Reigning French Open champion Iga Swiatek, World No.1 Ashleigh Barty and two of the hottest players on clay, No.4 Aryna Sabalenka and American teenager Coco Gauff, spoke to the press ahead of Sunday's kickoff at Roland Garros. WTA Insider has the highlights from the press room.
Iga Swiatek: Let the defense begin
While her 2020 title run will go down as one of the most dominant displays at a Slam, Iga Swiatek is under no delusions that her path to a repeat will be easy. Th 19-year-old is bidding to become the first player since Justine Henin to successfully defend the title at Roland Garros. The Belgian did it with a trio of titles from 2005 to 2007.
For Team Swiatek, if it's ain't broke don't fix it. The key to Swiatek's success in Paris last fall was to keep her standards high but her expectations low. It was a mantra oft-repeated as she blitzed through the field to become the 21st player in tournament history to win the title without losing a set.
"We are just focusing on treating this tournament the same as any other, because that's the most important thing," Swiatek told reporters. "The season is long, and I have played many tournaments until [this] stage, and I'm gonna have many more chances after.
"So I'm just trying to lower my expectations and remember that from the experience of other players it's not easy to be a defending champion, so I'm giving myself time. [Daria] is encouraging me to do that and explaining that it's a good way to approach stuff, because, yeah, it may be really, really stressful, but I just want to be the same competitor as any other girl."
Swiatek: “Coming back to the same shape I had during RG & winning 2 titles, that was amazing for me b/c I'm still not sure if I'm gonna be consistent for the rest of my career. This shows I can actually perform well not only once but I can repeat it. That's the most imp't thing." pic.twitter.com/TsychwtV4G— WTA Insider (@WTA_insider) May 28, 2021
One player in Paris who knows a thing or 10 about successful title defenses at Roland Garros is Rafael Nadal. Swiatek counts the 13-time champion as a big idol but says she hasn't had the chance to get advice from the Spaniard, though she did snap a coveted pic during their parallel title runs in Rome two weeks ago.
"Maybe we're gonna have a chance to do that later, but we just had like a quick small talk last year, and yesterday he said hi to me," Swiatek said. "For now I'm too overwhelmed to even say hi."
Swiatek opens her title defense against her best friend Kaja Juvan. The duo played out a memorable encounter in Swiatek's first match of the season, which also happened to be her first match since winning Roland Garros. Swiatek rallied for a 2-6, 6-2, 6-1 win at the Gippsland Trophy in Melbourne.
"It's not easy to play against your best friend," Swiatek said. "It wasn't nice to see that, because one of us is going to lose. But we know each other's game pretty well, so I think the most important thing is gonna be to really be prepared in terms of tactics. For sure that match in February is giving me more confidence.
"I'm just trying to find distance [from] that. We are friends, but on court everybody is equal. I am actually good at forgetting that I'm playing against my best friend and just playing tennis and just hitting the ball. I don't know what's the philosophy on that, but I'm just ready and I'm looking forward to that match.
"Of course it's going to be tricky because it's the first round. It's the first match as defending champion and against Kaja. I just want to keep my routines and focus on little things. It gave me good results earlier, so hopefully it's gonna be the same."
Ashleigh Barty: Refreshed and ready to go
The World No.1 did not get the chance to defend her 2019 title, but Barty says her maiden Slam title feels like a lifetime ago.
"For us this week it's a clean slate, a fresh start," Barty told reporters. "It's hard to take too much from that tournament back in 2019, but we are very excited to be back and have another opportunity to play here at Roland Garros. It's a special place. It holds a very special place in my heart and we are very excited to start again."
After a strong series of events that included winning the Miami Open, Stuttgart, and a run to the final in Madrid, Barty retired with an arm injury while leading Coco Gauff in the quarterfinals of Rome. The Aussie says she's ready to go after a relaxing stint in the South of France.
