Missing stars let French Open pretenders dream

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Paris (AFP) – Serena Williams’ bombshell pregnancy announcement last month triggered a sequence of events that has left this year’s women’s draw at Roland Garros wide open and primed for a new champion.

The 23-time Grand Slam winner learned she was pregnant just two days before starting a successful assault on January’s Australian Open and won’t return before next year.

The French federation then refused to award Maria Sharapova a wild card for the tournament with the Russian on the comeback trail following a 15-month doping suspension.

With Li Na long since retired that means the winners of five of the past six French Opens — Williams (2013, 2015), Sharapova (2012, 2014) and Li (2011) — are absent from the field, while several pretenders to the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen are battling injury and loss of form. 

Simona Halep, the 2014 runner-up, established herself as arguably the leading challenger by winning the Madrid Open before reaching the Rome final, but an ankle injury has hampered her preparations.

The Romanian, who faces Slovakia’s Jana Cepelova in the first round, earlier this week rated her chances of playing in Paris as just “50-50”.

But after practice on Friday, Halep sounded far more confident.

“I expect to play, I should be OK but I am waiting for another ultra-sound on Saturday,” said Halep, who arrived early in Paris for treatment on torn ligaments.

World number one Angelique Kerber has endured a miserable clay-court season, losing early in Stuttgart and crashing out in her Rome opener, while retiring from her last-16 clash in Madrid with a lower back injury.

The German opens with a tricky first-round tie against fellow left-hander and former top-10 player Ekaterina Makarova.

Defending champion Garbine Muguruza’s fortunes on the surface have proved almost as bleak.

Her only three wins came in Rome where she reached the semi-finals before a neck injury forced her to quit against eventual champion Elina Svitolina, the fourth time the Spaniard has failed to complete a match in 2017.

Muguruza begins her title defence against 2010 champion Francesca Schiavone, the wily veteran making her final French Open appearance before retiring at the end of the year.  

  • ‘Already won my biggest fight’ –

Petra Kvitova provides one of the tournament’s feel-good storylines with the two-time Wimbledon champion making a shock comeback in the French capital. 

The former world number two has been sidelined since December after suffering career-threatening injuries to her left hand while fighting off a knife-wielding intruder at her home the eastern Czech town of Prostejov.

“I actually already won my biggest fight. I stayed in life and I have all my fingers,” Kvitova told reporters at Roland Garros.

“I knew this day would come but sometimes when I was watching tennis on TV, I didn’t really feel great. I felt like the tennis was taken away from me, and it wasn’t my decision. 

“Suddenly I couldn’t do what I love. So I’m happy that I can be here.”

As 15th seed, Kvitova will face Julia Boserup of the United States in the first round.

The Czech star is one of few players with genuine Grand Slam pedigree in the draw, with Victoria Azarenka, the 2012 and 2013 Australian Open champion, not quite ready for Roland Garros after the birth of her son.

The 27-year-old hasn’t played since last year’s French Open but is scheduled to return in Mallorca next month as a tune-up ahead of Wimbledon.

Denmark’s Caroline Wozniacki suffered a scare when she limped out of Strasbourg with a back problem, while third-ranked Karolina Pliskova’s best results this season have come on hard courts.

Svitolina climbed to a career high of sixth after landing her fourth title of the season at the Italian Open, although the Ukrainian remained coy on her chances.

“There is no one I can name as a favourite,” she said, with Svitolina’s run to the 2015 quarter-finals the only time she has advanced to the second week at a major.

Meanwhile Italy’s Sara Errani, the 2012 finalist, has tumbled down the rankings and needed to come through three rounds of qualifying just to reach the main draw.

    <figure><figcaption>The main competition of Roland Garros, the French Open, will begin on May 28, 2017
        <span>Copyright AFP/File Gabriel Bouys</span>
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