The first ball of the 2021 French Open has yet to be struck, and already we have controversy on the women’s side. Naomi Osaka has declared she won’t be submitting to postmatch interviews. It’s either a watershed moment in athlete-media relations, or an athlete who earns $50 million per year deciding she’d rather pay a fine than hold postmortems for her days at work. Regardless, Osaka’s bigger issue is her game, which has tailed off since she won the Australian Open and has seldom found footing on clay. Meanwhile two players that have—Ash Barty and Iga Swiatek, the 2019 and 2020 champs, respectively—are in the same half of the draw.
Bearing in mind that “it’s difficult to make predictions, especially about the future,” herewith your seed reports for the 2021 French Open. Just don’t expect press conferences about the hits and misses …
1. Ash Barty
Defending Champ A and playing like it. Part of her success owes to her athleticism and movement; part to her variety including that nasty slice; but what about her dispositional strength? Her attitude—a mix of carefree and willingness to adjust in the battle—is ideal for clay. (On which she is 13-3 this year.) Healed from some annoying injuries, a good bet to “defend.”
*Simona Halep: A nod to a former champ and consummate pro, who would have been a contender but for her fluke calf injury.*
2. Naomi Osaka
“All the surfaces are the same these days.”
Clay: “Hold my sprinkled water.”
Osaka has won the previous two hardcourt majors and has four total. Yet, she has lost two of her three clay matches in 2021; has never been to Week 2 in Paris; and has looked more comfortable as Met Gala hostess than she has on the dirt (or in the press room). Her media ban was the pre-tournament talk of the tournament; but if she doesn’t improve her play on clay, it will be moot.
3. Aryna Sabalenka
Drinking game: Swig every time you hear she’s never been beyond the fourth round of a major. But she’s had a wonderful past six months, won Madrid (beating Barty in the final) and is finding ways to harness her unrivalled power. She’s like the UFC fighter who announces in advance she’s here to throw down. Potential story to follow: will events in Belarus—and potential calls for her to take a stand—provide a distraction.
4. Sofia Kenin
A finalist at October’s French Open, but not much to show since then. Such a contradiction. Can be a relentless opponent who gives no quarter; can also scan fragile, especially when she directs her outrage at herself. She has played three clay matches in 2021 and lost them all. Now without the considerable presence of her father, it will be interesting to see how she handles new autonomy. Well, one hopes. She starts against Jeļena Ostpapenko.
5. Elina Svitolina
Same scouting report: a lot of connectivity week-to-week. A lot of 404 errors at the majors. Will pick up some additional fan support in Paris given her intended.
6. Bianca Andreescu
Fun fact, she is undefeated in the main draw at the U.S. Open (7–0 in 2019) and in Paris, where she won her only match and then had to retire before the next round … a bit of distillation of her young career. Wonderous talent and will; less wondrous durability and health. Her France campaign was complicated by a bout with COVID-19.
7. Serena Williams
Like Federer, she is 1–2 in her last three matches—at one stretch losing 15 straight points—and, at age 39, comes to this, the major that demands the most of her, more as a fan favorite than a contender. Then again, she is Serena.
8. Iga Swiatek
Defending Champ B. A thoroughly respectable season so far, and then really put her skills—and uncommon poise—on display in Rome. So much to like here, and owes Halep (her RG rival) dinner. Sneaking in as a top-eight seed could pay big dividends.
9. Karolina Pliskova
You feel like the warranty has run out here. A former No. 1, but she is past the prime of her meridian. Reached the Rome final two weeks ago … only to lose 6–0, 6–0 in the final. Still a threat to win a given match; still a mighty server; but she’s almost 29 and the majors results just haven’t been there.
10. Belinda Bencic
A likable player and presence, armed with more power than she lets on. Can play “ninja ball” and win with tactics. But 11–10 on the year and meh record for a top tenner. And more broadly, she’s 24 now, and it’s unclear whether she is a vexing opponent—and fine 9–16 type player—or a legit contender.
11. Petra Kvitova
Man, is that third major elusive. As with the aforementioned Czech seed, Pliskova, you wonder whether the window isn’t closing. The conventional wisdom: Her flat strokes—the no-spin zone—don’t give her sufficient margin for clay. But she has reached the RG multiple times.
12. Garbine Muguruza
Tennis’s girl with the curl. When she is good, she can win majors. When she is bad (and self-defeating) she can depart early. A former winner in Paris, she’s had a fine 2021 including some matches in Australia where she looked untouchable. Ignore the seeding: She is a top-five contender.
13. Jennifer Brady
The revelation of the last year has been awfully quiet since Australia. And now has coaching uncertainty.
14. Elise Mertens
A solid player, admirably so. Not a great player. Set in and forget it. A round showing.
15. Victoria Azarenka
A fire that once raged, now flickers. A two-time major champ can still bring it under the right circumstances. But, owing to injury, the match play is still lacking. Comes in with one clay match in 2021.
16. Kiki Bertens
A terrific clay court player and who can forget her Roland Garros 2020? but still recovering from surgery. Only 2–4 on the year.
18. Maria Sakkari: Clay results dipped but always a good bet.
23. Petra Martic: A stylish, athletic, likable player who struggles to close and, you fear, is on the wrong side of her prime.
25. Coco Gauff: Seeded for the first—and not last—time at a major. Your Parma champion and progressing beautifully. And don’t look now but she is likely to finish this event as the No. 3 American behind Kenin and Serena, in good position for the Olympics.
26. Ons Jabeur: Crafty, almost impish, player who is a great joy to watch. Still seeking her first title. Some nagging injuries present a slight concern. So does the pressure she arrays on herself in Paris. Pity—or opportunity—she’s so close to Barty.
29. Jessie Pegula: Doing a fierce Jenn Brady impression, the mid-career ascent continues.
30. Veronika Kudermetova: Quietly, the top Russian has won 24 (!!) matches in 2021 including the Charleston title.
Paula Badosa: Spaniard has gone 13–2 on the clay.
Venus Williams: Paying respects to a 40-year-old whose best performance, reaching the final, came 19 years ago.
Sara Sorribes Tormo: SST is 17-9 on the year.
Clara Tauson: At full health, the young Dane can beat most players in the draw.
Jeļena Ostapenko: Any player who’s won the title within the last half decade deserves note.
Maria Camila Osorio Serrano: May barely be in the top 100, but already had double-digit clay wins in 2021.
Ostapenko d. Kenin
Anisimova d. Kudermetova: Wild that Anisimova, a semifinalist in 2019, is the underdog on form.
First Round Matches to Watch
Sloane Stephens vs. Carla Suarez Navarro: This match has … a lot going on.
Ostapenko vs. Kenin
Azarenka vs. Kuznetsova: Two two-time major winners. And 2009 wants its draw back.
Ali Riske vs. Lauren Davis: American on American.
Gauff and McNally
Barty d. Muguza
Sabalenka d. total surprise
Barty d. Sabalenka
More Tennis Coverage:
• Where the Confederates Fell, Arthur Ashe Still Stands
• What’s In Store for Serena Williams in 2021 as She Chases Major No. 24?
• 2020 Sportsperson of the Year: Naomi Osaka