Favourite Swiatek faces Barty challenge in Roland Garros defence


FILE PHOTO: Tennis - Poland's Iga Swiatek celebrates with the trophy after winning the Italian Open final against Czech Republic’s Karolina Pliskova - Foro Italico, Rome, Italy - May 16, 2021. REUTERS/Guglielmo Mangiapane

(Reuters) - Iga Swiatek has been marked as the favourite to add a second French Open trophy to her cabinet but the teenager's title defence is likely to face a formidable challenge from world number one Ash Barty.

The Pole set Roland Garros' red clay on fire when she became the youngest woman to win the title since Monica Seles in 1992 and the first to do so without dropping a set since Justine Henin in 2007, losing just 28 games during the fortnight.

Her preparations for this year's claycourt major has been ideal as she captured the WTA 1000 title in Rome this month - thrashing former No. 1 Karolina Pliskova 6-0 6-0 in the final - and has now won two of the three biggest events on clay.

"The way she plays, very much a claycourt player with power. Even though she's only 19-years-old, she still is the favourite," Eurosport pundit Mats Wilander told Reuters.

"That's a new situation for us. In tennis, men or women, we haven't had that for a long, long time where a teenager after they won the first one is still the favourite to win the second one, even though she's only 19. So that's very exciting."

Swiatek's last defeat on clay came in the WTA 1000 event in Madrid against Australian Barty, who elected not to defend her 2019 French Open title last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Barty showed her grit and guile in Madrid to take down Swiatek, who will turn 20 on Monday, in straight sets before falling to hard-hitting Belarusian Aryna Sabalenka in the final.

The 25-year-old Barty pulled out from the quarter-finals in Rome with a muscle strain in her serving arm this month but remains the bookmakers' second favourite for Paris and a second Grand Slam title.

"Besides Swiatek I think that Ash Barty can win the title. I'm not sure if there's anybody else that can win the title," said Wilander, who won three of his seven Grand Slam singles trophies in Paris.

"Barty even on a very bad day finds a way to win matches. But if Swiatek plays her best tennis there's only two or three players that can beat her and I don't think Barty's one of them.

"But I do think there could be a big-hitter that can maybe beat her on a given day but that big-hitter does not go past Barty after that."

Second-ranked Naomi Osaka has been unparalleled in recent years when it comes to success on hard courts but she has never been considered a serious contender at Roland Garros, having never gone past the third round in her four appearances.

The Japanese has won four out of the last six hardcourt majors and returns to Paris this year having skipped the 2020 edition, wanting to prove that she can adjust her game to achieve her goal of becoming a dominant player on all surfaces.

With former champion Simona Halep ruled out due to a leg injury, Sabalenka is expected to post the biggest threat to Swiatek and Barty but the world number four has to find a way to harness her power on the dirt.

Serena Williams will also be determined to prove she is still in the mix for the biggest titles in the sport.

But the 39-year-old American, who lost four Grand Slam finals in 2018 and 2019, might struggle in her bid to win a record-equalling 24th major title at Roland Garros having failed to get past the last 16 in her last three appearances.

"I would say that Roland Garros is the most difficult because it requires her to be at the top on the physical side and it doesn't highlight her qualities in the same way," her long-time coach Patrick Mouratoglou told Reuters last week.

"But I think on the other surfaces she will have her chance."

(Reporting by Sudipto Ganguly in Berhampore, India; editing by Pritha Sarkar)

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