June 3, 2021

Dropping Like Flies

It's been a dramatic start to the French Open this year, both on and off the court, and day after day it's seems we're hit with one more exit we weren't expecting. And whether it's because of physical or mental form, that's left some gaping holes in the women's draw.

Of course the big news was the withdrawal of Naomi Osaka on Monday -- after the bold decision not to participate in press conferences at the event, she pulled out of Roland Garros and said she was taking a break from competition entirely. The move brought into focus the mental health of athletes in a way that hasn't been done before, and whether or not you agree with the way everything was handled, here's hoping she comes back stronger and fitter in more ways than one.

But it wasn't just Osaka's early departure that rocked the brackets. Petra Kvitova, who ironically injured her ankle on the way to her own first round press conference, had to withdraw on Tuesday, and earlier today top seed Ashleigh Barty, one of two defending champs on the ladies' side, stopped her match short due to a nagging hip problem. Combine that with Simona Halep's pre-tournament bow out and losses by Bianca Andreescu, Karolina Pliskova, Belinda Bencic, and Garbiñe Muguruza and more than half of the WTA's top thirteen are missing from Round 3.

So the question then becomes, of course, who benefits most from all this? The obvious answers are last year's French finalists, Iga Swiatek and Sofia Kenin, the latter of whom was desperately looking to turn around her year and has done so so far, with wins over 2017 champ Jelena Ostapenko and qualifier Hailey Baptiste. She'll face a challenge from fellow American Jessica Pegula in her third round, though, so any potential comeback could be stopped short soon.

But there are others, too.

Barty's exit makes Elina Svitolina the highest ranked player left in her quarter, and with an easy win over a talented Ann Li today, she's playing at a level that could help her go far. She will face a challenge in her next match though, as Strasbourg champ Barbora Krejcikova is now riding a seven match win streak she'll be loathe to give up. And Coco Gauff, who just reprised her Parma final win over Qiang Wang today, might be breathing easier now that she won't face Barty in the fourth round. She still has to get past Aussie runner-up Jen Brady, who beat her last year in Lexington, but on this surface I'm giving the teen the edge.

A little more under the radar is Sloane Stephens, the 2018 runner-up in Paris, who lost her first four matches to kick off the season. She seems to have gotten her footing back on clay, though, reaching the quarters in Charleston and the semis in Parma. In her early days here, she won an emotional first round against a retiring Carla Suarrez Navarro and earlier today pulled off that big upset over Karolina Pliskova. While Melbourne standout Karolina Muchova will be a much tougher challenge in the next round, despite the fact that she's still ranked lower than the former world #1, I'm encouraged by Stephens' return to form and wouldn't be too surprised by an upset.

In the bottom half of the draw, where things were wide open from the start -- Osaka, after all, may have been seeded second, but she had never gotten past the third round in Paris -- we have some more potential beneficiaries. One surprising one may be Elena Vesnina, who here won her first singles match since giving birth in 2018, dropping just one game in her first round. She was scheduled to face Kvitova yesterday, but instead will meet a struggling Elena Rybakina in the third round tomorrow, a wholly winnable match that could get her to her first ever fourth round at the French.

Less of a long shot to go far, though, is Paula Badosa, the barely-seeded but red-hot Spaniard who's made at least the semis of every clay event she's played this year. She's one of just two seeds left in her quarter -- 2019 runner-up Marketa Vondrousova likely looms in the fourth round -- and while there are some big hitters still left -- Istanbul champ Sorana Cirstea, Serena's Parma vanquisher Katerina Siniakova, to name a few -- you have to like her chances to get at least to the semis.

And of course there's Aryna Sabalenka, trying to get past the fourth round at a Major for the inexplicably first time in her career. A final in Stuttgart and a title in Madrid have given her a solid foundation for this clay season. And while she's got potential match-ups against Victoria Azarenka and Serena Williams in her future, it seems she is well on course to break the seal and make it to the next level.

So with two rounds in the books, there's certainly a lot of opportunity to make a big statement, and with the stakes so high, you know everyone's eager for it to be them. All that remains to be seen is who is willing and able to step up to the plate.

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