For the first time, the French Open is being played in the fall and with the conditions likely to be colder, heavier and slower than in the spring, that’s going to favor Simona Halep.
On cold and heavy days in Paris, it’s going to be very difficult for anyone to get the ball past Halep, who moves so well on clay. More attacking players, such as Serena Williams or Karolina Pliskova, aren’t going to appreciate those autumnal conditions, as they’re not going to be rewarded for the big serves and great groundstrokes they hit. They’ll hit a shot expecting it to be a winner, and then the ball will still come back.
And then if you go to net, you can’t just play a regular volley and expect to win the point – you kind of have to swing at it and that’s too risky. And if you don’t win the point on the first volley, you’re pretty much a sitting duck. As an attacking player, I used to hate it when it was heavy in Paris, and that was in the spring; now we’re in the fall, it’s going to be even heavier on some days and that’s going to be challenging for players who won’t get the rewards they’re used to. Having just arrived in Paris, it’s cold and windy with some rain. It looks like it will be a retriever’s heaven.
Halep didn’t travel to New York for the US Open, so she’s fresh. She’s also match tough and confident after winning two clay-court tournaments in Prague and Rome, giving her a 10-match winning streak on the surface. That combination of freshness, match toughness and confidence means she’s exactly where she would want to be going into the French Open.
We can’t guess what would have happened had Halep entered the US Open, perhaps she would have won that major, but she couldn’t be in a better position before this final Grand Slam of the year. I watched some of her matches in Rome, and she appeared calm and controlled. Her body language was excellent and so was her tennis. It looked as though she was telling herself: ‘You got this.’
Even in the fall, Williams is still a force to be reckoned with on the Parisian clay. She had a great opportunity in New York to win a record-equalling 24th Grand Slam singles title, and didn’t take it, and maybe the pressure is off her a little bit in France. It’s not her best surface, the conditions aren’t going to help her, and while Williams will never be under the radar, there aren’t the same expectations on her that there were going into her home Grand Slam.
Aside from Halep, Victoria Azarenka is the most match tough before the tournament, after making the final of the US Open. Just two weeks later, she’s playing on a different surface on the other side of the Atlantic, but I think she will be completely fine with the transition from hard to clay. While clay isn’t Azarenka’s best surface, she grew up on it and so is very comfortable. We saw that with her tennis in Rome, where she made the quarter-finals after flying in from New York. Azarenka thrives on the pressure. Having waited seven years between Grand Slam finals, Azarenka will want to be back in another one just weeks later.
Out of all the players in the draw, Halep and Azarenka are best placed to take the French Open title. I would have included Naomi Osaka in that group but she’s not playing because of injury. On slower, heavier clay, Halep has to be the favorite.