Barty, Osaka turn practice partners ahead of RG
A group of talented players are at the top of the list of contenders for the title in Paris this spring
For the WTA's top stars, the week before Roland-Garros is all about practice makes perfect.
Players drop down in Paris and immediately shuffle over to the terre battue to familiarise themselves with the red clay and and fine-tune their strokes.
Some enter with high expectations generated by past success. Others arrive with high hopes after a torrid spring on the clay, and all the pressure that comes with it.
Today we look at four favourites to hoist the Coupe Suzanne-Lenglen at the end of the Paris fortnight.
After electing not to defend her title at Roland-Garros in 2020 due to coronavirus concerns, world No.1 Ashleigh Barty makes her return to Paris having conducted a successful spring on the clay that saw her reel off nine consecutive victories, as she took the title in Stuttgart and reached the final in Madrid.
The Aussie was on song against the WTA's elite, notching five straight wins over top-20 competition at one point, before finally bowing out to Aryna Sabalenka in a hotly-contested Madrid final. That loss snapped a run of nine consecutive three-set wins for Barty - further proof that she hasn't just been winning, she's also been delivering in the clutch.
Barty's clay lead-up ended when she handed a walkover to Coco Gauff in the Rome quarter-finals, but after a week of rest the Aussie ought to be in fighting shape as she sets her sights on recreating the magic of her run to the title in 2019.
"It needs time to recover, and that means a little bit of time with no racquets," she said of the arm injury she suffered at Rome.
"But it's also important to increase the load gradually and to use a training week to get the right load into it. I'm confident in my team that we know how to manage this injury, and we just need to do the right things now and make the right decisions now to know that in a couple weeks it will be fine."
Record at Roland-Garros: 9-5 (champion 2019)
Record in 2021: 27-5, 3 titles
Clay record in 2021: 13-3
Number of clay titles won: 2
Hot off the Rome title, defending champion Iga Swiatek enters this year's Roland-Garros draw with a top-10 ranking for the first time.
The ranking - nine at the moment - still doesn't do justice to Swiatek's breathtaking game. A mature and menacing threat to all comers, Swiatek has made it her mission to achieve consistency on tour in 2021, as she aims to prove that last year's thrilling journey to the title in Paris was no fluke. She has done that - in spades.
Swiatek enters Paris with a 19-5 record on the season, which includes two impressive title runs, the first at Adelaide where she dropped a mere 22 games, the second just weeks ago in Rome, where she saved a pair of match points en route to her second career clay-court title.
All eyes will be on Swiatek as she begins her title defence.
"I think the poise she possesses is what will give her a good chance to defend the title," two-time Roland-Garros champion and Tennis Channel pundit Jim Courier said on Wednesday. "It's not going to be easy. There are so many possibilities in women's tennis. She and Ash Barty have I think put their hands in the air as the form players this spring, along with Sabalenka, on the clay.
"They're both defending champs because Ash didn't come back to defend last year, so this is really her defence as well. It's going to be interesting to see how that plays out."
Record at Roland-Garros: 10-1 (champion 2020)
Record in 2021: 19-5, 2 titles
Clay record in 2021: 8-1
Number of clay titles won: 2
Could this be the year that Aryna Sabalenka finally hits her stride at a Grand Slam? Already the 23-year-old has made progress in 2021, reaching the round of 16 at a major for the first time at the Australian Open, before being knocked out by Serena Williams.
But the quality of Sabalenka's tennis on the clay this spring, where she reached the final in Stuttgart and claimed the title in Madrid, points to further ascension.
Barely a .500 player on clay prior to 2021, suddenly Sabalenka has emerged as a force on the surface. She won 11 of her 13 tussles on clay this year and enters the main draw in Paris touting a career-best ranking of No.4.
"I definitely think the breakthrough is coming," Courier said of Sabalenka "When she's hot, she's hot, she's tough to stop. She moves well, rips the ball through the court."
Courier believes that Sabalenka's days of underachieving at the Slams are soon to be in the past.
"I think she can be a real force," he added. "For me, it's one of those scenarios where if she's confident, she is tough for anybody to beat because she can cover the court and she can dominate from the centre. I see no reason why she wouldn't be able to break through that quarter-final drought very quickly at Roland-Garros."
Record at Roland-Garros: 3-3 (third round, 2020)
Record in 2021: 25-7, 2 titles
Clay record in 2021: 11-2
Number of clay titles won: 1
With a trip to the second week in Paris in six of her last seven appearances, Spain's Garbine Muguruza has proven to be a perennial contender for the Roland-Garros crown. Despite a run of bad luck with injuries this spring, that shouldn't change in 2021.
Touting a 23-7 record on the season, Muguruza relishes the chance to prove herself on her favourite surface, and she believes that, if healthy, she can recapture the form that took her to a maiden Grand Slam title on the terre battue in 2016.
At this point, Muguruza's hopes rest on finding her fitness, and pushing the reset button as the most important tournament of her season beckons.
"I love this surface," she said of the clay this spring. "I want to do well, as always. Trying to not have too many expectations. I know I started very well the year. Doesn't matter. Just trying to start from zero now."
Record at Roland-Garros: 29-7 (champion, 2016)
Record in 2021: 23-7, 1 title
Clay record in 2021: 3-2
Number of clay titles won: 1