"We were at a very small club down there which for me was perfect," Barty said. "I felt like we were able to do exactly what we wanted on court, we were able to control loads and make sure my body was feeling 100%.
"To be able to just control that week was really important, making sure that we had arrived here feeling great and we have. I feel like I'm ready to play. I'm excited to be back. But I think having that break kind of down south was beautiful in a sense where it was quiet."
Aryna Sabalenka: Don't think, just play
After winning her first clay title at the Madrid Open, No.3 seed Aryna Sabalenka is one to watch in Paris. That wasn't always the case for the 23-year-old Belarusian, who has yet to make the second week in Paris.
Sabalenka says the key to her improvement on clay has been to simply not think about the clay. The surface can play mind games with power players, who can feel the temptation to adjust their games by dialing down the aggression on clay. Sabalenka is learning that her brand of high-octane tennis, with a few minor tactical adjustments and improved physicality, works on any surface.
"Before I was thinking, 'Oh, it's a clay court' and [that's] already too much thinking," Sabalenka said. "So if I start thinking 'Can I do well here because it's a clay court?' Then of course I cannot because I'm thinking.
"This year going to Roland Garros, I'm not really focused on that this is a clay court. This is just another event for me, and I'm here for [more] wins and here for a great level, and this is everything that I'm thinking. That's it.
"There is no clay court in my head anymore," Sabalenka said, laughing.
As she looks to make her first Slam quarterfinal and hopefully go beyond that initial threshold, Sabalenka says she has shed the pressure of chasing down Slam success. With her rampant success on the WTA Tour, winning 10 titles over the past three and a half seasons, Sabalenka is on the shortlist of best active players yet to win a major. Of the Top 16 seeds in Paris, she is the only one who has yet to make a major semifinal.
Sabalenka is done obsessing.
"I'm not really thinking about the Grand Slam," she said. "This is just another tournament. As always, I just have to show my level and be there 100% and wins will come.
"This is what I mentally changed. I think it was the biggest improvement, because before I was really thinking a lot about Grand Slams, that I really want to win it, and all these things, which is not really helping you to win the Grand Slam. You just put a lot of pressure on yourself. It's not really helping.
"So the biggest improvement was to stop thinking about the winning of Grand Slam. Just to start working. And that's it."
Coco Gauff: Enjoying every moment
On the heels of a title sweep at the Emilia-Romagna Open last week in Parma, Coco Gauff rose to a career-high No.25 and will be seeded for the first time in her seventh Slam main-draw appearance.
Gauff has found great form on the clay, posting a 12-3 record, which includes a semifinal run at the WTA 1000 event in Rome, where she tallied a pair of big wins over Madrid champion Aryna Sabalenka and Miami semifinalist Maria Sakkari.
Gauff said a change in mindset, particularly related to her potential qualification for the Olympics, helped unleash her game.
"[In] Madrid, I came in there a bit nervous just because I was focused on my ranking and we all know about the whole Olympic thing and how close everything is. I was focusing on that."
Olympic qualifying will be determined by the WTA rankings on the Monday after Roland Garros, and while Gauff is well within the general cutoff range, no country can send more than four singles players to Tokyo. For countries with deep benches, like the United States, Russia and the Czech Republic, chasing an Olympic spot means chasing down and overtaking your compatriots to be one of the top four players from your country after Paris.
"[After Madrid], I was, like, I'm just going to not stress about it. If it happens, it happens. If it doesn't happen, it doesn't happen.
"I think I have been playing a lot freer, and I think you can see it while I'm on the court. That's how I'm going to into this tournament. I'm just going to have fun and live in the moment and in the matches.
"I just feel like even now instead of stressing and when the score is a little bit tough, instead of stressing out I think I'm really just enjoying the pressure and enjoying the moment. I talked to a couple of players who are older who are retired, and at the end of the day they just always say the same thing, that the thing they regret the most is not enjoying it while they are doing it. That's something that I don't want to take for granted."