WASHINGTON, May 25, 2018 (by Michael Dickens)
Within a few moments after the 2018 French Open women’s draw ceremony began at L’Orangerie on Thursday night, the mystery of whom unseeded Serena Williams would play first was resolved. After all, the three-time former French Open champion Williams had attracted more interest among the media and fans than who No. 1 seed Simona Halep or reigning champion Jelena Ostapenko would draw as their first-round opponents for the second Grand Slam of the year, which starts on Sunday at Stade Roland Garros in Paris.
As the jumbo electronic draw board began to fill in with the names of unseeded players, soon, the No. 453-ranked Williams’s name appeared and was matched with No. 70 Kristyna Pliskova of the Czech Republic, the left-handed twin sister of No. 6 Karolina Pliskova, in the second quarter of the draw – Garbiñe Muguruza‘s quarter. Like hot air being let out of a big balloon, a big sigh of relief could be seen and heard throughout the L’Orangerie ballroom. Imagine, if you will, what the reaction might have been if the 23-time Grand Slam champion Williams had drawn Halep or Ostapenko or World No. 2 Caroline Wozniacki – even No. 28 seed Maria Sharapova, a two-time French Open champion – or anyone else in the current Top 20 as her first-round opponent. It could have happened, but it wouldn’t have been pretty.
On Monday, the French Open announced it would not give Williams a seeding for her return to Grand Slam tennis, following her maternity leave in which she gave birth to her daughter in September – despite the fact she was ranked No. 1 when she left the tour. The French Tennis Federation said in a statement: “This year again, tournament officials will establish the list and ranking of the women’s seeds based on the WTA ranking. Consequently, (the seeds) will reflect this week’s world ranking.”
Although the WTA is giving consideration to a rule change to add protected seedings for highly ranked players who return from maternity leave, the earliest that it could take effect is next year. That’s too late for Serena, but it’s a step in the right direction for tennis.
This year, with Williams playing for the first time in a major since the 2017 Australian Open, it’s anyone’s guess just who might win it all at Roland Garros this fortnight. Let’s see, there’s Halep, Ostapenko, Williams, No. 2 seed Wozniacki, among prime contenders. It’s been a busy week for Serena as she readies for her return to the big stage. One day, she’s a highly recognizable guest drawing a lot of attention while attending the Royal Wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle in England, and the next day, she’s seen practicing on Court Philippe Chartrier in the 16th arrondissement of Paris.
— Roland-Garros (@rolandgarros) 24. Mai 2018
Taking a closer look, there’s lots of promise among the top seeds in this year’s French Open, but also lots of baggage, too. After all, Halep has lost six of her last seven finals and tweaked her back in Rome last week. She was a finalist in Paris last year, losing to Ostapenko, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3. She may be brilliant one week, but consistency hasn’t been her ally. Clay is not a strong suit for Wozniacki, but she rose to the occasion earlier this year at Melbourne to finally win a major in the absence of Williams. She’ll be tested early against the No. 44 American Danielle Collins, whose big break through at Indian Wells in March was refreshing. Then, there’s Muguruza, the World No. 3, who is a capable major champion (French Open in 2016 and Wimbledon in 2017), but can also lose early, too. The Spaniard was drawn against former champion Svetlana Kuznetsova, ranked No. 42, in the first round. Finally, there’s No. 4 Elina Svitolina, who was impressive in winning a one-sided final last weekend over Halep in successfully defending her title in Rome. Can she step up and win Roland Garros after twice being a quarterfinalist on the famous red dirt? Maybe, just maybe, it’s her year to step up and shine.
According to the WTA, there are six players – Halep, Wozniacki, Muguruza, Svitolina, Karolina Pliskova and Caroline Garcia – who have a chance of leaving Roland Garros with the World No. 1 ranking. It’s been that kind of year for women’s tennis. Meanwhile, on the men’s side, the issue of World No. 1 has been a two-man issue between current No. 1 and defending French Open men’s champion Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, who is taking an extended vacation during the clay season and will resurface next month in time for Wimbledon.
Former Roland Garros winners in the same quarter
Glancing at the draw, there are four former French Open champions, including Williams and Sharapova, in the same quarter. Add to that group Kuznetsova and Muguruza and there’s going to be a lot of colliding early on. There’s a lot of talent, for sure, spread out through the 128-woman draw.
If the seedings hold true – never a sure thing in a Grand Slam event, right? – here’s the projected quarterfinals: No. 1 Halep versus No. 7 Garcia and No. 3 Muguruza versus No. 6 Karolina Pliskova in the top half of the draw, and No. 5 Ostapenko versus Svitolina and No. 8 Petra Kvitova versus No. 2 Wozniacki in the bottom half.
Let’s be realistic: Williams, especially on clay – and coming back from pregnancy – is not a favorite to win, but should be more than a long shot. After facing Kristyna Pliskova, she could face No. 17 Ash Barty, No. 11 Julia Görges and No. 6 Karolina Pliskova – all quality opponents – just to reach the quarterfinals. It prompted New York Times tennis correspondent Ben Rothenberg to tweet after the draw was announced: “Nothing to complain about there.” After all, it seems, Serena winning her 24th career Grand Slam is doable if her body is willing to cooperate.
“Serena has not played a tournament since her early exit to Naomi Osaka in the first round of Miami,” WTA Insider Courtney Nguyen wrote for the WTA’s website, “but history has proven her ability to come into a Slam cold and walk away with the title. A win in Paris would see her tie Margaret Court for the most major singles titles ever, bring her tally to 24 with Wimbledon around the corner.”