As the WTA heads to Roland Garros and Rome fades into the rearview mirror, so much of what we are about to see in Paris depends on circumstances.
Elina Svitolina, able to successfully defend her Rome title after beating a tired Simona Halep in Sunday’s final, now moves from the everyday rhythm she loves to the every-other-day schedule of play which has been a problem at the majors. Svitolina ought to rate as one of the foremost favorites in France, and her struggles at majors feel a lot more like an oddity than an indicator of future results, but her coming fortnight in the City of Light is a study in being able to adjust to different circumstances.
Halep, who lost to Svitolina in the final, should feel great about her week in Rome. She lost on Sunday after a prolonged battle with Maria Sharapova in which she lost the first set but insisted on writing a different story. It was hard to come back the next day against Svitolina, but Halep reinforced her identity as the most consistent player on the WTA Tour. Caroline Wozniacki won the year’s first major, and Svitolina has been outstanding at the Premier 5 level. Petra Kvitova has collected a bunch of titles this year, but in terms of maintaining a steady level from one week to the next, Halep is currently the WTA’s gold standard. In Paris, Halep won’t have to play Sharapova and Svitolina on consecutive days, so circumstances might point in her favor…
… but not necessarily.
The circumstance everyone on the WTA Tour is afraid of: What if Maria Sharapova is in my section of the draw? Sharapova — whether you think she is fully “back” or not — has at least shown that she has to be taken seriously entering France. Winning Friday’s very long, very contentious, very gripping quarterfinal over defending French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko should certainly give Sharapova all the belief she needs in Paris. Her serve might hit a jagged rock and fail to usher her safely into port, but the pace and potency of her backhand are causes for concern from opponents. Sharapova didn’t play Roland Garros last year. Will this tournament feel like a fresh moment for Sharapova in ways that will liberate her, or will it feel odd to readjust to this reunion at Roland? How she embraces her circumstances — and where she lands in the draw — will both loom large in France.
Petra Kvitova plays well in Madrid because of the way the court plays, and also because Madrid generally offers cooler weather and more shade than tournaments played on more “natural” clay surfaces in more open-air environments. Kvitova — on the two previous occasions when she won Madrid, in 2011 and 2015 — did not go past the fourth round in Paris. She will likely need the right combination of circumstances, chiefly, some early-round opponents who are manageable and no days with searing heat.
That brings up a larger point: Weather is the circumstance everyone on tour will have to deal with in Paris. Hot days make the ball fly on the court, while rainy days slow the court and are therefore more likely to enable someone such as Karolina Pliskova to get to more balls and set up her groundstrokes. Weather also affects the inner game of tennis, the mental battle attached to waiting out high-pressure situations. Last year, French hope Kristina Mladenovic appeared burdened during — and after — rain delays in an interrupted quarterfinal against Timea Bacsinszky, who handled the delays a lot better. Weather — if it washes out a full day of play — will force players to play on consecutive days before then returning to a normal schedule with days off between matches. How players handle that rollercoaster ride will figure into the calculus at Roland Garros.
Circumstances didn’t matter as much when Serena Williams would — in her prime — take the court and shut down everyone else. This is a different WTA Tour — a deeper one, but also one in which there is no single heavyweight. A dozen players come across as legitimate contenders at Roland Garros. The ones who receive — and then properly handle — favorable circumstances are the ones who will make the deepest runs.