Simona Halep, Elina Svitolina and others to watch in French Open draw

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The women’s French Open draw is as exciting as ever, with top stars like Simona Halep and Elina Svitolina gunning for a first major and veterans like Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova looking to recapture their Grand Slam-winning form.

Here are some names to look out for over the next fortnight on the red dirt of Roland Garros.

Simona Halep (ROU x1)

The two-time runner-up has unfinished business in Paris, especially after last year’s final where she led by a set and a break before falling to an unseeded Jelena Ostapenko. Is currently one of the top players on clay and is definitely one to beat at Roland Garros.

Elina Svitolina (UKR x4)

Successfully defended her title in Rome last week and once again comes to Paris with lots of confidence. Looking to finally make it to a Slam semi-final for the first time after falling short on three previous occasions. Appears fitter than she’s ever been and is in the less loaded bottom half of the draw.

Caroline Garcia (FRA x7)

The home favourite made quarters in Paris last year and comes to the event this season as the No. 7 seed. Will have the crowd behind her and has a game that can take her all the way if she handles the pressure right.

Maria Sharapova (RUS x28)

The two-time champion snagged a seeding spot at the very last minute by reaching the quarters in Madrid and the semis in Rome this month. Appearing at the French Open for the first time since 2015, Sharapova’s successful history in Paris makes her one to watch this fortnight.

Serena Williams (USA)

Unseeded and ranked 453 in the world, Serena has played just four matches so far this season as she slowly returns from her maternity leave. Has a tough opener against Kristyna Pliskova and many eyes will be on her to see how far along she is in terms of finding her form this comeback. Has a tricky draw with No. 17 seed Ashleigh Barty, No. 11 seed Julia Goerges and Sharapova all potentially in her path.

Serena is 65-1 in Grand Slam first rounds with her sole opening defeat coming at the 2012 French Open to Virginie Razzano.

Jelena Ostapenko (LAT x5)

A year older and wiser, it will be interesting to see how Ostapenko handles being the defending champion at Roland Garros. The 20-year-old showed some decent form en route to the Rome last-eight and has landed in the same quarter of the draw as Svitolina. At stat to note here: There have been just 11 successful title defences at Roland Garros (post-1945) compared to 24 at Wimbledon, 22 at the US Open and 21 at the Australian Open.

Petra Kvitova (CZE x8)

Carrying an 11-match winning streak – on clay – heading into Paris, it’s crazy to think that this time last year, Kvitova was just making her return from a horrifying knife attack that nearly ended her career. Has won back-to-back titles in Prague and Madrid but is still unconvinced she has fully conquered the clay.

Kiki Bertens (NED x18)

The Dutchwoman is as close to a clay specialist as you can get on the women’s tour. On the dirt this season, Bertens won Charleston and was runner-up in Madrid. She is also a former French Open semi-finalist.

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Ernests Gulbis feels he's turning a corner as he qualifies for Roland Garros main draw

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A semi-finalist at Roland Garros four years ago, Ernests Gulbis found himself grinding through the qualifying rounds in Paris this week before he managed to secure a spot in the main draw on Friday.

The Latvian former top-10 player was competing in the qualifying tournament at a Grand Slam for the first time since 2007 and just the third time in his entire career.

He defeated Stephane Robert, Stefano Travaglia and finally Italian lefty Alessandro Giannessi 4-6, 6-4, 6-2 in the third round on Friday to book himself a place in the main draw.

Friday’s affair was an edgy affair that saw a temperamental Gulbis get irritated throughout.

But he survived it and will take on 29th-seeded Gilles Muller in the French Open first round.

“The experience was, it’s tough, it’s really tough to pass qualies because everyone is super-motivated, everybody gives their best. A lot of prize money, it’s not a lot of points but a lot of prize money for the guys, especially those ranked from 100-200. These are the weeks that really make a difference for them, if you win 10 or $20,000 each match, everybody really goes for it and they show their best tennis,” Gulbis told Sport360 of his first Slam qualifying experience in more than 11 years.

“Today I think my opponent played really well, I don’t know how I won to be honest, I just stuck around and was lucky a little bit.”

Currently ranked 162 in the world, Gulbis hasn’t strung together back-to-back wins like this in a long time, and he knows it.

He’s coming off a semi-final appearance in the Bordeaux Challenger last week and feels he could be finally turning a corner after struggling for so long.

“It gives me a boost but I need to recover, I’m not 18 anymore, these long matches they take a lot,” confessed the 29-year-old Gulbis.

“Especially now when I hadn’t had back-to-back matches for a long. I haven’t won three matches in a row, check the statistics, but I think like for two years. And it happened in Bordeaux for the first time, and now here, so hopefully it’s some kind of something is starting. And something is starting, if you win six matches in a short period of time of course something is starting, so we’ll see how I do in the main draw.”

He’s right. Prior to Bordeaux, the last time Gulbis won three matches in a row was in the 2016 French Open – one of which was via retirement.

