By Sudipto Ganguly
(Reuters) - World number two Simona Halep stands out as the clear favourite to win this year's rescheduled French Open, bucking a recent trend of wide open women's singles draws at Grand Slams.
Since Serena Williams took a break in 2017 to give birth to her daughter, there has been no standout player who has dominated the women's game.
Romanian Halep has been in red-hot form and the absence of top-ranked Australian Ash Barty, who won her maiden Grand Slam in Paris last year, and U.S. Open champion Naomi Osaka, will boost her chances further.
Halep decided to skip the hardcourt swing in the United States due to concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic and concentrated on preparing for the claycourts at Roland Garros.
She could not have hoped for a better buildup to the French Open after picking up titles in Prague and Rome, arriving in Paris on a 14-match unbeaten streak, dating back to her triumph in Dubai before the professional circuit closed in March.
With Barty absent in Paris, Halep could also wrestle back the top ranking with a third Grand Slam title.
"Of course it's gonna be beautiful to finish No. 1 again ... but it's too far," Halep said recently.
"I cannot think about winning the title in Roland Garros, because the tournament didn't start yet. I will give my best. I will dream for it, for sure."
Organisers of the claycourt Grand Slam moved the tournament back from its May start due to the COVID-19 pandemic but the cooler weather conditions could present an unknown challenge for the players.
Halep, the 2018 champion, will have to adjust.
"I don't think the conditions will necessarily favour the claycourt specialists and Halep is a claycourt specialist," seven-time Grand Slam champion Mats Wilander told Reuters.
"I think it might be too slow for her, she doesn't hit the ball as hard and might not be able to hit through the court.
"The girls that hit the ball really hard are the ones that will be tougher to beat, maybe the less finesse the better on what might be slow and damp claycourts."
Spaniard Garbine Muguruza, second seed Karolina Pliskova and Williams all fit the bill when it comes to hitting the ball hard.
An aggressive baseliner with excellent court coverage, Halep took down both Muguruza and Pliskova en route to her triumph in Rome, though the Czech retired from the final through injury while trailing 6-0 2-1.
The last defeat for the Romanian, who is the bookies' favourite, came against Muguruza when she lost to the 2016 Roland Garros champion in the semi-finals of this year's Australian Open.
It was also in Melbourne that Williams, who turns 39 on Saturday, won her 23rd Grand Slam title. She has since lost in four finals in her bid to equal Australian Margaret Court's record 24 major singles titles.
She fell in the last four at her home Grand Slam this month against long-time rival Victoria Azarenka, who spectacularly revived her career in New York by winning the Western & Southern Open and then reaching the U.S. Open final.
(Reporting by Sudipto Ganguly in Mumbai, additional reporting by Martyn Herman in London; editing by Toby Davis)