Simona Halep enters clay court comfort zone as player to beat ahead of French Open
World No 2 and defending Roland Garros champion looks in good form and is set to excel on her favoured surface, starting in Stuttgart
It has been more than three weeks since the WTA Tour left behind the American hard courts for the clay, but only now are the elite players – or most of them at least – set to compete at the same tournament.
After the Miami Open, some made their way to Charleston to begin the clay court swing, others took a break before competing in this past weekend's Fed Cup ties.
While the ATP Tour got their clay-court season fully under way at the Monte Carlo Masters last week, it will not be until the Madrid Open – a Premier Mandatory event starting May 4 – when the WTA Tour will boast their full compliment of top stars.
This week in Stuttgart, however, will see the most competitive line-up of the clay court swing so far, with the world's top five players in the German city, including defending champion Karolina Pliskova.
Come Sunday's final, there should be a clearer indication of the form of many of the top contenders expected to challenge for the French Open title – the second grand slam of the season.
There could also be a change at the top of the rankings and, given the contrasting form of world No 1 Naomi Osaka and No 2 Simona Halep, it would not be a great surprise if the Romanian reclaims top spot.
Japanese 21-year-old Osaka has struggled since winning the Australian Open in January, winning just three matches in as many tournaments. She now enters a part of the season played exclusively on what has traditionally been her weakest surface.
Reigning French Open champion Halep, by comparison, has been in consistent form for much of the year and will compete in what are undoubtedly her strongest surroundings: European clay courts.
After reaching the semi-finals in Miami, Halep adjusted quickly to her return to clay while competing for Romania against France in the Fed Cup this weekend.
A one-sided win over Kristina Mladenovic was followed by a high-quality, three-set victory against Caroline Garcia, which saw Halep bounce back from trailing 0-4 in the opening set to win 6-7, 6-3, 6-4.
Once she had recovered from that slow start, it was vintage Halep: non-stop running, deep and purposeful groundstrokes, and mesmerising passing shots. It was perhaps Halep's best performance of the year against a high-calibre player. She is never going to blast past her opponents, but that has never been a necessity on clay where consistency, angles, and endurance are valued over power.
Remarkably, the WTA Tour is yet to have a repeat winner in 2019, and with Halep yet to lift a trophy this season, that could well continue after Stuttgart. Given the high-quality field, her route to the final is far from straightforward, with Dubai champion Belinda Bencic and world No 7 Kiki Bertens both potential third-round opponents.
World No 3 Petra Kvitova, seventh seed Anastasija Sevastova and 2017 French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko are possible semi-final rivals, while the likes of Osaka, Pliskova, and world No 5 Angelique Kerber contest the top half of the draw.
Even if Halep does not end her wait for a trophy this week, upcoming tournaments in Madrid and Rome will provide more opportunities. All three events are essentially preparation for the key grand slam of the year for arguably the best female clay court player in the world.
As defending champion at Roland Garros, Halep, 27, has plenty to lose in terms of ranking points if she fails to retain her title. But after reaching the final in Paris for the past two years, experiencing both defeat and victory, few players have proved themselves better equipped to thrive in the French capital.
To ensure Halep once again peaks at Roland Garros, a strong showing in the lead-up tournaments, starting in Stuttgart, will further strengthen her status as the player to beat.
If she maintains the levels she displayed against Garcia on Sunday, Halep can expect a successful clay court run, potentially concluding with a second grand slam title.
Updated: April 23, 2019 11:47 AM