Ashleigh Barty, who has been waiting two years to defend her 2019 French Open title, begins the process Tuesday with a first-round match against Bernarda Pera.
The 25-year-old was at home in Australia when Iga Swiatek won the 2020 title at Roland Garros last fall and spent 11 months away from the game while the pandemic gripped the globe. Barty has been busy in 2021, posting a record of 27-5 and winning three singles titles.
“Honestly, it feels like a lifetime ago,” Barty said of her first major championship. “I think coming back to the site here at Roland Garros is obviously pretty special, pretty cool to be able to walk onto [Court Philippe] Chatrier and have so many memories kind of come flooding back. It’s certainly a clean slate for us this week but exciting to be here, exciting to be back and getting ready to play.”
Barty played 13 matches on red clay coming in, winning 11 – all in less than a month’s time. But she was forced to retire from her Rome quarterfinal leading Coco Gauff 6-4, 2-1. Barty’s left thigh and serving arm were both compromised, raising questions about her physical condition upon arrival in Paris.
“I’m feeling good,” she said in her pre-tournament press conference. “I’m feeling ready to play. I think it was an important decision for us to make to make sure that we arrived at this tournament being 100 percent physically. And, yeah, I feel great. I feel like we have been able to practice well, control what we have needed to do over the last kind of ten days or so.”
Day 3 at Roland Garros offers a number of other compelling matches, many of them – like Barty-Pera – first-time encounters:
A Gauff-Barty do-over?
For starter’s there’s the No.24-seeded Gauff, who would meet Barty in the round of 16. The 17-year-old American meets qualifier Aleksandra Krunic. They have never played.
Gauff had a marvelous month of May in Italy, winning nine of 10 matches. In Rome, she played with incredible poise, beating the No.19-ranked Maria Sakkari in the second round, No.4 Aryna Sabalenka in the third and No.1 Barty in the fourth before falling to No.15 Swiatek in the semifinals.
She won both the singles and doubles titles the next week in Parma, collecting her second career singles crown. And then she took a few well-deserved days off, sort of.
“After Parma, we went to Nice, went to the [Patrick] Mouratoglou Academy for a couple days just to train a little bit, relax, get away from the bubble life,” Gauff said in her pre-tournament press session. “Yeah, I had two practices here so far since I have been here and they have both been great.
“I’m feeling really good going into it and feeling really confident.”
After losing to No.10 Karolina Pliskova in Madrid’s first round, Gauff admitted she was getting nervous about her ranking and whether it would be good enough to make the U.S. Olympic team.
“We all know about the whole Olympic thing and how close everything is,” Gauff said. “I was focusing on that. 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 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.”
Tough draw for Petkovic
Andrea Petkovic is one of three players using a special ranking to enter the main draw in Paris. The 33-year-old German is ranked No.112, but is using her special ranking at No.80 for her direct entry. The six-time singles champion has a difficult first-round opponent in No.18 seed Karolina Muchova. In Madrid, Muchova beat Naomi Osaka and Sakkari in back-to-back matches before losing to Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in the quarterfinals.
The other two players employing special rankings are Elena Vesnina (SR No.52) and Ivana Jorovic (SR No.90).
No.1 ranking in play
Before the French Open began, world No.1 Barty and No.2 Osaka practiced together. Because majors offer 2,000 points to the champion, the No.1 is theoretically in play this fortnight.
Osaka will need to reach the final in order to trade places with Barty. But if Barty reaches the semifinals she’ll lock down the No.1 ranking.
“It’s not at the top of my goal list by any means,” Barty told reporters. “A lot of the time it’s out of my control. All I can do is try and play the best I can in each and every tournament.
“I have played Naomi a couple of times now, three or four times I think. Yeah, we’ve practiced together. I don't think it’s such a big deal. We were just hitting and going through our preparations like we usually would. I know from what I have seen you guys enjoyed that.”
Svitolina steps into the Oceane
No.5 seed Elina Svitolina takes on French wildcard Oceane Babel, another first-time match, but it’s hard to assess where her game is.
She made the semifinals in Miami and Stuttgart – but lost to Barty both times. In Rome, she needed three sets to beat Amanda Anisimova, but dispatched Garbine Muguruza 6-4, 6-2 before falling to eventual champion Iga Swiatek in the quarterfinals.
What’s ahead for Pliskova?
No.9 seed Pliskova had an even more chaotic experience in Rome. She was in fine form, reaching the final, but lost to Swiatek 6-0, 6-0.
In one of the most difficult matches for a seeded player, Pliskova takes on No.35 Donna Vekic, a former Top 20 player who is playing her first match since the Australian Open. Vekic underwent knee surgery soon afterwards.
The good friends met for the first time at the 2012 US Open, with Vekic winning. Pliskova has won the past three, most recently two years ago in Brisbane.
Pliskova, a 2017 semifinalist at Roland Garros, is ranked No.4 in the WTA Insider’s current Clay Court Power Rankings.
“Lately, I think the last couple years I think there are not really many easy matches,” Pliskova told reporters in Paris. “I think everybody just runs and tries to make the best and tries to put every ball in. So I don't think really there is going to be much easy matches here.”
Wait … what?
Ons Jabeur, the No. 25 seed, was walking on the grounds at Roland Garros when her husband and fitness coach, Karim Kamoun, spied a familiar face.
“Oh, my God,” he said. “This is Ons Jabeur.”
“Whoa,” said Jabeur, eyeing the “Legends of Roland Garros” poster. “This is amazing.”
The Tunisian trailblazer, who won the 2011 French Open junior title, was among those featured.
“Honestly I think it’s a great gesture from Roland Garros,” Jabeur said. “I assume the “legend” was for [Roger] Federer and the others, and the “champions” were for the juniors who won here. So it was really amazing to see. I didn’t really see it at the beginning.
“I really appreciate it. I took a picture right away and posted on Instagram.”
Jabeur takes on Yulia Putintseva. Their only previous meeting: the quarterfinals at Tianjin, two years ago. Jabeur won two tiebreakers.