As you might expect from a surface that’s so demanding, the French Open is theoretically the Grand Slam event that requires the most amount of preparation. Fitness – physical, emotional, mental – is critical. Roland Garros is the tournament where corner-cutting is least viable.
But theory means little to Serena Williams. Serena would have been this year’s French Open favorite even if she hadn’t won a single claycourt match all spring. But now, as she has throughout her entire career, Serena has found her form at the right moment. Her 7-6, 6-3 win over Madison Keys in the finals of Rome has once again made Serena the favorite at a major. This is quite amazing given that Rome was her first title run since last August – and only the fourth tournament Serena’s played this year.
Another factor putting more distance between Serena and her peers is a sober reality: It’s extremely difficult to take any other player’s title chances too seriously. Start with Victoria Azarenka. Just last month, in the wake of title runs at Indian Wells (beating Serena in the final) and Miami, Azarenka was clearly the leading contender, impressing with everything from her forceful groundstrokes to her competitive makeup. But a recent back injury has handicapped her significantly. Should Azarenka return to good health, she’ll be a force in Paris. But at this point, that’s highly conditional.
Then comes ’14 Roland Garros runner-up Simona Halep. The 24-year-old Romanian made an excellent run to the Madrid title, but then lost early in Rome. At her best, Halep is tenacious and formidable, in some ways a female version of that male pit bull, Davis Ferrer. But when the doubts come, Halep is incredibly hard on herself and can spiral down.
A great many others also have superb skills – but their championship caliber on the clay is incredibly uncertain. Take a pair of lefthanders, Petra Kvitova and Lucie Safarova. If you combined the weaponry of Kvitova with the positive energy of ’15 Roland Garros finalist Safarova, you might have the ultimate, dare we say, Czech Mate? Another lefty, surprise Aussie champ Angelique Kerber, won Stuttgart – but can she indeed take a second straight major? Agnieszka Radwanska has often lacked the artillery for a sustained effort on the dirt, only once reaching the quarters at Roland Garros.
But there are other contenders worthy of a closer look. Americans Madison Keys (runner-up in Rome) and Sloane Stephens have shown increased proficiency on clay, so perhaps each could go deep. A pair of Swiss players, Belinda Bencic and Timea Bacsinszky (’15 Roland Garros semifinalists), have a reasonable mix of power and variety. And then, perhaps the biggest wild card is Garbine Muguruza. The 22-year-old Spaniard beat Serena at Roland Garros two years ago and also competed well versus her in last year’s Wimbledon final. Muguruza is a powerful player, able to strike big from anywhere on the court.
And yet, still, as skilled as these other players are, the 2016 French Open women’s field is largely a race for second. Once again, this Slam is Serena’s to lose.