PARIS • There was a moment in the press conference room at the Italian Open last week that perfectly summed up just how open this year's French Open is for the women.
Simona Halep, the Romanian who is regarded as the leading contender, was asked for her opinion on who the favourites are for the second Grand Slam of the year.
"About 15 players," she replied.
There are two reasons for this: the absence of Grand Slam champions like Serena Williams (pregnancy), Maria Sharapova (refused a wild card after returning from a doping suspension) and Victoria Azarenka (gave birth at the end of last year) and the unsuccessful attempts of any of their contemporaries to take advantage by stepping up.
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So, who are the favourites and what chance do they have?
THE FRONT RUNNERS
Even Halep has concerns to contend with as she bids for a first Grand Slam title. The world No. 4 suffered a torn right-ankle ligament in Rome. The 25-year-old has been spotted in recent days on the practice court, albeit her movement was not particularly quick.
Elina Svitolina defeated three top-10 players in a row - Karolina Pliskova, Garbine Muguruza and Halep - to win the Italian Open. The 22-year-old world No. 6 is the best-performing player. But for the Ukrainian, keeping up her level of play at Roland Garros will be a tough test.
At the age of 31, Svetlana Kuznetsova can count on a wealth of experience on the Paris clay: The Russian reached the final in 2006 and claimed the title in 2009. The world No. 9's recent run to the semi-finals in Madrid shows that she is still a force to be reckoned with.
The same can be said of Venus Williams, the seven-time Grand Slam champion who turns 37 next month. Clay has always been her least favourite surface, but the world No. 11 produced her best performance on it in recent years by defeating Johanna Konta in the third round in Rome.
Hopes in France of a first home champion in the women's singles since Mary Pierce in 2000 lie with Kristina Mladenovic, the 24-year-old who won the junior version of the tournament in 2009. Mladenovic has reached new heights this year at No. 14 .
Muguruza may be the defending champion but the 23-year-old of Spain has struggled to replicate that form since, although there is a last-minute glimmer of hope from her run to the semi-finals in Rome.
Just four years ago, Anastasija Sevastova retired from the sport at the age of 23 due to injury and illness. The Latvian has since returned in style, making the semi-finals in Madrid and arriving in Paris at a career-high ranking of No. 18.
Czech Pliskova still struggles with her movement on clay, although she was encouraged by her run to the quarter-finals in Rome. Having never progressed further than the second round in five attempts, the 25-year-old world No. 3 must be hopeful of at least a better finish.
Anett Kontaveit, the 21-year-old Estonian, defeated both Muguruza and world No. 1 Angelique Kerber over the course of the last month. The world No. 52 reached the quarter-finals in both Stuttgart and Rome after coming through qualifying and, providing the draw is kind, could go deep.
Kerber is in the midst of a baffling slump, only defeating one top-30 player in nine attempts this year. The 29-year-old German arrives with little confidence after losing her opening match in Rome.
THE TIMES, LONDON