ROME: File photo shows Romania's Simona Halep poses with her trophy after winning the final match of the Women's Italian Open against Czech Republic's Karolina Pliskova, who pulled out following injury, at Foro Italico on September 21, 2020 in Rome, Italy. - AFP

PARIS: Former champion Simona Halep arrives at the rescheduled French Open as the player to beat in a women's draw missing title holder Ashleigh Barty and recent US Open winner Naomi Osaka, two of the world's top three. Serena Williams can never be discounted as she launches another bid for a record-equalling 24th Grand Slam singles crown, but Roland Garros is the American's least successful major despite her wins in 2002, 2013 and 2015.

Garbine Muguruza, who defeated Williams in the 2016 final, is another contender while fellow former world number one Victoria Azarenka is hoping to take the momentum from her run to the US Open final into the clay swing. Last year's runner-up Marketa Vondrousova will again target a deep run in Paris having rediscovered some form at last week's Italian Open, where she made the semi-finals before losing to compatriot Karolina Pliskova.

The fourth-ranked Czech retired from the final with a thigh injury after dropping the first set to Halep, who extended her winning run to 14 matches after capturing a second consecutive title coming out of lockdown. Pliskova, the second seed in Paris, said Halep was undoubtedly the favourite for a tournament pushed back from its traditional spring slot for the first time in its history due to the coronavirus.

"I think she's going to be the (top) favourite from the women's tournament, because I think also the way she played, she played already (won) Prague on clay. She won this tournament. "So I feel like she's confident. For sure she's going to be dangerous. "I know the weather is not looking that great in Paris, so I think the conditions just to like play aggressive game against her is going to be quite tough."

Halep, who also won in Dubai before the five-month tour suspension, spent the break working hard on her fitness, but said the global health crisis had given her a fresh outlook on tennis. "I'm more mature, I think. The pandemic got me in a place that I really dreamed to be," she told WTA Insider. "I am more relaxed because I could see that the most difficult things are in life in general, not in sport."

No woman has successfully defended the French Open title since Justine Henin won three times in a row between 2005 and 2007, a trend set to continue with Barty pulling out over the coronavirus fears that also prompted her to skip the US Open. A sore hamstring has sidelined three-time Grand Slam champion Osaka, while Bianca Andreescu, the 2019 US Open winner, will miss the tournament as well. The Canadian hasn't played since hurting her knee last October at the WTA Finals.

Despite the notable absentees, the field here is stronger than the US Open where six of the world's top 10 players skipped the event, with the return of Halep, Elina Svitolina, Kiki Bertens and Belinda Bencic. "As I said always, many girls from the top 10, top 15 have a chance to win a Grand Slam," said Halep.

"Roland Garros is very open, because it's clay court but it's a little bit faster, so also the big hitters can win it easy." The Romanian holds a 20-2 record this season and is unbeaten since January -- her only losses came to Aryna Sabalenka in Adelaide and Muguruza in the Australian Open semi-finals. But she added: "I cannot think about winning the title in Roland Garros, because the tournament didn't start yet. But I will give my best. I will dream for it, for sure."

As for Williams, who turns 39 on Saturday, she has not added to her Grand Slam haul since winning the 2017 Australian Open while pregnant. The window of opportunity is closing for her to finally match Margaret Court's total, with an unmistakeable sense of an opportunity gone begging after her semi-final exit at Flushing Meadows. Williams withdrew from last week's Rome event with an Achilles strain, meaning she will arrive in the French capital without having played on clay this year. - AFP