Halep heads into 'weird' French Open as clear favourite

Paris (AFP) –


Former champion Simona Halep arrives at the rescheduled French Open as the player to beat in a women's draw missing title holder Ashleigh Barty and recent US Open winner Naomi Osaka, two of the world's top three.

Serena Williams can never be discounted as she launches another bid for a record-equalling 24th Grand Slam singles crown, but Roland Garros is the American's least successful major despite her wins in 2002, 2013 and 2015.

Garbine Muguruza, who defeated Williams in the 2016 final, is another contender while fellow former world number one Victoria Azarenka is hoping to take the momentum from her run to the US Open final into the clay swing.

Last year's runner-up Marketa Vondrousova will again target a deep run in Paris having rediscovered some form at last week's Italian Open, where she made the semi-finals before losing to compatriot Karolina Pliskova.

The fourth-ranked Czech retired from the final with a thigh injury after dropping the first set to Halep, who extended her winning run to 14 matches after capturing a second consecutive title coming out of lockdown.

"I'm honoured to hear that I am the favourite, people thinking that I'm the favourite. But I don't look in that direction," said Halep, who plays Spain's Sara Sorribes Tormo in round one.

"It's not extra pressure. I'm used to this kind of pressure because I've been No. 1 seeded in the past. I've been in this position."

"To play Roland Garros in September, end of September, it's a little bit weird," she added. "But it's nice that we have the chance to play at this tournament."

No woman has successfully defended the French Open title since Justine Henin won three times in a row between 2005 and 2007, a trend set to continue with Barty pulling out over the coronavirus fears that also prompted her to skip the US Open.

- Gloomy conditions await -

A sore hamstring has sidelined three-time Grand Slam champion Osaka, while Bianca Andreescu, the 2019 US Open winner, will miss the tournament as well. The Canadian hasn't played since hurting her knee last October at the WTA Finals.

Despite the notable absentees, the field here is stronger than the US Open where six of the world's top 10 players skipped the event, with the return of Halep, Elina Svitolina and Kiki Bertens. Belinda Bencic was a late scratch with an arm injury.

"As I said always, many girls from the top 10, top 15 have a chance to win a Grand Slam," said Halep.

"Roland Garros is very open, because it's clay court but it's a little bit faster, so also the big hitters can win it easy."

The Romanian holds a 20-2 record this season and is unbeaten since January -- her only losses came to Aryna Sabalenka in Adelaide and Muguruza in the Australian Open semi-finals.

Players will have to adapt to unfamiliar autumnal conditions, with gusting winds and persistent rain forecast for the start on Sunday. The weather outlook isn't set to improve much either.

"It's a big difference between Rome and here, that's for sure. 15 degrees less," said a smiling Halep. "I feel the cold. I feel like struggling a little bit. But for everybody it's the same."

As for Williams, who turns 39 on Saturday, she has not added to her Grand Slam haul since winning the 2017 Australian Open while pregnant.

The window of opportunity is closing for her to finally match Margaret Court's total, with an unmistakeable sense of an opportunity gone begging after her semi-final exit at Flushing Meadows.

Williams withdrew from last week's Rome event with an Achilles strain, meaning she will arrive in the French capital without having played on clay this year.

She is set to face fellow American Kristie Ahn in a rematch of their first round encounter at the US Open.

She could meet old rival and close friend Victoria Azarenka in the last 16, just weeks after the Belarusian star won their last-four clash at Flushing Meadows.