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French Open 2022 — With early exits of Barbora Krejcikova, Naomi Osaka and others, a huge opportunity emerges for rising stars

French Open 2022 — With early exits of Barbora Krejcikova, Naomi Osaka and others, a huge opportunity emerges for rising stars
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The look of disappointment was obvious all around the grounds at Roland Garros during the first two days of play. So Jabeur. Garbine Muguruza. Naomi Osaka. Anett Kontaveit.

And defending champion Barbora Krejcikova.

With play suspended on every other court due to rain on Monday afternoon, all eyes were on No. 2-ranked Krejcikova in her opening-round match against French teenager Diane Parry as they played under the roof at Philippe-Chatrier.

Krejcikova looked more than comfortable with the attention and in her role as favorite. After a double fault to open the match, she quieted her nerves and took control. She won the next 15 points and eventually jumped out to command a 6-1, 2-0 lead.

And then everything fell apart.

Parry found her way back into the match and Krejcikova, who had been sidelined for three months prior to the French Open with a right elbow injury, won only three more games. Krejcikova became just the third defending champion at Roland Garros to lose in the first round.

« You know, I just think I just collapsed physically, » she said during a tearful press conference.

She had arrived in Paris ahead of the 2021 tournament unseeded and known as a doubles specialist, and over the past year has emerged as one of the most recognizable faces on tour.

Still, with the surging newly crowned Madrid Open champion Jabeur and 2016 French Open victor Muguruza very much in contention on her side of the draw, as well as world No. 5 Kontaveit and four-time major winner Osaka, it was clear her road back to the final would be a challenging one.

But, in a not-so-surprising twist for women’s tennis, all of those players were sent home before the first round was over. Each looked dejected as they quickly packed up their bags and walked off the court, knowing they had let an opportunity slip past them.

« Obviously I’m a little bit disappointed because I was expecting myself to go far in this tournament, » Jabeur told on Sunday.

Jabeur’s disappointment, and that of her eliminated peers, could result in a career-making opportunity: That half of the draw is now wide open, without a French Open champion. And a rising star such as Maria Sakkari, Amanda Anisimova, Coco Gauff or Belinda Bencic could be there to take advantage of it.

None of those four players have ever reached a major final before. But now each could do exactly that.

And Roland Garros would be a good place to do it — the previous six women’s champions have all been first-time major winners.

Make no mistake, though: World No. 1 Iga Swiatek, on the opposite side of the draw, remains the overwhelming favorite to win the title. Her 6-2, 6-0 first-round win over Lesia Tsurenko on Monday marked her 29th straight victory. The 20-year-old hasn’t lost since February and has won five titles along the way, including four at the 1000-level.

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There’s dominating and then there’s Swiatek.

But, of course, assuming everything goes to plan, Swiatek still has to play — and beat — someone in the final in order to hoist her second Suzanne-Lenglen cup. The question is: Who will seize this chance and play on championship Saturday in Paris?

After Jabeur and Muguruza’s losses on Sunday, Sakkari became the betting favorite from her half of the draw to win the title according to Caesars Sportsbook, with the third-best odds in the event (behind only Swiatek and 2018 champion Simona Halep, who plays in her opening-round match on Tuesday).

The 26-year-old Sakkari, currently ranked No. 3, won the lone WTA title of her career on clay at the Morocco Open in 2019 and made her breakthrough at a Slam by reaching the semifinals at Roland Garros in 2021. She went on to reach the semis at the US Open and the final at Ostrava before the year was over and has said the run at Roland Garros was the turning point.

« I don’t really think about what happened in 2021 but of course it was the start of, you know, a different journey for my career, » Sakkari said on Sunday. « I started, I have said many times, believing more in myself after what happened here. »

That momentum and confidence has carried into 2022. She reached the final at Indian Wells in March, where she lost to Swiatek, and recorded a quarterfinal appearance in Rome leading into the French Open. Sakkari made quick work of Clara Burel in her opener on Sunday with a 6-2, 6-3 victory. But her next match likely won’t be as easy. She is scheduled to take on Karolina Muchova, the 2021 Australian Open semifinalist, on Wednesday, and a win could result in a potential third-round clash with Anisimova.

Anisimova, who has the second-best odds from that side of the draw to win the title, opened her 2022 French Open with a statement victory over Osaka on Monday. The 20-year-old had spoiled Osaka’s title defense at the Australian Open earlier this year in the third round, and she proved the victory was no fluke. Anisimova reached the semifinals in Paris in 2019 and trails only Jabeur for the most tour-level wins on clay this season thanks to a semifinal run on the green clay at Charleston and quarterfinal appearances in Madrid and Rome.

« It’s good going into this tournament knowing that I was so close back [in 2019]and just having a very good run, so I know it’s in me, » Anisimova said on Monday. « I just have a lot of confidence right now with all the tournaments that I have played so far. »

Anisimova, who reached the French Open junior final in 2016, will next face Donna Vekic in the second round.

Like Anisimova, Gauff also reached the French Open junior final, but she did her one better and won the title in 2017. Since then the now-18-year-old has had some of her best results on the European clay. She notched her second career singles title on the surface at the Emilia-Romagna Open in 2021, and followed it up by reaching her first major quarterfinals at Roland Garros.

During her first-round match on Sunday, she held off a challenging start from Rebecca Marino for a 7-5, 6-0 victory. She’ll next face Alison Van Uytvanck, who was losing to Ann Li before Li had to retire with injury. Gauff, the No. 18 seed, wouldn’t face another seeded player until at least the fourth round. The expectations for Gauff have been sky-high since she arrived on the professional scene, and this could very well be her best chance yet to make a serious major title run.

Bencic, a 2019 US Open semifinalist, has already proven she can win on the big stage with her gold-medal winning performance in Tokyo last summer. She’s never advanced past the third round in Paris, but she won the first clay title of her career in April in Charleston.

« To show that I can do it in [the] Olympics and I can do it here on the clay, it’s like a big challenge that I’ve overcome in myself and it helps me going forward, » Bencic said in Charleston.

The momentum has carried into her 2022 French Open campaign — she routed Luca Jani »>Reka Luca Jani, 6-1, 6-1, in her opener. And Bencic doesn’t have to wait long to test her current level as she will take on a resurgent Bianca Andreescu, the 2019 US Open champion, in the second round.

Andreescu is one of six former major champions remaining in this side of the draw, along with Petra Kvitova, Angelique Kerber, Emma Raducanu, Victoria Azarenka and Sloane Stephens — all of whom would relish the chance to win their first trophy at Roland Garros. As would Leylah Fernandez, who reached the final at the US Open in September, and a slew of other talented players of varying levels of success.

What will happen in the second round, and beyond, is anyone’s guess but one thing is for certain: Someone will have the chance of a lifetime in less than two weeks.

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