On Thursday, tennis analyst Mary Carillo sat down with On Her Turf to preview the women’s tournament at the French Open. This Q&A has been edited lightly and condensed for clarity.
On Her Turf: Between the US Open earlier this month and the Italian Open last week, what are your takeaways ahead of the French Open?
Mary Carillo: I’m thinking that there’s a big separation between Simona Halep, Garbiñe Muguruza, and Victoria Azarenka — and everyone else, including Serena Williams.
It is no surprise that Simona Halep continues a great streak. She decided against playing in New York on the hard courts and stayed in Europe. It’s such a condensed clay court season, but she already won in Prague, and she won in Rome against a good field. She looks solid. Muguruza also looked very good.
Azarenka, that she was able to go from the [US Open] women’s championship match straight to Rome… she didn’t seem to have a hangover from the [US Open] loss. She’s not somebody you necessarily think of immediately as a great ‘clay-courter,’ but she played great and she could have won that [Italian Open] title.
So after seeing that, and recognizing that Serena Williams hasn’t played a clay court match since the French Open last year, which was at the end of May, and that Serena has likely not been practicing on clay since last year, I think she’s going to have some problems. Even though she is the active women’s player with the most French Open titles – three of them – she will be going up against a lot of clay-courters who’ve been practicing on the surface.
I should also quickly mention that last year’s champion, Ash Barty, isn’t coming. It was a big surprise to me that Ash Barty won last year. And it was a surprise to Ash Barty that her first major title came on clay. So her absence, of course, is significant, but not unexpected. She hasn’t left Australia since the pandemic started.
And Naomi Osaka [also isn’t playing]. Clay is not her best surface… yet. Maybe it will be one day, but it isn’t yet. So, to me, her absence doesn’t feel like that big of a hole in the draw.
The players who are showing up, they know their way around the clay court. And unlike on the men’s side – where [over the last] 15 years, it’s one of three or four guys – on the women’s side, it’s not that way. But I have my favorites.
OHT: Going back to Simona Halep… What is it about her style and approach to the game that makes her a strong clay-court player?
Carillo: Halep grew up on this stuff so it’s her first and best surface. On clay, Halep’s strengths are immediately visible. She is a tremendous mover. She’s in great shape. She understands how to go from offense to defense back to offense. She’s got a great sense of the court and how to navigate it. She cuts into the court when she knows she’s hurt somebody on the other side. Her serve isn’t necessarily a weapon, but it’s hard to break her because her second shot after the return is always solid.
She has great memories of Roland Garros. She lost in a couple of heartbreaking finals, but then when she finally won it [in 2018], it changed her life and it changed her career. And it changed her attitude about who she was as a player. In my mind, she really she deserves to be considered the best clay-court player among all the women, even though she’s only won it once and, again, Serena has won it three times.
OHT: It’s interesting that Serena is going in with more French Open titles than any of the other players, but also the fact that she only has three French Open titles compared to at least six at the other majors. Historically, what has made the French Open less of her tournament than the others?
Carillo: Well, Serena grew up on the hard courts of California. A lot of Americans are much more comfortable on a surface that doesn’t slide under their feet. And Serena is a player whose game is aggression-based, that’s what rewards her. Whether it’s her magnificent serve or the heft of her shots, on clay, a lot of stuff comes back. As well as you might strike a shot, if you’re playing against anybody who knows how to counter-punch… Instead of hitting one winner in a rally, Serena is forced to hit two or three or sometimes four.
OHT: Does the number 24 weigh on her?
Carillo: Absolutely. Not even a question. Sometimes she’ll deny it and sometimes she’ll admit it. I tend to believe her more when she admits it. She’s trying to do a remarkable thing. She’s already made history, now she’s trying to expand upon it.
OHT: Something I find interesting is that, in her return since childbirth, how quickly she reached the finals. But at this point, she’s gone 0-4 in Grand Slam finals—
Carillo: Without winning a set.
