Trying to find some value in the French Open men’s draw has long been a tiresome task, as readers of my 2019 preview will know.
However, the women’s field usually looks much more open – even in some of the years Serena Williams was winning, she was still going off at a half-decent price – and that’s the case again this year.
Defending champion Simona Halep starts as only a warm favourite at 4/1. Kiki Bertens comes next at 7/1 and it’s 12/1 bar.
As you can probably guess from those prices, it’s not too hard to pick holes in some of the market leaders and there looks every chance of a big-priced winner or finalist emerging. Remember it is only two years ago that Jelena Ostapenko claimed the title here having been sent off a three-figure price.
My approach is two-fold. I’ll take one from towards the head of the market, a quality player who I feel has a solid title chance, and supplement that selection with three long shots who might just follow in Ostapenko’s footsteps.
First things first and Sloane Stephens gets the leading pick at a tasty 16/1.
Last year’s beaten finalist has a knack of saving her best performances for the biggest events.
The 2017 US Open champion played some highly impressive tennis here 12 months ago, destroying suggestions that clay wasn’t for her.
She must have left thinking she should have added a second Grand Slam title to her CV given she was a set and a break up on Halep but things got away from her.
Having also won Miami, Stephens pushed on to finish the season among the world’s top eight (a runners-up finish at another big event in Montreal helping) and duly went on to finish second in the WTA Finals in Singapore.
This season hasn’t been as successful to date and some disappointing results resulted in the American adding renowned coach Sven Groeneveld to her team at the start of this month.
I’m often wary of backing players who have only recently changed coach – new ideas can take a while to be implemented – but Groeneveld had an immediate impact with Stephens claiming her best result of the season in Madrid where she made the semi-finals.
The fact she is also recently engaged to be married adds further weight to the theory that she’s happy with how things are going right now.
The first-round defeat in Rome to Johanna Konta just a few days later can be excused given the change in conditions and I’m happy to back Stephens at 16/1 in the expectation that she will once again deliver when it really matters.
A decent draw gives her a chance to play herself into the tournament and while Elina Svitolina (poor form) and Bertens potentially lie in wait before the semi-finals (where Karolina Pliskova is her scheduled opponent), that second week is still far from the worst imaginable.
I do like Bertens as a claycourt player but despite her recent win in Madrid, I still feel she’s got another hurdle to overcome in terms of winning a Grand Slam.
Her pacy serve was helped by the altitude in Madrid, which always plays a lot faster than Paris.
As for Halep, a solid favourite for Roland Garros should really be winning one her warm-up events but she missed out in both Madrid and Rome.
Rome champion Karolina Pliskova, Petra Kvitova and Naomi Oaska all have pretty poor records at Roland Garros, so of the front-runners I’m happy with Stephens.
Moving on to the dark horses, I do like the look of Petra Martic at 100/1.
The Croatian has been churning out the claycourt wins of late, reaching the semis in Charleston, winning her first tour-level title in Istanbul and making the last eight in Madrid.
Former Roland Garros champion Garbine Muguruza and Belinda Bencic have been among her victims during that run, one which has once again shown her propensity for the clay – a quality often lacking in some of the bigger names of the women’s game.
Two years ago, Martic made the fourth round here as a qualifier, taking out both Madison Keys and Anastasija Sevastova. She should also have beaten Elina Svitolina but lost from 5-2 up in the deciding set.
She’s in the bottom half of the draw and could prove a really awkward customer for Pliskova in round three.
With other leading seeds in the quarter being Angelique Kerber and Caroline Wozniacki, who are both battling injury issues at the moment, Martic could really be in business if she makes it through to the last 16.
Maria Sakkari is another with similarly good form to that of Martic and also makes the coupon at 45/1.
The Greek is fresh off a run to the semi-finals in Rome where Kvitova and Anett Kontaveit were among her victims. That added to a quarter-final appearance in Charleston where Bertens was an eyecatching scalp, and her title success in Rabat, where she defeated in-form Briton Konta in the final.
While we’re here I’ll mention and respect Konta’s chances after some impressive clay successes in recent weeks, but the value in her price has gone. If you are on at 100s, fair play, but 45/1 is not for me.
Back to Sakkari and she’s landed in what could be a tricky top quarter but top seed Osaka won’t be relishing playing her in the third round. Indeed many bigger names will be hoping to avoid the in-form Athenian, who does have the ability to hit winners even on a slow court.
Finally, this could just be the time for another teenage rampage.
Rafael Nadal won the first of his titles here at 19 and American Amanda Anisimova has similar fearless qualities about her at just 17.
The youngest player in the world’s top 100 – someone I highlighted as ‘one to watch’ at the start of the season – is yet to make a breakthrough at the highest level on clay but the signs are that it is coming.
She won in a fairly low-level WTA event in Bogota last month, and if you can compete on the clay of South America you are usually capable at Roland Garros.
Most recently she gave Bertens an almighty scare in Rome, losing only 7-5 in the third set.
The seeds in her section of the draw, Aryna Sabalenka and the aforementioned Kontaveit, are both out of form, so this looks to be an opportunity put before her.
Kvitova and Halep, also in the quarter, would be bigger beasts to slay but I’ve already suggested they may be vulnerable and Anisimova’s game could just find that chink in the armour.
She’s got power but also good touch which can be missing in some of her contemporaries.
It’s undoubtedly a tough section of the draw to come through but 80/1 is just about acceptable in the circumstances and I can’t resist a small play.