Women’s popcorn R1s: Zheng meets French favourite

A string of intriguing showdowns are on the cards when main draw play starts in Paris

Zheng Qinwen, first round, Roland Garros 2023©Clément Mahoudeau / FFT
 - Dan Imhoff

The newest Grand Slam finalist will need to see off a retiring French veteran while a pair of former top-three players reprise their rivalry.

These are the standout opening encounters you won’t want to miss.

Zheng Qinwen (7) v Alize Cornet

Two years ago, French favourite Alize Cornet summoned one of her finest Parisian efforts to scuttle former champion Jelena Ostapenko in a Court Philippe-Chatrier boilover under lights.

In typical Cornet fashion, the gutsy Frenchwoman left it all out there, but she was forced to retire injured trailing a set and a break against an unheralded Chinese player, Zheng Qinwen, in the following round.

Zheng is no longer the unknown quantity, having catapulted up the ranks to a career-best world No.7 this year following her maiden Grand Slam final at Melbourne Park.

While she starts favourite, Cornet will have the crowd firmly on her side in her final event and acquitted herself well in a closely fought Rome second round on clay last year.

Alizé Cornet Roland-Garros 2022 2e tour©Nicolas Gouhier / FFT

Elina Svitolina (15) v Karolina Pliskova

A rivalry that stretches back 13 years will add a 10th instalment in the opening round at Roland-Garros this year when former world No.1 Karolina Pliskova and former No.3 Elina Svitolina clash.

While both are below the peak marks, 15th seed Svitolina has had better recent form and fewer injuries throughout the season.

The Ukrainian – 4-5 in the pair’s head-to-head ledger – held match points against eventual finalist Aryna Sabalenka in the Rome fourth round last month, while former Wimbledon and US Open runner-up Pliskova picked up her first title in four years in Romania in February.

Elina Svitolina, first round, Roland-Garros 2023© Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

Sloane Stephens v Yulia Putintseva

Two of the least intimidated competitors in the field will trade blows for the eighth time at the first hurdle in Paris when 2018 finalist Sloane Stephens and Yulia Putintseva square off.

Only two spots separate the pair in the rankings with the 37th-ranked Kazakhstani holding the edge on the ledger, 4-3, in their most recent encounter – in the second round in Rome – and on clay 2-1.

Former US Open champion Stephens, however, claimed the honours against her lower-ranked opponent in a tight three-set contest in the third round at Roland-Garros last year.

Sloane Stephens, Roland-Garros 2023, first round©Nicolas Gouhier / FFT

Katie Boulter (26) v Paula Badosa

Spaniard Paula Badosa has endured a torrid trot due to a recurring back injury since her ascent as high as world No.2 two years ago.

The 26-year-old has slipped outside the top 100 as a result but had a promising run in Rome this month when she reached the fourth round and took a set off Coco Gauff. She also reached her sole Grand Slam quarter-final in Paris three years ago.

Great Britain’s Katie Boulter readily admits she is more at home on other surfaces but after collecting her second title in San Diego in March is not short on confidence in her first Slam as a seed.

Bianca Andreescu v Sara Sorribes Tormo

Question marks swirl around former US Open champion Bianca Andreescu’s form, having not played a match on tour since last year’s Canadian Open due to a back injury.

Still only 23, when the Canadian is confident and timing the ball sweetly she has the game to trouble anybody.

She will need to against Spain’s Sara Sorribes Tormo, whom she beat in three sets in the Miami quarter-finals three years ago.

The 46th-ranked Sorribes Tormo has struck form on clay, reaching the fourth and third rounds respectively in Madrid and Rome, including wins over the likes of Victoria Azarenka and Svitolina.

Bianca Andreescu, deuxième tour, Court 14, Roland-Garros 2023 ©Nicolas Gouhier / FFT