Ahead of the biggest event of the clay-court season so far on the women's tour in Madrid, it's time to take a look at where the top contenders stand among their peers.
There is obviously no Rafael Nadal on clay in the women's game, but teenager Iga Swiatek made a surprising and dominant run to the Roland Garros title in 2020, not losing a set en route to what was astonishingly the first title of her career. She will be playing in her first match of the clay-court season in Madrid.
Ashleigh Barty has already claimed three titles in 2021, and while Naomi Osaka may be the most talented player on hard courts, the No. 1-ranked Australian and 2019 French Open champion is the player to beat entering the top events of the clay-court swing.
Barty is coming off a title in Stuttgart on clay in which she defeated three top-10 opponents in a row from a set down to improve her stellar record in 2021 to 20-3. The 25-year-old Aussie did not attempt to defend her Roland Garros title last season amid the pandemic, but she'll likely go into that event as the favorite. Barty has failed to reach the quarterfinals in only one event so far in 2021, so she can safely be relied on to make a deep run at almost every event.
2. Iga Swiatek
Though other players on this list have more extensive resumes than Swiatek, she has to be taken seriously after her performance in Paris last season. To recap, she defeated three seeded opponents en route to the title, including Simona Halep and Sofia Kenin, in straight sets. The 19-year-old from Poland has also gotten off to a good 11-4 start to 2021, which includes the second title of her career in Adelaide. Swiatek is the No. 14 seed in Madrid and could be in line for a blockbuster Round 3 clash with Barty.
Williams hasn't taken the court since a semifinal loss at the Australian Open to Naomi Osaka, but she will still be one of the main favorites in any event she enters during the clay-court season after she got off to a 8-1 start to 2021. The 39-year-old American had to withdraw from the second round at Roland Garros in 2020, and even though she hasn't advanced past Round 4 in Paris since 2016, she's still a safer bet than most other players in the women's field considering her 23 Grand Slam titles (three at Roland Garros).
Muguruza has been rolling in 2021 so far, posting a 21-6 record that includes one title in Dubai and two other final showings. The 27-year-old Spaniard also has a good history on clay, winning the French Open title in 2016 and posting three other runs to at least the quarterfinals. Muguruza has been one of the most consistent players on the WTA Tour this year, but has been battling a thigh injury that dates back to Charleston. She's the No. 10 seed in Madrid.
5. Simona Halep
Halep has played relatively sparingly so far in 2021, but she holds a solid 9-3 record and is coming off a semifinal showing in Stuttgart. The 29-year-old Romanian won her first major at the French Open in 2018 and fell last season in Round 4 to Iga Swiatek. Halep avenged that loss at this season's Australian Open, but she doesn't seem to have reached her top form as of yet in 2021. That could certainly change as the season moves to the clay courts.
Sabalenka has been one of the best players on tour so far this year, posting an 18-6 record which features a title in Abu Dhabi and also a recent runner-up showing in Stuttgart. Clay hasn't been a favorite surface in the early stages of the 22-year-old Belarusian's career, but if Stuttgart and her other positive results so far this year are any indication, she could be poised for her best clay-court showings during the 2021 clay-court season.
7. Naomi Osaka
Osaka hasn't played much on clay to begin her career, with her last WTA Tour match on clay coming way back at Roland Garros in 2019, when she lost in the third round. Though she has little previous success on the surface, the No. 2-ranked woman from Japan is simply too good to be left off this list, especially coming off her third Grand Slam title at the Australian Open earlier this season. Osaka is 12-1 on the season so far, with her lone loss coming to Maria Sakkari in Miami. She's the No. 2 seed in Madrid.
Svitolina has been playing her best tennis of the season heading into Madrid, coming off two-consecutive semifinal efforts in Miami and Stuttgart and losing to Barty in each of those events. The 26-year-old Ukrainian has three quarterfinal efforts at Roland Garros in her career, including last season, and has also won significant clay-court titles at Rome in both 2018 and 2017. Svitolina tends to be more streaky than many of the best players on tour, but she's been good so far with a 17-7 record in 2021.
9. Sofia Kenin
Kenin hasn't found her best tennis so far this season, going just 7-7 heading into Madrid. She enters the event on a three-match losing streak, but considering her runner-up finish at Roland Garros in 2020, she should be able to turn things around at some point on clay. The young American had to undergo an emergency appendectomy in February, so part of her struggles in 2021 could be attributed to recovery from that procedure.
10. Petra Kvitova
Kvitova is off to a decent 11-6 start to the season, which includes one title in Doha in early March. The 31-year-old Czech has two semifinal showings in her career at the French Open, including one last season, so she has what it takes to go deep on the dirt. While the two-time Wimbledon champion is not one of the hottest picks to claim significant clay-court titles this season, she remains one of the most consistently dangerous players on tour.
Others of note
Pliskova has had a disappointing start to the season, with a 9-7 record that includes no runs past the quarterfinals of any event. The 29-year-old Czech still holds a spot in the top 10 at No. 9, and she has had success on clay in her career, most notably at Rome in 2019 when she claimed the title and also in 2020 when she was the runner-up at the same event.
Bertens is typically one of the best players in the women's game on clay, but she's been riddled with injuries to start the season and has barely seen the court. The 29-year-old from the Netherlands won one of her biggest-career titles in Madrid in 2019 and reached the semifinals at Roland Garros in 2016 for her best-ever Grand Slam result. If she's able to get healthy for the clay-court season in 2021, she probably would deserve a spot in the top 10 of this list.
Podoroska came out of nowhere in 2020 to reach the semifinals of the French Open, defeating Elina Svitolina and Yulia Putintseva along the way. The 24-year-old Argentine has not followed up that effort with similar successes, holding a 6-9 record so far in 2021. Though the performance in Paris may have been a bit of a fluke, she's someone who the top players would likely prefer to avoid early in draws.