The Italian Open is usually the appetiser before the French Open. The last chance for players to hone their clay skills in preparation for the second Grand Slam of the year.
Things are a little different in 2021 with the French Open pushed back a week due to Covid-19 restrictions in France and a smattering of build-up tournaments now following the Italian Open. However, what happened in Rome – one of the biggest events of the clay swing – could still be significant for Paris, especially with several injuries and surprising results.
So who is trending up after their showing at the Italian Open and whose chances of victory in Paris have faded slightly?
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Injuries shake up women’s draw as Swiatek shines
Before the Italian Open there looked to be four strong contenders to win the French Open on the women’s side: world No 1 Ashleigh Barty, world No 3 Simona Halep, Aryna Sabalenka, and defending champion Iga Swiatek.
Barty and Sabalenka had been the standout players of the clay season while Halep has enjoyed success before in Paris and Swiatek stormed to the title last year.
But what about now?
Barty had to pull out of her quarter-final against Coco Gauff with an arm injury, saying the "pain was becoming too severe" to continue. Halep suffered a calf tear and has travelled back to Romania for recovery, with her last social media post showing her with strapping around her leg and holding a crutch. And Sabalenka was surprisingly beaten by Gauff in straight sets in the last 16.
The only one who is firmly trending up is Swiatek, who, after losing to Barty at the Madrid Open, saved two points against Barbora Krejcikova in the round of 16 in Rome, won her quarter-final and semi-final on the same day, and then destroyed Karolina Pliskova in the final. Her record on clay is remarkable: she has only played seven tour-level events on the surface and made the final or better at three of them, including winning the French Open without dropping a set last year. Victory in Rome also moves the 19-year-old into the top 10 in the world and she is certainly going to be one of the favourites in Paris.
Barty's status remains somewhat uncertain due to her injury, but she said that pulling out of the Italian Open was a precaution and she was hopeful she will be "good to go" in Paris after two weeks of recovery. If she is fully healthy then she will also be one of the top contenders considering her impressive clay form - and a rematch with Swiatek is a tantalising prospect.
‘Old guys’ show they are still the ones to beat
What would a Rome final be without Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic? Either one or both of them have reached the final every year since 2005 and Nadal got the better of their 57th encounter to win the Italian Open for a 10th time.
Before the match Djokovic said they had joked that “the old guys are still not giving up” – and it would be brave to bet against both of them not making the final in Paris. Both have looked vulnerable at times over the clay season, especially Djokovic, but for Nadal this is his biggest tournament every year and a chance to move clear in the all-time Grand Slam standings.
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Djokovic, who said he thinks him and Nadal are showing “some different, fresh energy” as they try to hold off the next generation, has made it clear that peaking for Grand Slams is now his main focus. It would take a huge performance for him to add to his total in Paris, given Nadal’s stunning record at the tournament, but, after a slow start to the clay swing, he will surely be in the conversation at the end of the second week.
There's also another 'old guy' joining the party in Paris as Roger Federer is poised to enter for only the second time in the last six years. Federer will return to action at the Geneva Open this week and then play at the French Open as he looks to build up fitness ahead of the grass season.
Star names likely to struggle
The main contenders for the titles in Paris look set, but who is going to challenge them?
There aren’t many in the WTA top 10 who look as though they are going to pose a serious threat to Barty, Swiatek and Sabalenka. World No 2 Naomi Osaka showed she is still trying to find her best form on clay as she lost her opening match while world No 5 Sofia Kenin and 23-time Grand Slam Serena Williams also failed to win a match. Only Pliskova seemed to improve her chances with a run to the final, but she clearly enjoys Rome – having made the final for the last three years – and at Paris she has only made it past the third round once.
The field looks far stronger on the men’s side, even if world No 2 Daniil Medvedev reinforced his position as a sitting duck in Paris. His plea of "please default me" during his loss to Aslan Karatsev was amusing, but his record on clay - eight defeats in his last nine matches - is not so much of a laughing matter. Stefanos Tsitsipas and Alexander Zverev remain the biggest challengers to Djokovic and Nadal, despite losing to them in the quarter-finals in Rome, while Dominic Thiem could be playing his way back into form after nearly two months off.
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