quite cold. That can still change, but it’s actually nice to be in Paris at the end of September. Autumn is just starting, and so it’s different in that way, but Paris is Paris and Roland Garros is Roland Garros. I’m sure it’ll be as beautiful as any other time during the year.

Where the US Open had no fans on the ground, a small few will be in attendance during matches, and I think that will help players feel more like they’re competing in a tournament. I believe Petra Kvitova mentioned in New York how she would have to remind herself that she wasn’t playing a practice match!

Another thing I noticed at the US Open was that, because we were far from the game for so long, all of the players are fighting that much more for every single point. This season has been shorter than usual, and you just never know where the next opportunity will come.

Sometimes as a player, it can be easy to console yourself by thinking that there’s another tournament coming next week, but now there’s no such guarantee. I think that’s why we saw so many comeback matches in New York, and I predict that will be the case in Paris, as well.  

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Who will win in the end? To me, Simona Halep is the clear favorite, with Victoria Azarenka perhaps a close second. Simona looks to be a level above everyone else, and has been playing incredible tennis in the last couple of weeks. She’s a former champion and is on a 14-match winning streak, which undoubtedly helps her confidence.

She played exceptionally well in Rome, especially during her match with Garbiñe Muguruza. She’s really worked hard to get the balance right of being defensive but also being aggressive when she needs to be.

Halep is in the same half of the draw as Azarenka, and what impresses me most about Azarenka is the transition she’s been able to make as a person. She has a new attitude on the court, and there’s no way a change like that was easy to make. She’s a great example to younger players of just how far things like meditation working on yourself can take you. In her press conferences, she’s talked about how the work means more to her than results, because the latter is merely a consequence of the former. It’s a great story, and she has all of my respect after seeing her do so well on the court.

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She could play Serena Williams in the fourth round. I might slightly favor Vika to win the rematch of their US Open semifinal, but I believe Serena is in a good position all the same. She obviously has a huge chance to win any major tournament she enters, and people aren’t talking about her as much as they were in New York. She may feel less pressure coming to Paris somewhat under the radar – as under the radar as Serena can be, anyway! She had the chance to prepare at the Mouratoglou Academy and has spent a lot of time in Paris.

This fortnight might be a rare opportunity for her to relax and enjoy playing the game. With that mindset, she’s unstoppable.

Elina Svitolina is probably one of the best clay court players currently on tour. She just won Strasbourg this weekend and is surely that much more comfortable in Paris because of all of the time she’s spent with her boyfriend, Gaël Monfils. It must be like a home tournament for her, in that way. I believed the lockdown would ultimately favor the most hard-working players, and it’s clear that it benefitted her. In times like that, you need that discipline and work ethic, and she’s a player who has both. I wouldn’t write her off.

Photo by Jimmie48/WTA

Looking at the draw, I can’t remember the last time there were so many exciting match-ups right from the start.

I’m really looking forward to watching the match between Svetlana Kuznetsova and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. It’s a match-up between two girls from my generation, give or take a few years. We all go way back and it’s so great to see Sveta, especially, still playing so well. It’s one of those matches where you could see the winner turning the result into a deep run, because they’re both such quality players. I’ve played both a couple of times so I know how hard it is to beat them!

Coco Gauff and Johanna Konta will be another exciting first round encounter, as well as Maria Sakkari against Ajla Tomljanovic. Kristina Mladenovic takes on Laura Siegemund; that will be an interesting contrast in styles, and a rematch of their thrilling final at the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix in Stuttgart a few years ago. I would predict the most intriguing of all is Anett Kontaveit and Caroline Garcia, who are scheduled to face off on Sunday.

Over the years, the game has changed to where the seeded players tend to have their toughest matches in the first few rounds. Everyone is still looking for rhythm, just trying to find their way into the tournament. This is when the unseeded players are at their most dangerous. Once you get into the second week, the advantage returns to the seeds and they become favorites again.

Having said that, in today’s world and how the season’s been so far, it’s really hard to talk about any favorites. The field is wide open and ultimately, anything can happen. I just can’t wait to see how it all unfolds.

Daniela Hantuchova hosts The Real DNA podcast.

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