French Open 2019

The quiet favourite

Touted as the most consistent player on clay, Simona Halep is the player most would want to avoid as she bids to retain the French Open title. The Romanian third seed will meet Australian Ajla Tomljanovic in the first round.
Touted as the most consistent player on clay, Simona Halep is the player most would want to avoid as she bids to retain the French Open title. The Romanian third seed will meet Australian Ajla Tomljanovic in the first round.PHOTO: REUTERS

With spotlight on Osaka, Serena, consistent Halep feels more relaxed in bid to retain title

PARIS • Simona Halep is focusing on enjoying the year's second Grand Slam and will not let herself be burdened by the pressure of repeating her French Open triumph.

The Romanian will enter the tournament, which starts tomorrow, somewhat under the radar with much of the attention on Serena Williams and world No. 1 Naomi Osaka. But she remains the world's most consistent player on clay.

Halep is the bookmakers' favourite despite losing both her finals in Madrid and Qatar this year, and being knocked out in her first match in Rome by Czech youngster Marketa Vondrousova.

The three-time Roland Garros finalist will be the third seed and a name most would want to avoid.

"I can't expect anything because to be a defending champion in a Grand Slam is (the) first time for me, so it's something new," said Halep, whose maiden major came in her fourth final, a three-set win over American Sloane Stephens.

"I will be more relaxed. I will try to enjoy (it) more.

"I see all of my opponents the same so, for me, it's important to focus on myself every time. You just have try to give your best. That's the most important thing."

  • Three women to watch

  • KAROLINA PLISKOVA, 27 (CZE)

    World ranking: 2

    Grand Slams: 0

    Best French Open result: S-finals (2017)

    The tall Czech owns one of the biggest serves in women's tennis and, even on the relatively slow Parisian clay, it will give her every chance of claiming a first Grand Slam title.

    Never a lover of clay but, with the help of Spanish coach Conchita Martinez, she appears to have finally got to grips with the surface as she demonstrated by winning the Rome title.

  • KIKI BERTENS, 27 (NED)

    World ranking: 4

    Grand Slams: 0

    Best French Open result: S-finals (2016)

    She beat four Grand Slam champions to win the Madrid title this month, culminating in downing French Open champion Simona Halep.

    Until she reached the French Open semi-finals in 2016, however, Bertens was struggling to make an impact. Even then, she toyed with quitting in 2017. But her decision to continue has been fully vindicated and, with a hefty serve and powerful baseline game, she now looks comfortable in the highest echelons of women's tennis.

  • SLOANE STEPHENS, 26 (USA)

    World ranking: 7

    Grand Slams: 1

    Best French Open result: Runner-up (2018)

    The counter-puncher does not blast opponents off court. Instead, she uses her incredible court coverage and unerring accuracy to wear them down.

    Last year's final against Halep was a battle of will between two players with similar styles - Stephens eventually succumbed in a gripping three-set contest. Results this year have not been great, but a semi-final run in Madrid suggests that the 2017 US Open winner is warming up for a strong challenge.

    REUTERS

Halep, who will play Australian Ajla Tomljanovic in her opener, is drawn in the same half as Osaka.

The women's game remains far more open than the men's, with a host of other players holding serious hopes of lifting the trophy, including Italian Open champion and second seed Karolina Pliskova and the in-form Petra Kvitova.

Osaka, the winner of consecutive Slams - the US and Australian Opens - will start her bid for a maiden French Open title against Slovak Anna Karolina Schmiedlova.

Williams, who is aiming to add to her three titles in Paris to equal Margaret Court's 24-Slam record, will face Vitalia Diatchenko. It will be only her second match on clay this season, after she retired from Rome with a knee injury.

One of the first-round clashes to watch is 2017 champion Jelena Ostapenko against two-time major winner Victoria Azarenka, with the victor likely to face Osaka next.

Halep has been backed by Mats Wilander and Justine Henin to join an elite group of repeat winners - Court, Chris Evert, Monica Seles, Steffi Graf and Henin. Three-time men's champion Wilander even said Halep versus Williams would be "a dream final".

In the men's game, long-time rivals Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer could meet in the semi-finals after being drawn in the same half.

Defending champion Nadal is chasing a 12th Roland Garros title and starts against a qualifier.

The 2009 winner Federer, playing in Paris for the first time since 2015, opens against Italy's Lorenzo Sonego.

Top seed Novak Djokovic starts against Poland's Hubert Hurkacz.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 25, 2019, with the headline 'The quiet favourite'. Print Edition | Subscribe