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Swiatek serene as questions linger over French Open rivals

Iga Swiatek heads into the French Open trying to become the first player since Serena Williams at Wimbledon in 2016 to successfully defend a women’s Grand Slam singles title, with injuries and poor clay form clouding the hopes of several of her chief rivals.

Following her victory in Rome, culminating in a ruthless 46-minute takedown of Karolina Pliskova, Poland’s first Grand Slam singles champion returns to Roland Garros just seven months on with a far greater weight of expectation.

Swiatek, who turns 20 next week, was the lowest-ranked woman, then 54th in the world, to win the French Open, shifted from its traditional May-June slot last year due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Like Jelena Ostapenko in 2017, it was her first title at tour level. Unlike the Latvian, who has struggled to reproduce her best tennis regularly, Swiatek appears better equipped to stay at the top.

She entered the top 10 for the first time last week, but has to face close friend Kaja Juvan of Slovenia in her opener in Paris.

“We are friends, but on court everybody is equal. I’m actually good at forgetting that I’m playing against my best friend,” Swiatek said Friday.

In theory, this French Open could be the chance for Naomi Osaka to step up on clay.

However, all seven of her career titles, including her four majors, have come on hard surfaces.

The Japanese star was knocked out early in both Madrid and Rome. Her best performance at Roland Garros in four attempts is the third round.

Her preparations have been overshadowed by her decision to boycott all press conferences at the tournament, fearing their effects on her mental health.

The 23-year-old’s gesture was lambasted as a “phenomenal mistake” by French tennis chief Gilles Moretton.

Osaka begins against Romania’s 63rd-ranked Patricia Maria Tig.

Ashleigh Barty vacated her Roland Garros title after skipping much of the 2020 season citing health and travel risks. 

The world number one has won three titles this year and reached the Madrid final, but an arm injury at the Italian Open forced her out of the quarter-finals and cast doubt over her fitness in Paris.

“I think coming back to the site here at Roland Garros is obviously pretty special, pretty cool,” said Barty who tackles Bernarda Pera of the United States in the first round.

“A lot of it I also don’t remember and feels like it was such a long time ago. It’s certainly a clean slate for us this week.”

Serena eyes elusive 24th Slam

As for Serena Williams, now 39, she has won just one of three matches on clay this month having returned after nearly three months away following the Australian Open.

The American remains on 23 Grand Slam titles, one behind Margaret Court’s all-time record, and has not gone beyond the last 16 in Paris since losing the 2016 final to Garbine Muguruza.

Her coach Patrick Mouratoglou admitted it was unlikely Williams would win her first major since the 2017 Australian Open in Paris.

Williams, a three-time French Open winner, faces Irina-Camelia Begu of Romania in her first round tie.

Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus claimed her biggest title to date at the Madrid Open. She will look to build on her run to the last 16 in Melbourne knowing that nine of the past 15 women’s majors have yielded first-time winners.

Bianca Andreescu, the 2019 US Open champion, could be one to watch if she hits form but she has struggled with injuries. 

On Tuesday, she pulled out of the Strasbourg clay-court tournament after winning her round-of-16 match, saying “I don’t want to take any risks” ahead of Roland Garros. 

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