Our tennis man Andy Schooler has 8/1, 25/1 and 66/1 selections for the 2021 French Open women’s singles.
2pts win Aryna Sabalenka at 8/1 (Unibet)
1pt e.w. Paula Badosa at 25/1 (General)
0.5pt e.w. Coco Gauff at 66/1 (bet365, 888sport)
The last player to successfully defend her French Open title was the legendary Justine Henin in 2007 – and that’s bad news to the top two in the 2021 market.
Both market leader Iga Swiatek and second favourite Ash Barty are effectively returning as defending champions – Swiatek having won last year when Barty, the 2019 winner, was absent.
Despite that particular weight of history being against them, it’s not difficult to make a case for either player.
Swiatek dismantled all-comers en route to the title here last autumn, when the virus-delayed tournament took place, becoming the first player since Henin to win Roland Garros without losing a set.
And while she didn’t find it so easy to garner victories on the hardcourts, the tour’s return to the clay has shown why the Pole is regarded the one to beat in Paris.
At the most relevant of the warm-up events, Rome, Swiatek again dominated proceedings, polishing things off with a 6-0 6-0 victory over a stunned Karolina Pliskova in the final.
She has the power to dictate the rallies but also the touch so often required to deliver on the claycourts.
As for Barty, the Australian has also been showing the sort of form which took her to the title here two years ago.
She won on the indoor clay of Stuttgart, finished runner-up in Madrid (where Swiatek was among her victims) and was looking good in Rome until an old arm injury reappeared during her quarter-final.
Barty, one of the current game’s great problem-solvers, was forced to retire but insisted at Friday’s media day that she had known how to manage the injury and that she was now “flying, so certainly no issues”.
Barty is usually pretty honest on media duty but regardless it’s not exactly been the ideal preparation.
Swiatek was also honest in front of the press on Friday, admitting she didn’t know how she’d react to defending a title for the very first time.
Throw in the fact that the pair are both in the top half of the draw and could meet in the semi-finals and I can’t bring myself to back either. It’s hard to pick a winner of any such clash given the close nature of their recent meetings.
Instead I’m going to side with ARYNA SABALENKA in the weaker, opposite half.
The Belarusian has been mentioned as a potential Grand Slam champion for a couple of years now but she is still to go beyond the last 16 at one of the majors.
That will be off-putting to some but Sabalenka has been playing some good tennis of late and with a kind draw, this tournament looks to offer her a great chance to make that anticipated breakthrough.
The 23-year-old beat Simona Halep (the 2018 Roland Garros champion who is now injured) en route to the Stuttgart final where she lost to Barty.
However, revenge was quicky taken in Madrid with the world number one defeated in the final.
One of the hardest hitters on the WTA tour, Sabalenka has been able to blast through plenty of opponents with several one-sided scorelines on her record.
Her aggressive, big-hitting style has been prone to produce error-strewn performances and that remains a worry for her backers in Paris – she did throw up too many unforced errors in defeat to Coco Gauff in Rome.
However, there’s no doubt her consistency has improved over the past eight months. She won three tournaments in a row either side of Christmas and while her win streak was surprisingly ended by Kaia Kanepi prior to the Australian Open, since then she’s only lost to top-quality opponents.
It was Serena Williams who ousted Sabalenka in Melbourne in a tight, high-quality tussle, while during the Middle East swing, Garbine Muguruza – a standout player in the early part of the season – beat her twice.
I did really toss the idea of backing her around a lot but her good-looking draw proved the clincher.
Sabalenka is seeded third with the other big seeds in her half being Naomi Osaka, Bianca Andreescu and Serena Williams. All look opposable.
Osaka has again struggled to replicate her hardcourt form on clay, losing early in both Madrid and Rome to Karolina Muchova and Jessica Pegula respectively.
The other two look woefully short of match practice with Andreescu having played two events since leaving Australia in February. The injury-prone Canadian quit both.
As for Williams, she’s played only two tournaments since the Australian Open, both on clay. The 39-year-old has won one match and lost two.
In short, this is a great opportunity for Sabalenka, whose form suggests she is capable of grabbing it with both hands.
Perhaps her biggest test will come in round one when she faces in-form qualifier Ana Konjuh. The former top-20 star was runner-up in Belgrade last week and then a straight-sets winner in all three qualifying matches.
However, if she comes through that – and she’ll be a strong favourite to do so – the draw doesn’t hold too many concerns with plenty of the other big names having struggled with injury and/or form. I’m thinking Elena Rybakina, Victoria Azarenka, Peta Kvitova and Madison Keys.
In this half of the draw I’m also going to pick a longer shot given the question marks surrounding those established stars.
PAULA BADOSA is a player who, unlike Osaka and Andreescu, the big seeds in her quarter, is happy on the clay.
And she’s been racking up the wins on the surface in recent weeks so will arrive full of confidence.
Badosa isn’t just your archetypal clay grinder either – she has weapons which can take the game to an opponent.
Having been promoted to 33rd seed and subsequently moved in the draw following Alison Riske’s withdrawal, Badosa now looks a significant hurdle in Osaka’s path. The duo could meet in round three.
She’s already beaten Barty in Charleston on the clay where she made the last four. The Spaniard was also a semi-finalist in Madrid before she grabbed her first WTA title in Belgrade.
Her price has shortened up but given the section of the draw she’s in, I still feel there’s some juice in the 25/1.
Finally it’s back to the top half where 66/1 about COCO GAUFF looks too big.
The American, who starred at Wimbledon in 2019 but is still only 17, has really taken to the clay in 2021 and will be one player Barty and Swiatek will be wary of.
Gauff beat Sabalenka and Maria Sakkari during her semi-final run in Rome, where she lost a pretty close contest to Swiatek, and she followed that up by winning the title in Parma.
The teenager could face Barty in the last 16 here which would be a match to relish.
Maybe Gauff will fall short tactically in such a battle but she does have the ability to mix up her game and cause trouble for her opponents with her unpredictability.
I’m happy to pay a small fee to find out if, like Sabalenka, she’s ready to take that next step on the road to stardom.
Posted at 1000 BST on 29/05/2021
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