French Open’s clay court an equalizer for the women’s field

It started with Garbiñe Muguruza beating Serena Williams in the 2016 French Open final.

Jelena Ostapenko’s triumph came in 2017. Then, the following year, the woman Ostapenko beat for the title at Roland Garros, Simona Halep, had her moment. Next it was Ash Barty’s turn and, in 2020, Iga Swiatek’s.

And now Barbora Krejcikova has joined the chat: Her victory at Roland Garros on Saturday made the 25-year-old from the Czech Republic the sixth consecutive first-time Grand Slam champion to earn the women’s singles trophy in Paris.

“Why is it happening? Why so many players are (debut) Grand Slam champions here? I don’t know,” Krejcikova said after her 6-1, 2-6, 6-4 victory over Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova at Court Philippe Chatrier in the singles final. “But I’m happy that I’m part of them.”

She entered an even more exclusive club Sunday by teaming with Katerina Siniakova to beat Swiatek and Bethanie Mattek-Sands 6-4, 6-2 to add a doubles title to her haul. That made Krejcikova the first woman since Mary Pierce in 2000 to collect the singles and doubles championships at the French Open in the same year.

Contrast what’s been happening at the French Open in singles with how many of the past six winners at each of the other major tournaments was a first-time Slam champ: four at the U.S. Open, three at the Australian Open and zero at Wimbledon, where play begins June 28.

Here’s another recent trend Krejcikova is part of: From the start of the Open era in 1968 through 2016 — nearly an entire half-century — there were zero unseeded women’s singles champions at the clay-court major.

Since 2017, though, three of the past five French Open winners were not seeded: Ostapenko was ranked 47th when she won, Swiatek 54th and Krejcikova 33rd.

Why? Well, there are a few plausible explanations, including that the COVID-19 pandemic made everything a little more out of the ordinary for everyone at the past two editions of the tournament, held just eight months apart. That also could help explain why there were six first-time Grand Slam quarterfinalists — including Krejcikova — for the first time at a major in the Open era, and four first-time semifinalists for just the second time.

“This was a crazy, random kind of French Open, wasn’t it?” Chris Evert, who won seven of her 18 major singles title at Roland Garros in the 1970s and 1980s, said in a telephone interview.

There’s no dominant figure on red clay right now, the way Evert was in her day or the men’s game has seen with Rafael Nadal.

And there’s no truly dominant, all-surface superstar in women’s tennis at the moment — the way Williams was at the height of her powers.

But the main reason might just be the red clay itself, which can be something of an equalizer between opponents and lessens the effect of the power that works so well on swifter surfaces.

“You can’t get overpowered on a clay court as much as you can on a grass court or a hard court. … So that brings in another style, with consistency and defensive tennis and running balls down. Players have more time to set up for the ball and meet their targets or to just retrieve balls and still be in the point,” Evert explained. “Serena is like the only player in the last, really, 15 to 20 years who has been able to blast opponents off the clay courts. She was a great clay-court player because she had the offense and defense in her prime.”

That’s why Evert expects a smaller group of title contenders as Grand Slam tennis moves to the grass of Wimbledon.

Past champions such as Williams or Muguruza or Petra Kvitova, a two-time winner at the All England Club, can take advantage of the slickness of the courts there.

“The serve is a big plus on grass, whereas on clay it’s a little bit neutralized. I mean, Barbora didn’t win the French Open with her serve,” Evert said. “But other players can win Wimbledon with their serve.”

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