PARIS • Former champion Simona Halep arrives at the rescheduled French Open as the player to beat in a women's draw missing title holder Ashleigh Barty and US Open champion Naomi Osaka.
Two of the world's top three women's tennis players will not be in Paris, while world No. 7 Bianca Andreescu and 10th-ranked Belinda Bencic will also be giving the Grand Slam a miss.
That makes Halep the heavy favourite to add a second French Open title to her Grand Slam cabinet when the tournament starts tomorrow.
The world No. 2 is brimming with confidence on the back of a 14-match winning streak and fighting fit, having skipped the US hard-court swing due to Covid-19 fears.
She has spent the past few weeks honing her game on clay and recent titles in Prague and Rome appear to vindicate her decision not to play at Flushing Meadows.
The Romanian believes she is better placed, both physically and mentally, to challenge for her third Slam title overall.
"It is different (this year). It is true that I am fresher," said Halep, who faces Spain's Sara Sorribes Tormo in the first round. "Of course, I did work hard at home but I didn't have many matches, so my body is not that used... And with these matches (I won), I also feel confident. So it's a better chance."
But the tag of being the woman to beat does not sit well with her.
Before tasting success at Roland Garros two years ago, she had lost three Slam finals, including against Jelena Ostapenko in 2017 at the same venue as the Latvian pulled off a big upset for her maiden Major. So Halep is determined to put no extra pressure on herself at this year's event, which she describes as "just another tournament".
"I've played really well this year with three titles (including Dubai in March) already," the Wimbledon champion said. "I've played so much on clay, so I feel confident... I'll just be happy to take positives from this (Rome) tournament and go there smiling... and try to win every match I play. Every match is a battle, I am ready for it.
"As I said always, many girls from the top 10, top 15 have a chance to win a Grand Slam. Roland Garros is very open, because it's clay court but it's a little bit faster, so also the big hitters can win it easy.
Others to watch
MARKETA VONDROUSOVA, 21 (CZE)
• World ranking: 19
• Best Slam result: Finalist, French Open 2019
• Best French Open result: 2019
Last year's runner-up will again target an extended run in Paris, having rediscovered some form at last week's Italian Open, where she reached the semi-finals.
ELINA SVITOLINA, 26 (UKR)
• World ranking: 5
• Best Slam result: S-finals (Wimbledon, US Open, both 2019)
• Best French Open result: Q-finals (2015, 2017)
She has been focused on Roland Garros since last month, after skipping the US Open over Covid-19 concerns. She progressed to the last eight in Rome and has two quarter-final appearances in Paris in the past five years.
VICTORIA AZARENKA, 31 (BLR)
• World ranking: 14
• Best Slam result: Winner (Australian Open 2012, 2013)
• Best French Open result: S-final (2013)
Not many fancied Azarenka to be the player to beat after the WTA Tour restarted but she is one of the most in-form players, having reached two finals in New York before making a quarter-final run in Rome.
GARBINE MUGURUZA, 26 (ESP)
• World ranking: 15
• Best Slam result: Winner (French Open 2016, Wimbledon 2017)
• Best French Open result: 2016
The Venezuela-born player returns to the venue of her maiden Grand Slam win after an impressive semi-final run in Rome, where she showed her game is best suited for clay. It is not easy to break her serve on her favoured surface and she has also improved her game at the net.
"I cannot think about winning the title in Roland Garros, because the tournament didn't start yet. But I will give my best. I will dream for it, for sure."
While she feels that this year's French Open remains as open as ever, her peers think otherwise.
World No. 4 Karolina Pliskova, who is still gunning for her maiden Major, is tipping Halep to make a deep run at an event where she has reached the last eight and beyond four times in the past six years.
"The way she's played... of course, she's going to be the most favourite from the women's tournament," the Czech said. "So I feel like she's confident.
"For sure, she's going to be dangerous. I know the weather is not looking that great in Paris, so I think the conditions just to like play aggressive game against her is going to be quite tough."
Pliskova's record in Paris is not great - she only once progressed past the third round - but there are other serious contenders in the absence of world No. 3 Osaka and top-ranked Barty. While Roland Garros is Serena Williams' least successful Major with three victories here, the former world No. 1 can never be discounted ahead of another record-equalling 24th Slam singles title bid. But she has had zero competitive clay matches leading up to this event.
Spaniard Garbine Muguruza, who defeated the American in the 2016 final here, is another contender and fellow former world No. 1 Victoria Azarenka of Belarus is hoping to carry the momentum from her run to the US Open final to clay.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS