In around 24 hours, the draw for the French Open takes place, and with an extremely competitive tournament expected in the women's event, Dan Weston returns to discuss who he is keeping an eye on...
"Several players who are difficult to evaluate include Serena Williams and Bianca Andreescu, who for differing reasons haven’t played much on clay in the last year or two. Andreescu, however, does have plenty of upside given her hard court record and future potential, and is in the quarter-final of the Strasbourg warm-up event."
Swiatek with huge ability differential over the field
It's fair to say that over the last few years, there hasn't been a clay-court version of Rafa Nadal on the WTA Tour - a player who is so utterly dominant on the surface that they merit odds-on status for a Grand Slam. No woman has defended their title at Roland Garros since 2007, but that shouldn't necessarily be an issue for last season's winner, Iga Swiatek. The world number nine comes into the French Open in stunning form on her preferred clay courts, winning the title in Rome and only being troubled by Barbora Krejcikova in the Italian capital.
A defeat for Swiatek to Ash Barty in Madrid can be excused, given the quicker conditions in Spain which were likely to have assisted the serve-orientated Barty considerably more.
The current market price shouldn't necessarily put off Swiatek supporters either. She currently enjoys a bigger statistical differential on combined service/return points won percentage over the WTA field than Nadal (or Djokovic) does in the men's event, so depending on the draw, a case could even be made that the 3.8514/5 about the tournament favourite represents some value.
Barty a fitness doubt with Sabalenka perhaps better value
The chart below illustrates this differential (* indicates 24-month data for the relevant player due to small sample sizes for 12-month), showing 12-month service and return points won on clay - Swiatek is in the ideal top-right corner with big edges on both serve and return - while the likes of Ash Barty 6.806/1 and Aryna Sabalenka 12.5 also feature prominently.
Barty and Sabalenka are next in the market, and their status looks pretty justified based on numbers. They met in the Madrid final recently - Sabalenka won in three sets - but Barty does have a fitness doubt, retiring versus Cori Gauff in the quarter-finals of Rome several weeks ago. Based on this, Sabalenka looks slightly better value at the bigger price in advance of the draw.
Badosa looking under-valued by the market
Which players look under-valued by the market? One of the better players in recent months on clay is Paula Badosa, who has gone semi-final/semi-final/title in her last three clay events, splitting two matches 6-4 6-3 with Barty. With the exception of two wins over Belinda Bencic, though, she hasn't beaten any other player inside the top 30, which leaves a slight doubt over her ability to deal with the best. Saying that, all Badosa could have done is beat those opponents put in front of her, and she's done that - a good draw could see the 38.037/1 about the improving Spaniard shorten.
Gauff among younger players with potential to perform well
Cori Gauff also has potential, given recent form and current ability, although this year could still be a little too soon for a Grand Slam victory. Her service points won percentages aren't great, but she's strong on return and has obvious future upside and could join Swiatek in being dominant over many opponents on the WTA Tour in the coming years.
Other younger or slightly lower-profile players such as Amanda Anisimova, Veronika Kudermetova and Barbora Krejcikova also bring in strong clay numbers into the tournament, so their draw will also certainly be worth keeping an eye on - they are all capable of making the quarter-finals at least.
Osaka and Williams among those with question marks
However, at prices, I'm less enthused by the likes of Naomi Osaka, who hasn't performed well on clay in recent years - losing to Jessica Pegula several weeks in Rome is definitely not a positve either - and also the American duo of Pegula and Sofia Kenin, who have mediocre clay numbers.
Several players who are difficult to evaluate include Serena Williams and Bianca Andreescu, who haven't played much on clay in the last year or two. Andreescu, however, does have plenty of upside given her hard court record and future potential, and is in the quarter-final of the Strasbourg warm-up event.
It's easy to see that there are numerous contenders for the women's title in what promises to be a superb tournament full of competitive matches, and I'll be returning before the tournament start on Sunday to discuss the draw in detail and finalise our outright selections.
Follow Dan on Twitter @TennisRatings
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