The last few years of women’s tennis have been a glorious free-for-all. The hole left by Serena Williams, who retired almost a year ago, was too big for any one competitor to fill. Instead, it felt like the entire tour upped their game in her absence, leading to some of the most entertaining tennis you’ll see anywhere.
But three women have started separating themselves from the rest. The three reigning Grand Slam champions — Iga Swiatek, Aryna Sabalenka, and Elena Rybakina — have essentially lived in the final rounds over the past year. They’ve won a combined seven titles in 2023, and it’s only May. Whether it’s on the tour or at a Grand Slam, chances are at least one of them makes it to the quarterfinals or further. And that means Swiatek, Sabalenka, and Rybakina have started to play each other more often. That leads to healthy rivalries, and if all three women can continue to play high-level tennis, perhaps even a Big Three situation.
While a women’s Big Three is an attractive narrative, the sheer amount of talent on the women’s tour may not allow it to become a reality. The rest of the top 10 isn’t a group of also-rans, any of them could win a Grand Slam, including the French Open, which begins in earnest on Sunday. It’s hard to build a narrative when everything is so unpredictable, and maybe that’s for the best. Narratives are boring, and women’s tennis definitely isn’t that.
Who to watch at the 2023 French Open
The biggest question for Swiatek coming into the French Open is her health. The 2022 champion retired from her Italian Open quarterfinal match a few weeks ago with a thigh injury, which could have prevented her from competing at Roland Garros. Fortunately, it wasn’t serious and she spent the unexpected off days recovering and relaxing — something she’s rarely gotten to do this year due to the WTA’s tighter schedule. Swiatek isn’t looking quite as dominant as she did last year at this time, when she was on an absolutely ridiculous win streak, but she doesn’t need to be unbeatable to win the French Open. She just has to play her game.
Sabalenka started the year off right. She beat Elena Rybakina to win the Australian Open in January, finally securing her first Grand Slam trophy. From there she just kept rolling, making it to the final at Indian Wells (where she lost to Rybakina), the final at the Stuttgart Open (she lost to Swiatek), and the Madrid Open final, where she won. The biggest change in her game has been control — at six feel tall, she generates an enormous amount of power, which had been hard for her to rein in at times. But now that she’s got a handle on that, she’s been seeing success after success. A strong showing at Roland Garros would get her closer to taking over that No. 1 spot.
It’s taken Rybakina a bit of time to build steam after her victory at Wimbledon in 2022. The tournament did not award ranking points due to the banishment of Russian and Belarusian players, so Rybakina, then ranked somewhere in the mid-teens, didn’t get the normal rankings bump that winning a Grand Slam typically provides. But since she made the Australian Open finals in January, she’s been rolling. She beat both Swiatek and Sabalenka on her way to winning Indian Wells in March, made it to the finals at the Miami Open, and won the Italian Open just before Roland Garros. She’s now the No. 4 women’s tennis player in the world, which is right where she belongs.
Pegula has never won a Grand Slam and has won just two singles titles in her career, which seems impossible for the woman ranked No. 3 in the entire world. It’s been a slow climb to the top for Pegula, but now she’s nearly at the top. She’s been close to winning a Grand Slam several times, but has never made it past the quarterfinals at any of them. But maybe things will change at Roland Garros. Pegula has been racking up semifinals appearances on the WTA 1000, and got a chance to rest thanks to an early ouster in Rome. She’ll need a good showing over the next two weeks to hang onto her No. 3 spot.
Gauff loves playing on the clay of Roland Garros. She made it to the quarterfinals in 2021 in just her second French Open appearance, and one year later made the final and competed with Iga Swiatek, who was in the midst of a historic winning streak. She lost, but In the year since she’s gone from talented upstart ranked No. 23 in the world to a legitimate, serious contender ranked at No. 6. She’s gotten better every year she’s played Roland Garros, and there’s no reason why this year can’t be the same.
After making it to the Wimbledon and US Open finals in 2022, Ons Jabeur has struggled in 2023. Jabeur, who is the most successful pro tennis player to come out of Tunisia and the whole of the African continent, recently said that her goal is to win a major and “realize the dream of an entire continent.” That’s a lot of pressure for one person.
Doubles partners Coco Gauff and Jess Pegula have been doing big things together. They’re ranked No. 2 in the world and just made it to the final of the Italian Open. With Gauff’s proficiency on clay, these two have a great chance to win it all in Paris.
Who won’t be at Roland Garros
The 2021 US Open champion had “minor” procedures on both her wrists and one of her ankles in early May, and announced that she would miss the French Open and Wimbledon while she rehabs. The procedures are supposed to fix issues that had been bothering her for quite some time, so we may see a much improved Emma Raducanu at the US Open this fall.
Halep has been suspended since Oct. 2022 due to a positive drug test. She’s been appealing the ruling against her, but the International Tennis Integrity Agency recently filed a separate doping charge against her. It may be a long, long while before we see her on the court again.
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