With the French Open on the horizon, the spotlight is naturally gravitating toward the Big Three players, Iga Swiatek, Aryna Sabalenka and Elena Rybakina. However, the lineup of possible champions extends beyond these notable athletes, revealing a field brimming with potential and ready to display their clay-court finesse in Paris.
Consider Coco Gauff, Barbora Krejcikova and Jelena Ostapenko, each a Top 20 player. With their best major performances at Roland Garros, they're serious contenders who should not be ignored.
Earlier this week, Martina Navratilova, holder of 18 major titles, weighed in on their chances.
No.6 Coco Gauff
Last year, Gauff won her first six matches in Paris before falling to Swiatek in the final 6-1, 6-3. Of course, she was only 18 at the time.
Since reaching the fourth round at Wimbledon in 2019 at the age of 15, Gauff has been a prisoner of expectation. By getting to a major final as a teenager, she began to fulfill that enormous promise.
“Her career expectations were so high,” Navratilova said. “She seemed to be trailing, age-wise, a little bit where we thought she might be by now. Still she’s what, 19? She’s still plenty young, but she’s been around longer.
Gauff, No.6 in the Hologic WTA Tour rankings, comes into Paris with a middling 3-3 record on European clay. Her losses in Stuttgart, Madrid and Rome came to No.24-ranked Anastasia Potapova, Paula Badosa (No.42) and Marie Bouzkova (No.38).
“Expectations … it’s a curse when you have such a high level at such a young age,” Navratilova said. “She once said she wanted to win more majors than Serena Williams’ 23. You’re kind of setting yourself up for that. No matter what happens, you have a lot of catching up to do.
“You can’t discount her, because she could hit that form -- even better than a year ago. But emotionally I think it’s going to be a bit of a struggle for her. She has to somehow convince herself that she can play well. Give herself that false confidence and, hopefully, win a few matches and get some real confidence.”
No.13 Barbora Krejcikova
When her elbow gave out last February in Doha, it was never going to be easy to defend the title at Roland Garros.
Predictably, after a three-month layoff, Krejcikova lost in the first round to No.97-ranked Diane Parry.
“But,” Navratilova said, “that was not who she is. When Barbora is on -- and healthy -- she’s a wonderful player: Smooth, fluid, smart.”
Last October, she won the title on the Ostrava hard courts, defeating Rybakina in the semifinals and Swiatek in the final. This past February, she had another astonishing run, defeating No.1 Swiatek, No.2 Sabalenka and No.3 Jessica Pegula to take the title in Dubai.
If that sounds difficult, it was. Krejcikova became the first woman to beat the Top 3 players in the same event in three consecutive days. The 27-year-old from the Czech Republic was also the first to defeat Swiatek twice as the No.1 player.
“Those are great results,” Navratilova said. “She seems to be healthy and she’s moving up in the rankings -- and a former champion. She could totally hit her stride here.”
Her 2023 clay results (4-3) have been underwhelming. Krejcikova lost to Sabalenka in Stuttgart, Petra Martic in Madrid and Ostapenko in Rome. The key, Navratilova said, is to channel her 2021 Roland Garros performance when she beat Elina Svitolina, Sloane Stephens, Coco Gauff, Maria Sakkari and, in the final, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova.
“She needs to play by memory,” Navratilova said. “The results that she’s had the last 12 months say it’s possible.”
No.16 Jelena Ostapenko
With Ostapenko, history tells us, anything is always a possiblity. When she’s feeling it, taking the ball exceptionally early, the feisty Latvian can beat anyone.
Six years ago in Paris, it happened in fairly amazing fashion. Ranked No.47, Ostapenko blew through the field to reach the final opposite Simona Halep. Down 6-4, 3-0, she managed to win 12 of the final 16 games for her first major title. Ostapenko was only 20.
“Big time,” Navratilova said. “Those six years have been relatively disappointing, but she’s played better lately.
“She’s always the wild card in Paris.”
Or anywhere she plays. Take the recent Internazionali BNL d’Italia. Seeded No.20, Ostapenko needed three sets to get past Sorana Cirstea, then drew Krejcikova in the third round and produced a terrific 7-6(2), 6-0 victory. Next, it was Top 10 player Daria Kasatkina, whom she beat 6-4, 4-6, 6-0. Paula Badosa, a Top 10 player only a year ago, was the quarterfinal victim. Ultimately, Ostapenko lost the semifinal in straight sets to eventual champion Elena Rybakina.
“I mean, she can beat some big-time players,” Navratilova said. “Consistency is the issue with her. Sometimes she has a tough time with players a little under the radar. But …
“Put it this way, she’s dangerous. I would not want to see her in my side of the draw.”