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Wednesday, 23 May 2018 14:13 PM BST
Roland-Garros set for roller coaster ride in women's singles takes a look at the main storylines in the women's game ahead of Roland-Garros 2018. READ MORE

With Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka all making their comebacks at Roland-Garros, get ready for a rollercoaster ride in the women’s draw.

Here are the main storylines:

The comeback queens

Maria Sharapova vs Serena Williams in the opening rounds of Roland-Garros, anyone?

It sounds bizarre but it could happen.

Although Williams is a three-time winner on the Parisian clay, she won’t be seeded after being away from the women’s tour for almost a year to give birth to her first child last summer.

After her comeback in March ended with two wins and two defeats on US hard courts, Williams decided to skip all the clay court tournaments before Roland-Garros to work on her fitness.

Although she hasn't been seen on a Grand Slam court since the 2017 Australian Open - which she won while around eight weeks pregnant - her long-time coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, is convinced she’ll do well in Paris.

“Serena will play the French Open to win it,” he told the WTA website earlier this month. “Can she do it? Serena can achieve anything - after being her coach for six years, I'm even more sure of that statement.”

Just like Williams, former world No.1 Victoria Azarenka will be playing in her first Roland-Garros since she had a baby in 2016. The two-time Grand Slam champion from Belarus, also unseeded, posted only one win on the clay this season, but she is a former semi-finalist who loves the big stage.

Maria Sharapova reached three finals and won two before a 15-month doping suspension derailed her career in 2016. After posting a four-match losing streak earlier this season as she struggled with injuries, some were quick to write off the former top-ranked Russian.

But a quarter-final in Madrid and a semi-final spot in Rome, where she defeated 2017 Roland-Garros winner Jelena Ostapenko, have given her a huge confidence boost.

The defending champion

“There are two options when you get to a your first Grand Slam final,” Chris Evert said before last year’s final between title favourite Simona Halep and the unknown Ostapenko.

“You rise to the occasion, or you get scared.”

Playing in only her eighth Grand Slam event and first major final last year, Ostapenko more than stepped up to the plate as she stunned Romania’s Halep with audacious tennis rarely seen in a women’s final.

Ostapenko struck 54 winners against Halep, taking her total for the tournament to an astonishing 299.

But it’s unlikely the Latvian, the first unseeded woman to win the Roland-Garros title since 1933, will be able to spring the same surprise on her opponents this time around.

“It’s going to be very hard for Jelena to replicate her last year performance, just because she played with so much freedom last year,” 2013 Wimbledon winner and ITV commentator Marion Bartoli said.

“She went through the draw completely under the radar, and in the final, she had no pressure whatsoever against Halep.”

The favourite

Just like last year, world No.1 Simona Halep heads to Paris as the title favourite.

But having led the 100-1 outsider Ostapenko by a set and 3-0, and then 3-1 in the decider, Halep’s second Roland-Garros final ended in heartbreak.

A post-Paris slump would have been perfectly understandable, but the 26-year-old Romanian soon bounced back, reaching the quarter-finals at Wimbledon a few weeks later and the Australian Open final earlier this season.

With so many former champions in the draw, Halep may be able to play more freely as she tries to end her Grand Slam drought.

The dark horses

The women’s game in the past year has been of such high quality that the list of dark horses is as long as your arm.

As the world No.4, it is perhaps a stretch to brand Elina Svitolina an outsider, especially as she just beat Halep 6-0, 6-4 in the Rome final. She is, though, yet to reach a Grand Slam semi-final, but this may very well be her year.

There is the big-hitting Dutchwoman Kiki Bertens, a semi-finalist in 2016, who has won all of her five titles on clay, while Estonia's Anett Kontaveit has been making waves on the dirt.

Or could Caroline Garcia become the first Frenchwoman to win the title since Mary Pierce in 2000? A quarter-finalist last year, Garcia has made huge strides since then. This spring, she reached at least the quarter-final or better of all three clay-court warm-up events she played and will be a threat.

And let’s not forget the two-time Wimbledon singles champion Petra Kvitova, one of the most in-form players this season, who despite not believing she is one of the best players on clay, won titles on the surface in Prague and Madrid this spring.

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