The Latvian will now have to get himself ready for a showdown with Luxembourg’s Muller on Monday.

Roland Garros is Gulbis’ best Slam, having amassed a 16-11 win-loss record there.

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Egyptian Mohamed Safwat loses in final round of Roland Garros qualifying

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Positives to take: For Egypt's Safwat.

Mohamed Safwat missed out on a chance to qualify for the French Open and become the first Egyptian since 1996 to feature in a Grand Slam main draw, but he is still clinging onto the slim chance of making it as a lucky loser.

Four lucky losers have already made it into the draw and Safwat, who was drawn seventh in the lucky loser lot, will need three more players to withdraw in order to get in.

The 27-year-old lost in the third round of qualifying on Friday to Argentina’s world No. 109 Guido Andreozzi 6-4, 6-4 at on Court 12 at Roland Garros.

Safwat created 11 break points on his opponent’s serve but could only break once throughout the match. The Egyptian world No. 182 saved 10 out of 13 break points before succumbing in one hour and 39 minutes in hot and humid conditions in Paris.

“As a clay-court player, he’s very good. I had a lot of chances to break in the first set, but I was speaking with my coach just now and told him that I think my level went down a bit on the big moments,” Safwat told Sport360 after the match.

“Second set I was up a break. It was small things, I think I stepped down, I was too cautious and my quality went down a bit and against such players if you step down just in one ball he will take it. I think that was the key.”

This is the second time Safwat has fallen at the final hurdle in qualifying at a Grand Slam, having also done so at Wimbledon in 2016.

He has made lots of progress on clay this season – a surface he has historically struggled with – and his achievements in recent weeks included a runner-up showing at a $150k Challenger on clay in Anning, China.

Despite being visibly disappointed over his defeat to Andreozzi on Friday, Safwat sees many positives from his qualifying campaign this week.

“It was a good week for me. I’ve been making a lot of changes on clay, I improved on clay. I had two tough matches before this one, so it was a good week for me. I feel there’s still a long way to go but such matches show you what you need to improve, what you need to do, what’s here, what’s missing, what you need to add to go up,” said Safwat.

Tamer El Sawy is the last Egyptian to contest a Grand Slam main draw, having played in both the French Open and US Open back in 1996.

Safwat knows he’s inching closer and closer to making history for the North African nation but is trying not to get overwhelmed by the magnitude of what he’s targeting.

“Of course it was a bit of pressure on me compared to other matches. But I tried to deal with it, I tried to remind myself what I’m trying to do, not looking too far ahead, what I’ve been working on to improve and to progress. But it was of course a dream, passion to play in the main draw to qualify but I’m sure it’s not the last one, there’s still many to come,” he admitted.

“I’m trying to isolate myself from media, Facebook, because I like to focus on what I need to do. I feel if I start to look too much outside, then I will be caring about this or that, to please people, it’s tough to make everyone happy. So I just try to focus on myself and see what I need to do.”

When I note that it’s been 22 years since an Egyptian played a Slam main draw, he quickly responds with a smile: “One day…”

Safwat hit a new career-high ranking of 174 earlier this month and believes he’s on an upward trajectory. Armed with a new coach, Austrian ex-world No. 17 Gilbert Schaller, the Egyptian is pleased with his progress so far. Schaller isn’t just helping Safwat on court, but also the decision-making off the court of when to stop for a training block and when to compete.

“I made some changes at the end of last year, I changed my coach. I’ve been with him since December. He’s trying to add new things to my game. Clay court I think was my weakest surface, I took a decision to start the clay-court season – that’s one of the reasons I didn’t play Davis Cup, we believe I need to be prepared, otherwise I go play Davis Cup indoors and then go straight to play tournaments,” Safwat explained.

“I just needed to make the stop and it’s unlucky that it was the week of Davis Cup but I feel that it was necessary to do that and it paid off. I started to improve, I think this is my seventh or eighth week on clay and I’m improving every week.

“Every week I play I feel I have a chance. I think it was needed that stop, and that’s what he’s trying, to add new tools for me, to make me an all-round player. That’s why I feel that in yesterday’s match, the first round match, I felt a big difference against such an opponent because I played him before and I felt different on court with the things I added to my game.”

His opponent on Friday, Andreozzi, is a player who had won 26 of his 30 previous matches on clay – a run that included two Challenger titles.

“Today, maybe he is a better player on clay but he has shown me something, what’s missing, what I need to add to get this one level above. So that’s what he’s trying to do with me and that’s what I needed a long time ago but everything comes with time.”

Safwat, who trains with Schaller in Vienna, will play for two more weeks on clay before he starts preparing for Wimbledon qualifying.

“I’ll try to play something before Wimbledon. Either Challengers or ATP, I’ll sign in and we’ll see,” he said. “I always love to play on grass but it’s always about the ranking because everyone wants to play the grass season, so that’s why I’m staying for two more weeks on clay, and then the week before Wimbledon I would really love to play if I have a chance.”

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