Will RG's streak of first-time women’s champs continue?

 - Dan Imhoff

After five years and counting, these are the ladies best placed to win a first major in Paris in 2021

Aryna Sabalenka, final, Madrid 2021©Antoine Couvercelle / FFT

When Garbine Muguruza dethroned Serena Williams to secure her first major at Roland-Garros in 2016 it set off a chain of maiden Grand Slam champions in Paris.

Every women’s champion since – Jelena Ostapenko, Simona Halep, Ashleigh Barty and Iga Swiatek – landed their breakthrough Slam on the final Saturday on Court Philippe-Chatrier.

A string of names are well poised to continue this trend in 2021.

Sabalenka all guns blazing

It took an inspired effort from Serena Williams to stop a rampaging Aryna Sabalenka from reaching her first Grand Slam quarter-final at this year’s Australian Open in the fourth round.

Three months on, the hyper-aggressive Belarusian has made sizeable inroads on clay to find herself seeded in the top four at a major for the first time.

While yet to pass the third round in Paris, the 23-year-old has compiled an 11-2 record on the terre battue in 2021, highlighted by her second title of the season in Madrid, where she ended Ashleigh Barty’s 16-match winning streak on red clay in the final. It avenged a three-set defeat to the Australian in the Stuttgart final a week prior.

"I'm not really scared of this surface anymore," Sabalenka said upon landing her first clay-court title. "Before I was too much thinking about the clay court, that this is surface not for me, that it's really tough to play on this surface, it's long rallies.

“I was really too much thinking about this. This year I relaxed and just play my game. I worked a lot on the movement, so I prepare myself really well for the clay court."

Pliskova back in a final on clay

Four years since Karolina Pliskova tested Simona Halep in a Roland-Garros semi-final, the Czech has endured somewhat of a lean run in the French capital, having failed to pass the third round since. Seeded second in three of the past four years at Roland-Garros, there were hopes she may finally break free of the “best players yet to win a Slam” club.

The 29-year-old returns far more under the radar in 2021 as the world No.10 but with a run to her third straight Rome final, which included saving three match points against Ostapenko en route, she indicated she could not to be discounted on her day.

Unfortunately for Pliskova there would be no second Rome trophy as it was not her day in the final – she suffered the humiliation of a 6-0, 6-0 drubbing to defending Roland-Garros champion Swiatek.

“In the beginning of the year I think I was playing also quite well, but I was just not able to have couple wins in a row. Yeah, just super happy that I did it [in Rome],” Pliskova said.

“I think starting from Stuttgart things were much better. Actually even Miami I thought I had unlucky match there, but I just felt much better on the court.”

Mertens’ mission incomplete

Belgian Elise Mertens continues her quest for a second Grand Slam semi-final appearance after she charged to the last four at Melbourne Park three years ago. Having established herself as a top-15 regular since, she scored her sixth career win over a top-five opponent when she recovered from a break down in two sets to deny two-time champion Halep and reach the Madrid quarter-finals.

The 25-year-old was subsequently forced to retire while trailing eventual champion and good friend Sabalenka but recovered to contest Rome leading in.

The current doubles world No.1 opened her season winning the Gippsland Trophy in Melbourne in singles before her second doubles major at the Australian Open. On clay, she reached her 10th career singles final in Istanbul, where she fell to Sorana Cirstea.

Sakkari at a career-high mark

Greece’s sole representative in the top 250, Maria Sakkari cracked the top 20 last month following a standout run to the Miami semi-finals. There the 25-year-old from Sparta upset world No.2 Naomi Osaka before coming up narrowly short of toppling Bianca Andreescu in a third-set tiebreak.

Sakkari opened her season with back-to-back semi-finals in Abu Dhabi and at the Grampians Trophy in Melbourne, beating the likes of Sofia Kenin, Muguruza, Angelique Kerber and Coco Gauff.

Despite failing to pass the third round in her three clay-court lead-up events, the Greek already boasts a big-name victims list and the heavy topspin suited to clay to do well in France. Her sole career title came on the red dirt in Morocco two years ago and she went on to reach the Rome semi-finals weeks later.

Gauff leads best of the rest

The swift ascent of Gauff gathered steam on clay when the 17-year-old notched her second career trophy in Parma on Sunday.

It came hot on the heels of her first WTA 1000 semi-final in Rome, where she defeated the in-form Sabalenka. The US teenager will be seeded at a major for the first time in Paris and has already claimed a win over defending champion and then No.1 Osaka at the Australian Open last year.

One of three Czechs in the top 20, Karolina Muchova was sidelined for two months with an abdominal injury, making her results in a shortened 2021 all the more impressive.

Iga Swiatek, Ons Jabeur, Roland Garros 2021, practice© Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

The 24-year-old upset seeds Pliskova and Mertens before knocking out top seed Barty to reach the Australian Open semi-finals in February. In only her second event back on clay, she proceeded to see off second seed Osaka and 16th seed Sakkari to reach the last eight in Madrid.

After reaching her first major quarter-final in Melbourne last year, Ons Jabeur beat eighth seed Sabalenka to reach the fourth round last year at Roland-Garros.

A right thigh injury cost the Tunisian trailblazer in the third round in Madrid this month, following a victory over Sloane Stephens, but it was on the US clay where the world No.26 found her best form leading in. She reached the semi-finals of the Charleston 500 event before falling to Astra Sharma in the Charleston 250 decider a week later.

She won Roland-Garros as a junior and her devastating drop shot can cause some serious damage on the red clay.