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Clay continues to create chaos: a French Open recap

Ashleigh Barty defeated Markéta Vondroušová to win the French Open on Saturday. (Photo courtesy of The New York Times.)

Heading into the French Open there were four women with a shot at the top ranking but only one made it to the quarters.

Instead of the favourites, the semi-finals included a player who was playing professional cricket a little over three years ago, two teenagers (including the first person born in the 21st century to make a grand slam semi, and a veteran who had never won in France.

With so much drama leading into the final it was expected to be tight. Australia’s Ashleigh Barty came out firing, winning the first set 6-1 before closing out the match with a 6-3 second set win. A quarterfinal appearance at her home slam saw a rise in confidence for Barty who is now up to number two in the world. Barty has been the best player this year and has now compiled a 31-5 record, which is the most wins and best win percentage on the tour this season.

As disappointing as the loss may have been, Vondrousova continues to climb the rankings. Although only  19 years old, she has risen from outside the top 400 in early 2017. A loss to Konta in the Italian Open quarterfinals ended her run, but the young Czech has shown no fear in Paris. She opened with a match against fifth-ranked Angelique Kerber who was looking to complete the career grand slam. Her straight set win in that match would prove to be a sign of things to come as she had yet to drop a set until the final. With three finals appearances now, this year Vondrousova has jumped all the way up to 16th in the world and on the hunt for her first title.

The other teenager to make a deep run was American Amanda Anisimova, still only 17. A win at the Claro open in April gave Anisimova her first WTA title. The youngster has been on a track for success since being a junior, having won the junior US Open in 2017 and reaching the junior French Open finals in 2016. After starting the year ranked outside the top 80 she has now climbed another 25 spots and is ranked 26th in the world, with no signs of slowing down.

The one veteran to make a deep run in Paris was Johanna Konta.  On the surface the Brit’s run has looked extremely favourable as she as avoided two of the top players that were in her section. However, you can only beat what is in front of you, which was what Konta proceeds to do, losing only one set in her five wins. Heading into Roland Garros, Konta was on a bit of a role on clay. A finals appearance at the Italian Open, as well as another minor WTA clay court event. Two wins over ninth-ranked Sloane Stephens further cemented her career resurgence on clay after never winning in Roland Garros prior to this season.

With all the surprise success comes some surprise failures. The player everyone expected to repeat, if not at least make the finals, was Romania’s ‘Queen of Clay’ Simona Halep. After consecutive finals appearances, including a win last year, Halep was knocked out by Anisimova rather easily 6-2, 6-4. The loss will be costly in the rankings for Halep, who will drop from two to eight after her “early” exit.

While one young American was able to win in the quarters, experienced players Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys were knocked out. After reaching the finals and semi-finals last year in Paris both took a step down and failed to win a set in the quarters between them. Stephens was finding her typical level of success on clay having also reached the semi’s in Madrid. For Keys another major comes and goes where she gets deep but can’t take the final step. Having now reached the quarters at five of the last eight majors and fourth round at six of eight. Both may struggle in Wimbledon, the only stumbling block for Keys the last two years while Stephens has two wins there in her last five years.

Another who is making a late career resurgence is Petra Martic of Croatia. Her third-round win over second-ranked Karolina Pliskova is likely to be one of her career highlights. Martic’s quarter final appearance was the first of her career.  A strong performance in Paris, Istanbul, Charleston and Madrid saw her climb the ranking table to a career high of 24.

The current number one player in the world Naomi Osaka faced her fair share of troubles in Paris. She was taken to three sets in her first two matches before the young Japanese star was taken out by doubles specialist Katerina Siniakova 6-4, 6-2. Fortunately for Osaka she was able to hang onto the top ranking even though four different players had a chance to replace her as world number one.

Petra Kvitova retired before the tournament with a forearm injury while Angelique Kerber lost in the first round after missing her previous two tournaments with an ankle injury. Another player affected by illness was young Dutch star Kiki Bertens who withdrew during her second round match with an illness. The final player with a shot, and possibly the best one was Karolina Pliskova, whose success in Rome made her a favourite until she was knocked out by Konta in the third round.

Surprisingly Serena Williams only played a minor role in Paris. Williams was in search of her 24th grand slam but was knocked out by fellow American Sofia Kenin 6-2, 7-5 in the third round. Kenin is already ranked in the top 30 at the age of 20 and is part of the next big wave of American talent.With Barty taking her turn in the spotlight, she and the rest of the top players will leave clay for the faster grass courts that favour servers in preparation for Wimbledon. Starting on July 1st Serena, Osaka and a host of others will look to redeem themselves, while more youngsters will be waiting and ready to make themselves the next one everyone is talking about.

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