The first major tournament not to feature 23-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams in six years was always going to attract attention; the American has won 10 major titles in that stretch, two of them at Roland Garros, where she’s reached the final or better in three of the last four years.
Her absence leaves the door open to an eclectic group of women who’ve dominated the clay court season, but can any of them step through it? WTA Insider profiles five tournament favorites, what gives them the goods to win the 2017 French Open, and what might stand in their way.
Simona HALEP (ROU)
8th appearance (11-7)
Best result: Final (2014)
Career winning percentage on clay: .692
Pro: Experience. In the three biggest clay court events of 2017, Halep has reached the semifinals or better at all three, defending her Mutua Madrid Open title and finishing runner-up at the Internazionali BNL d’Italia. She owns the longest clay court winning streak (nine matches), and is the highest ranked woman to have previously reached the final in Paris, narrowly losing to Maria Sharapova in 2014.
Con: Health. En route to winning a 10th straight match in Rome, Halep rolled her ankle against Elina Svitolina, further aggravating the injury after choosing to play on in the second set. The Romanian was visibly disappointed with her luck in pre-tournament press, but appeared on the road to recovery after practicing with coach Darren Cahill and Andre Agassi. Can Halep turn the tide to win her first Grand Slam title?
Elina SVITOLINA (UKR)
5th appearance (9-4)
Best result: Quarterfinals (2015)
Career winning percentage on clay: .583
Pro: Consistency. Svitolina is in the midst of her most consistent season yet, as evidenced by her place atop the Porsche Race to Singapore leaderboard. The youngster comes to Paris on the heels of her second Premier 5 title in Rome, and not only leads the tour in match wins, but also overall titles. She’s also reached the second week at the last two French Open fortnights.
Con: Comfort. She may have earned her best major results on clay, but the Ukrainian would admit to feeling far more comfortable on hardcourts than the terre battue. Her section of the draw features Mona Barthel and Anastasija Sevastova, two women who’ve also posted solid clay court results this season, and are arguably more comfortable on the surface.
Garbiñe MUGURUZA (ESP)
5th appearance (16-3)
Best result: Champion (2016)
Career winning percentage on clay: .636
Pro: Defending Champion. Muguruza’s major breakthrough came in more ways than one at Roland Garros. Stunning then-No.1 Serena Williams in the second round in 2014, the Spaniard reached back-to-back quarterfinals before coming full circle against Serena in last year’s final. Comfortable on clay, she made a second straight semifinal in Rome with a gritty win over Venus Williams along the way.
Con: Confidence in health. Like Halep, Muguruza doesn’t come to Paris under the cleanest bill of health, retiring from Rome with a neck injury. But the defending champion has struggled to feel confident with her body all season, retiring from three other matches in Brisbane, Dubai, and Miami. In a tough draw that features 2010 French Open champion Francesca Schiavone and a surging Anett Kontaveit - who beat Muguruza in Stuttgart - she’ll have to be physically committed from her first match if she hopes to hang on to the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen.
Svetlana KUZNETSOVA (RUS)
15th appearance (49-13)
Best result: Champion (2009)
Career winning percentage on clay: .703
Pro: Confidence. Kuznetsova is a player who’s only gotten better with age. The Russian veteran has approached what could have been the twilight of her career with renewed vigor and has been rewarded with impressive results, returning to the Top 10 and reaching the semfiinals at the BNP Paribas WTA Finals Singapore presented by SC Global. In a friendly section of the draw, the 2009 champion may nonetheless feel under the radar as the No.8 seed, but likely wouldn’t want it any other way.
Con: Closing. For all of her improvements, Sveta’s still Sveta, capable of losing focus in the face of inspired opposition. Kuznetsova has all the weapons to succeed on clay, a grinding game that can still generate awesome power and spin off both sides. As is so often the case for players with such natural talent, she may be her toughest opponent through the fortnight.
Kristina MLADENOVIC (FRA)
9th appearance (7-8)
Best result: R32 (2014, 2015, 2016)
Career winning percentage on clay: .529
Pro: Playing at home. Mladenovic has been the biggest revelation of the 2017 season, translating her always-flashy game into buckets full of victories. She won her first WTA title in St. Petersburg and took that form from hardcourts to clay, reaching the semifinals or better at two of the season’s three Premier Mandatory tournaments in Indian Wells and Madrid. But before she became the top-level threat, she was always dangerous at Roland Garros, earning upsets against Li Na and Eugenie Bouchard while pushing Serena Williams to a tense tiebreak last year.
Con: Playing at home. Former French No.1 Amélie Mauresmo could probably write a book about the glare of the national spotlight. Despite her wins in Paris, Mladenovic struggled as the favorite, following up the wins over Li and Bouchard with losses to Andrea Petkovic and Alison Van Uytvanck. Earning even more attention ahead of this year’s event, the French Open will be her biggest test yet; can she pass it?
Hear more about the French Open contenders in the latest episode of the WTA Insider Podcast: