The 2014 iteration of Roland Garros (the name of the site and event to the Parisians for the French Open), the second major of the year, will begin on May 25. This season has been one filled with a portent of potential change, as youngsters have begun collecting big scalps and hoisting trophies, while the well-established champions have (to varying degrees of surprise) struggled. This clay court season, which serves as the buildup for the French Open, has given us some trends as to which players we should be watching for the second major of the year. Here, I’ll be giving you ten contenders who have a good chance to make big noise this year, ten players whose name you’ll be hearing but their game won’t produce a favorable French Open, five darkhorses and five young players who could throw the draw into chaos.
Serena Williams (rank: 1)—As the defending champion and favorite until she loses two sets in one match, Serena, when healthy and motivated, will be the easy pick. She’s learned to love the clay in recent years, especially with her desire to add another Roland Garros title to her large major collection. She’ll definitely come in motivated, as she won’t wish to relinquish her reign over Paris, but some recent and earlier-than-reasonably-expected losses at recent events have raised some concern that she may not be as invincible as we have come to expect.
Li Na (rank: 2)—As the only woman who still has a chance for a calendar grand slam (all four majors in one season), Li Na is also a former champion at Roland Garros. She’s already proven that she has the game to win on clay, and with Carlos Rodriguez (coach of the last “Queen of Clay” Justine Henin) expanding and refining her game in recent years while also reducing her bouts of streakiness, she can certainly be considered a top threat to Serena’s repeat chances.
Agnieszka Radwanska (rank: 3)—Radwanska has never won a major title and only has one major final to her credit—and that came at Wimbledon a few years ago. Roland Garros is probably her worst chance at a major breakthrough, but Agnieszka has begun to make progress towards becoming a champion. Whereas she had previously been unable to get past the quarterfinals, she’s now making semifinals of majors with more regularity. She still needs to close though: at both last year’s Wimbledon and this year’s Australian Open she looked like the favorite heading into the semifinals, only to fail to win either match.
Simona Halep (rank: 4)—Oh what a year makes. Simona Halep used to be just another youngster making a life for herself as a journeywomen. Then she won six titles, increased her ranking, and lived up to her seeding at the US Open and Australian Open. She’s now at a career high, and her game—coupled with her sky-high confidence—is solid enough to give her an opportunity at a realistic chance at a title run at Roland Garros. She did withdraw from Rome with an abdominal injury, but that was little more than a precaution.
Jelena Jankovic (rank: 7)—Another player who has made a rapid ascension up the rankings in just a year, former world number one Jelena Jankovic has regained some of her game to become a player capable of deep runs at any event. She’s been to the semis at Roland Garros before and had a good chance to reach the final (she lost a tight match to eventual champion Ana Ivanovic). Last year a title on clay jumpstarted her return to the top ten, so there is a chance she can do real damage at a place where she’s had success before.
Maria Sharapova (rank: 8)—Yes, she can’t beat Serena. Yes, she’s been injured. But Sharapova has turned into the second best clay court player in the WTA, a far cry from when she proclaimed herself a “cow on ice” while playing on the red stuff. She’s a former champion and a finalist from last year, and even after a return from an injury, she’s lost only once on clay this year, winning titles at the always-loaded Stuttgart event and in Madrid.
Sara Errani (rank: 11)—I was going to leave Sara Errani, surprise Roland Garros finalist in 2012, off the list. She has been slumping badly since last summer and has seen her rank fall from a top five position to outside the top ten. But this week she reached the final of the mandatory Rome event, beating some quality competition en route to the final. She’s going to struggle against power players often, but she may be rediscovering what it takes to win at just the right time.
Ana Ivanovic (rank: 12)—The always-smiling (and pumping herself up) Serb, Ivanovic is a former world number one, aided greatly by her triumph at Roland Garros in 2008. She went through the desert after reaching the top of the rankings, falling way off the map, but she’s rediscovered her game and is just as dangerous as when she got to the top spot. She’s done very well on clay this year as well, which bodes well for her chances.
Flavia Pennetta (rank: 13)—It was a year ago that Flavia Pennetta was considering retirement, but she’s rediscovered her game that made her once so successful. I don’t consider her chances at Roland Garros all that great—she’s a better player on hardcourts—but then I didn’t expect her to win the big title at Indian Wells this year. She’s got the confidence right now to make a huge run and a return to the Top 10.
Carla Suarez Navarro (rank: 15)—Suarez Navarro may have the most beautiful backhand in women’s tennis with her stylish one-hander. And she’s got good memories of Roland Garros, as she reached the quarterfinals of the event back in 2008. For someone who’s done well on clay, it’s surprising that she won her first career title just a few weeks ago in Portugal. But hoisting a trophy so recently could be a big boost to her confidence in Paris.
Name Before Game
Victoria Azarenka (rank: 5)—Victoria Azarenka withdrew from the French Open with a foot injury. She has not played since an injury-addled loss to Lauren Davis in the second round of Indian Wells in early March.
Petra Kvitova (rank: 6)—The former Wimbledon champion continues to confound. She can outhit anyone—even Serena—on her best days. On her worst, she could have the look of an erratic journeywoman. Her results this year have been less than impressive, and clay isn’t necessarily her best surface (those would be grass and indoor). She could lose in the first round or go to the quarterfinals, all depending on her consistency.
Angelique Kerber (rank: 9)—Kerber is another player who has had less than stellar results this season, but she’s managed to remain in the top ten partially due to the inability of those lower than her to stay on a winning track. Her game isn’t very well suited to clay though she can make it work. On clay courts there are counter-punchers who know how to use the surface to their advantage better (see: Sara Errani) than she does. She’s likely to be able to stand up to her seeding, but I don’t like her chances to win the title.
Dominika Cibulkova (rank: 10)—She surprised everyone by getting to the Australian Open final and then backed it up with some pretty solid results during the Spring, but as the clay season has progressed, her results have started going in the wrong direction. She’s had success before at Roland Garros, even knocking off Maria Sharapova a few years back, but this will be her first major as part of the hunted, and I don’t quite know if she’s ready for it.
Caroline Wozniacki (rank: 14)—She was the world number one a few years ago, but she’s slowly fallen down the rankings as she’s tried in vain to find a coach that works to expand her game (and that is able to muscle out her father from the picture). She’s never done particularly well at Roland Garros, as clay is her worst surface. She’s not played a lot on the surface either, going a pedestrian 1-1 on clay this season, and for Wozniacki, who’s a rhythm player, that could spell a disappointing result.
Sloane Stephens (rank: 16)—It’s hard to make heads or tails of Sloane Stephens. She played fairly well in Madrid, pushing Li Na before eventually falling to her in the third round, but she followed that up with a dispiriting loss in Rome the next week. Her results do show she gets excited for the majors, as she reached the fourth round at all four events last year. Still, she has a tendency to show no enthusiasm for many matches and could crash out early.
Sabine Lisicki (rank: 17)—Lisicki, the Wimbledon finalist from a year ago, is what could be called a grass-court specialist. While that will be good for the upcoming events and at the All England Club, it doesn’t help her at all here. The player nicknamed “Boom Boom” for her booming serve, especially on an enclosed Center Court at Wimbledon, simply doesn’t have confidence on clay because her style of play is conducive to keeping points short with the serve and a few groundstrokes.
Eugenie Bouchard (rank: 19)—She became the darling of the Australian Open en route to her breakthrough semifinal appearance, though to avid tennis fans she had spent all fall last year climbing up the rankings. However, her clay results have left quite a bit to be desired. It’s normal for a young player to struggle after finally having the spotlight shown on her, and Eugenie appears to be no different. Don’t expect a big run from her.
Venus Williams (rank: 30)—Venus has turned into quite the fan favorite with her diagnosis of Sjogren’s Syndrome a few years back, and the former major champion (but never at Roland Garros!) has made a valiant effort to remain near the top of the game. All that being said, her game has never been all that well suited for clay, and her Sjogren’s Syndrome makes her day-to-day health a question mark. In addition, Venus has come in with little match play.
Madison Keys (rank: 44)—Madison has the talent and the game that makes American tennis fans salivate; she’s got a booming serve that can get her easy points, and her power groundstrokes could place her at the top of the game in a few years. Unfortunately, Keys’s game is not suited as a claycourt game. She’s much better on grass or hardcourts, and Madison could be primed for an early round exit if she plays erratically.
Roberta Vinci (rank: 18)—Vinci has a chance—if the draw falls right—to make some real damage in Paris this year. Her ranking has dropped as the year has progressed, but her game is fairly well suited to the crushed brick, and so long as she isn’t abused by her opponent for her slice backhand or her lack of power, she could live up to her seeding or more.
Samantha Stosur (rank: 20)—Stosur’s game has declined from her height, when she was considered to be a big contender for the French Open, but she’s still dangerous. Her serve gives the other women trouble on any surface, but especially on clay, when it can bounce extremely high, forcing opponents to hit it out of their strike zone. She hasn’t wowed on clay, but her results have taken an upward trajectory.
Kaia Kanepi (rank: 26)—Kanepi is similar to Sloane Stephens in that she gears up for the majors. She’s done well at Roland Garros before, even getting the scalp of then-number one Caroline Wozniacki in stunning fashion. She can hit through the court and appears to know how to attack most opponents. She’s a streaky player, but at the majors, she just finds a way to cause one upset during the tournament.
Svetlana Kuznetsova (rank: 28)—It would be foolish to count out a former Roland Garros champion, and Kuznetsova, who has shown flashes of that title-winning pedigree in recent years, is no exception. She’s beaten a number of quality opponents this year on clay, and all of her losses have come to a player who made at least the semifinals of that event. She will be a tough out.
Garbine Muguruza (rank: 37)—The young Spaniard has been climbing the rankings for over a year now, and now Garbine has a chance to become a threat at Roland Garros. Her clay results have not be eye-opening, but her losses on the red stuff have not been all that surprising either, losing to two players who have played in Roland Garros finals (and one champion) and then in the semifinals of a clay event in Morocco.
Caroline Garcia (rank: 46)—Ever since her near-victory over Maria Sharapova at Roland Garros a few years back, tennis fans (especially those in France) have been keeping an eye on Garcia. And now, she’s finally living up to the billing as a potential top ten player. She’s won a title already on clay this year, and in the other red clay event she’s played this spring, she reached the quarterfinals before falling to Agnieszka Radwanska in three sets.
Camila Giorgi (rank: 51)—The young Italian has begun to put it all together, and it’s showing in her results. Where once she was able to show flashes of talent followed by flashes of erroneous shot selection and poor timing, now she’s winning matches using that power game of hers. Her results on clay haven’t been all that great, but if she can harness her power as she’s shown this year, she could be a threat to anyone.
Donna Vekic (rank: 67)—The young Croat has stormed up the rankings with a solid early spring swing on the hardcourts, including a title in Kuala Lumpur, the first of her career. She hasn’t played a lot on clay—only two qualifying matches at the high-altitude Madrid event—but she should be coming into the second major of the year with confidence.
Ajla Tomljanovic (rank: 71)—Another young Croat who has entrenched herself firmly in the Top 100, Tomljanovic has been slowly but surely building her ranking by winning a few matches at every stop. Her clay court resume doesn’t have any standout victories; in fact, she’s only played four main draw matches on clay courts this season with a 2-2 record. Still, if the draw falls the right way, she could have the potential for a surprise second week appearance.
Belinda Bencic (rank: 81)—As the youngest player in the Top 100, Belinda Bencic is the real deal. She’s got some power to her game combined with her great timing. Her clay court results are reason for optimism: she’s compiled a 5-3 main draw record and managed to qualify for both Madrid and Rome, two loaded WTA events. Her wins this clay court buildup include a couple of Italians mentioned here: Sara Errani in Charleston and Camila Giorgi in Madrid.