The ball’s in their court

Serena Williams. (Recep Sakar)
Serena Williams. (Recep Sakar)

Johannesburg - With the US’s powerhouse Serena Williams and Russia’s Maria Sharapova out of the way, the race is wide open for the second Grand Slam title of the year, the French Open.

Two-time French Open winner Sharapova, who made her comeback last month after serving a 15-month doping suspension following a positive test for the banned drug meldonium at last year’s Australian Open, had hoped for a favour from the French Tennis Federation (FTF) because her ranking – 173 – does not warrant an automatic placement in the competition.

Big stage

“You can get a wild card entry when you return from injury, but you cannot get a wild card when returning from a doping suspension,” said FTF president Bernard Giudicelli.

It is hard to predict a winner, but two-time Grand Slam champion Angelique Kerber stands a great chance, although she suffered a surprise defeat to Anett Kontaveit in Rome. The 29-year-old is struggling to recreate the form that saw her reach three major finals last year.

Naturally, the top- ranked player is one of the favourites for the French Open title. However, Kerber doesn’t have a great track record playing on clay. Her best at the French Open was a quarterfinal finish back in 2012.

But she has proven that she can perform well on the big stage – she took the Australian Open from defending champion Williams last year, and defeated Karolína Plíšková in the US Open final in the same season. Kerber became the first German to win the US Open since Steffi Graf in 1988.

Defending champion

Eighth seed Johanna Konta claimed the biggest title won by a British woman in the past 40 years when she defeated Caroline Wozniacki last month at the Miami Open, an event second only to Grand Slams in prestige. The 2014 French Open finalist is in good standing for this year’s edition.

Simona Halep kicked off her clay court season with a run to the semifinals at the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix, losing to eventual champion Laura Siegemund. Halep then entered the Madrid Open as the defending champion, and successfully defended her title a fortnight ago against Kristina Mladenovic, but lost in the Rome final against Elina Svitolina.

Defending champion Garbiñe Muguruza has a chance to shine again. The Spaniard stunned Williams in last year’s French Open, but she has not won a tournament since then.

Muguruza reached the semifinal of the Brisbane International, but lost in the opening rounds of the Opens in Stuttgart and Madrid. She will be hoping to come back strongly after she retired at the Italian Open semifinal against Halep due to injury.

Prepare for Wimbledon

On the men’s front, the tournament will feature some of the biggest names in the game. However, Roger Federer has decided to skip this one.

The 35-year-old has announced that he won’t play in this event, but will instead prepare for Wimbledon. The Swiss legend missed last year’s tournament because of injury.

More titles

World number one Andy Murray is struggling with his form – he recently lost twice in the space of a week. He was comfortably beaten 6-2, 6-4 by Fabio Fognini in a round-of-32 match at the Rome Masters a fortnight ago – just a week after his surprise straight-sets defeat to Borna Coric at the Madrid Masters.

The 30-year-old has now suffered seven losses since the start of the year, and admits his form is a concern ahead of the Paris tournament.

The inconsistency of reigning champion Novak Djokovic, who lost against 20-year-old Alexander Zverev Jr in Rome last Sunday makes an in-form Rafael Nadal a favourite in this tournament.

Nadal, a nine-time champion, is expected to clinch more titles. He has already stormed to three consecutive clay titles in Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Madrid, although he suffered a shock defeat to Austrian Dominic Thiem in the Italian Open recently.

All eyes of the tennis world will be fixed on Paris for the official start of the tournament on Sunday.

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