OHT: Good point. Statistically, it feels like, ‘Well, Serena has to win one eventually.’ But can you put into perspective the difference between reaching a final and winning a final?
Carillo: For Serena, you know, it’s a failure. She’s been to four finals since she had her baby three years ago. And she’s lost her finals at places where she’s always done so well. She lost [the 2018] Wimbledon final to Angie Kerber, then she lost the US Open final to Naomi Osaka… and then she lost another Wimbledon final to Simona Halep. I had picked Serena for all of these, by the way. And then she lost [the 2019] US Open final to [Bianca] Andreescu.
Serena had so much more experience and so much more success at those fast court majors, I just had it in my head that she would win them… I just feel it weighs so much upon her. And clearly, the other finalists don’t feel all that [pressure]. For them, it’s like, ‘Here’s my shot. Give me the balls, let’s go.’
For Serena, it’s a very different situation. She’s said that, if she could play in the championship matches the way she played to get there, she knows she’d be winning them. Heading into the French Open, will she allow herself to move more freely and hit more freely? We all know it’s not her favorite surface. Maybe that will allow her to settle in a little bit better.
OHT: In terms of up-and-coming women, is there anyone you’ve enjoyed watching recently that you don’t expect to win the French Open – or even necessarily make the quarters or semis – but that you think has a lot of potential for the future?
Carillo: Jen Brady. She has been this summer’s revelation, she has gotten so much better. She moved [from Orlando] to Germany to train. She found a coach and a trainer that she trusted, and she has become fitter, faster, and more confident. Everything about her game has taken such a remarkable leap. She has been the standout of the season.
Shelby [Rogers] has also been great. She got to the quarterfinals of the French Open years ago, but then she had a catastrophic knee surgery that kept her out for a long time. She’s come back fitter, faster, and more confident as well.
And then, [Sofia] “Sonya” Kenin. She won her first major title in Australia [in January] and looked unbelievably strong. But clearly she feels the pressure of her new status because she’s had a pretty rough summer and hasn’t won a lot of matches. She lost love and love [0-6, 0-6] last week in Rome. No one should beat Sonya love and love.
OHT: What are your initial thoughts on the draw?
Carillo: Serena could play Azarenka in the fourth round. That’s just bad, bad luck for both of them. And, by the way, Azarenka has to go through Venus [Williams] in the second round to get to Serena.
The other big news is that Coco Gauff gets [Johanna] Konta first round.
Halep against [2019 French Open semifinalist] Amanda Anisimova would be a third round match. That’s pretty brutal, but I still think Halep gets that in straight [sets].
OHT: In a normal year, the season goes from the French Open on clay to Wimbledon on grass to the US Open hard courts. This year, to have the French Open after the US Open, how does that impact a player’s body? Are there any injury concerns?
Carillo: Changing surfaces, it stresses different muscle systems. If you go from hard courts to clay, where you’re sliding around, or grass courts where you’ve got to bend lower, you start feeling it.
The other difference is the balls; balls change from hard courts to clay courts to grass courts. That can stress out muscle systems as well, and there’s a brand new ball at the French this year. You might have to hit it harder or it might get fluffy… That means that you’ll end up after the first days of practice with a sore elbow or wrist.
OHT: Looking ahead several years… Obviously there are still the Tokyo Olympics next summer, but then Paris will host the Olympics in 2024, and Roland Garros will be the home of the tennis tournament at those Games. In the coming years, do you think we will see more Americans prioritize their clay game?
Carillo: I think the Olympics have become more and more important to the players. The Olympics have become a very big event, and that wasn’t always true in tennis. There were players who didn’t consider it as important as the majors. But I really think that has changed.
Tennis courts these days have become more homogenized. Grass court tennis is a lot slower than it used to be. Clay court tennis has sped up from what it used to be. There are very few players these days who are specialists. You know, if you are a professional tennis player, you’ve got to know how to play everything.
OHT: What did I miss? Any other questions I should have asked?
Carillo: The only other thing… It’s a different time of year. It will get darker and colder earlier. And some players aren’t good cold players.