Svetlana Kuznetsova is enjoying a great tournament at the 2017 Madrid Open. On Thursday evening in Spain, she faced Eugenie Bouchard in the tournament’s quarterfinals, a match that she defeated the Canadian comprehensively in 6-4, 6-0. Looking ahead to the French Open, I think an argument could be made that Kuznetsova should be regarded as the proper tournament favorite for the clay-court Grand Slam.
Kuznetsova is 31 years old and in many ways, her best days on tour seem to be history. In fact, tennis fans that have only been following this decade might not even be aware of her credentials. The Russian first won a major at the 2004 US Open when she beat Elena Dementieva in the Flushing Meadows final. Kuznetsova would not win another Grand Slam until Roland Garros 2009 when she beat Dinara Safina in the French Open final that season.
Currently, Kuznetsova is considered the 8th favorite for the 2017 French Open title with Paddy Power sportsbook. She’s behind all of Johanna Konta, Elina Svitolina, Karolina Pliskova, Angelique Kerber, Garbine Muguruza, Simona Halep, and Maria Sharapova. For each of those players, you can list pros-and-cons when evaluating their chances at Roland Garros. However, I think the balance of it all would make Kuznetsova the tournament favorite.
With top-favorite Sharapova, she has the two titles at Roland Garros in recent years, but she failed to make the Stuttgart final, and she failed to survive the second round in Madrid – losing to the player that Kuznetsova defeated on Thursday. There were questions regarding how Sharapova would do after her lengthy suspension. Thus far, she’s not looking great, and it’s really hard to treat her as the odds-on favorite to win the clay-court Grand Slam now.
With 2nd-favorite Halep, we have a player that has never actually won a major and she still has just one appearance in any final. Meanwhile, Muguruza’s form has been so atrocious since winning the French Open last year that I can’t even tip her for the fourth round this season with a straight face. Kerber as the fourth favorite is laughable. She’s not playing well in 2017 and, despite the fact that she’ll be No. 1 on Monday again, on year-to-date rankings she’s only about the 12th-best player on tour.
Karolina Pliskova is going through a bad patch of tennis right now. I could still place her as a top-five favorite despite bad results in Stuttgart, Prague, and Madrid. However, Pliskova is known as a big server and clay is known to slow down the big servers a lot. The year-to-date No. 1 might hit a speed bump at the French Open with a maiden Grand Slam title perhaps coming at Wimbledon or the US Open later this season.
I would not call Elina Svitolina under-rated as the 6th favorite to win the French Open. However, I would still place Kuznetsova above the Ukrainian due to the players’ histories. Svitolina has never made the semifinals of any Grand Slam yet. That said, I’m not going to get overly critical of her, because I can see her making the semifinals in Roland Garros this year.
With Konta, I don’t see a player that’s well built for clay-court tennis. She’s on the slight side while most French Open champions are more physically gifted. You slide around a lot in clay, and that puts the leg muscles to the test. Furthermore, the rallies can put the shoulders to the test a bit more, especially since rain doesn’t stop play on all occasions. The ball can get wet and heavier and strong arms for precise shot control certainly help out when that’s the case.
Kuznetsova may not have won a Grand Slam since 2009. However, she is playing well in the short term as attested to by her run to the Indian Wells final and her active result at Madrid, which may include a title this weekend. Kuznetsova has the legs for the sliding, and she has the upper-body strength for any wet conditions as well. You can’t say she lacks the mental fortitude to win a major as she broke down Dementieva’s game in the 2004 US Open. Five years later in the 2009 French Open final, she had the then World No. 1 Safina fighting back tears in a romp.
If Kuznetsova wins Madrid, then I think she’s an emphatic favorite for Roland Garros. Any other result and, pros and cons all weighted, I would still have more confidence in the 2009 champion than anyone else that’s expected in the field.