World #1 and two-time former finalist at Roland Garros, Simona Halep begins her campaign to finally capture that elusive first Major against America’s Alison Riske. Halep, who earlier in the season lost in the Australian Open final to Caroline Wozniacki, has not had her best clay court season, but did reach the final in Rome. Riske ended a run of three-first round defeats by reaching the final in Nuremberg. But will she be able to upset Halep?
Halep and Riske have met twice so far in their careers in a matchup that the Romanian leads 2-0. The first meeting came in 2015 on the clay courts of Rome, with Halep dominating Riske to win 6-3 6-0. When they met again at the tail-end of last season in Beijing, Halep found herself chasing the world #1 ranking, needing to reach the final to secure it. Riske was her first opponent, and Halep managed to defeat her in three sets, advancing 6-3 3-6 6-2.
Last time out
Halep ran into the same Elina Svitolina sized problem that was her undoing in Rome last year again this season. Despite playing some excellent tennis to reach the final, including a clinical destruction of Naomi Osaka in the first round and victory in a three-set thriller in the semifinals against Maria Sharapova, Halep was able to offer up surprisingly little resistance to the Ukrainian. After losing the first set to love, Halep restored some pride in the second, before Svitolina completed a 6-0 6-4 win.
Riske came into Nuremberg without a win since she defeated Evgeniya Rodina in Monterrey on hard courts. She surely cannot have been expecting the week she had in Germany, where she put together a run to the final that included victories over Luxembourg’s Mandy Minella, Yulia Putintseva of Kazakhstan and the sixth seed Sorana Cirstea in the quarterfinals, which was followed by a straight sets destruction of former Wimbledon semifinalist Kirsten Flipkens. But Sweden’s Joanna Larsson had too much in the title match, winning 7-6 6-4.
How do they match up?
Halep is one of the most effective counterpunchers in the women’s game. Her ability to defend from the corners of the court is almost unrivalled, particularly on her forehand side, where she is often able to strike winners when on the run. Her backhand is also a useful weapon, with the Romanian comfortable taking it both cross-court and down the line. Her serve, especially her second delivery, is, however, a weakness that an aggressive returner can take advantage of.
Riske, who has a career high ranking of 36th in the world, has found the majority of success in her career on faster surfaces than clay, with the final in Nuremberg the first she has reached on the ‘terre battue’. Her forehand looks unorthodox, but it is a potent weapon and the one on which Riske will rely against Halep. That being said, Riske generally does not deploy much topspin, which may well leave at her a disadvantage when she takes on Halep.
Riske will have taken real confidence from her performances in Nuremberg. But it also might just have taken something out of her legs ahead of Roland Garros. Even if she was completely fresh, defeating Halep on a clay court at a Slam was going to be a difficult ask. The Romanian is one of more consistent performers on the women’s Tour, and she will go into this match knowing she has the quality to win it. Halep in straight sets.