Hot. . . Or Not: The Women (Olympics Edition)

Thursday, July 26, 2012 /by

Picby Pete Bodo

Yesterday we looked at some of the men who will embark on their quest for Olympic gold with the right to be confident—or with legitimate fears based on recent or long-term history. Today, we'll look at who's hot, and who's not, on the women's side. 

One of the more interesting aspects of this inquiry is that the women's Olympic singles event tends to be more predictable than the men's. Unlike the men's singles event, the women's has produced very few medalists who did not also win Grand Slam events or rank No. 1—since the games were re-instituted in the Olympics in 1988, the only women in that category of over-achievers were: Elena Dementieva, Vera Zvonareva, Alicia Molik, Mary Jo Fernandez, Zina Garrison, and Manuela Maleeva. Of them, only one (Dementieva) won silver or gold. She took gold in Beijing and silver in Sydney.

With that in mind, let's look at the prospects of some current entries: 

No. 47 Yaroslava Shvedova. . . Hot! The Kazakh who made history with her "golden set" at Wimbledon (she won the first set in her match against French Open finalist Sara Errani without losing a single point) ran wild at Wimbledon until Serena Williams finally stopped her in the fourth round—but the eventual champ had to go to 7-5 in the third to do so.

Shvedova, coming back from injury this year, also survived three rounds of qualifying to get into the French Open, then won four matches before her run was stopped by Petra Kvitova in the quarterfinals. She played more matches in Paris (8) than the eventual champ, Maria Sharapova. Shvedova has not played since Wimbledon, presumably to stay fresh, and on grass, for the Olympics. Watch out for her. 

No. 37 Tamira Paszek. . . Hot! Another woman who hasn't played since Wimbledon, Paszek was down to No. 58 before the Eastbourne tune-up tournament for Wimbledon, and had won just two matches in 13 events up to that point. But she won the title in Eastbourne, defeating, in order: Marina Erakovic, Daniela Hantuchova, Tsvetana Pironkova, Marion Bartoli, and Angelique Kerber. She backed it up in the main event, taking out former No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki in the first round at Wimbledon. She made it to the quarters there before Victoria Azarenka halted her run. 

No. 36 Kim Clijsters. . . Not. I think Clijsters has demonstrated that she can no longer be counted on to go deep at tournaments against quality opposition. She lost in the fourth of Wimbledon to Kerber, and the rust showed. Granted, this is her swan song and something like her extended farewell tour (without the "tour" part, thanks partly to injury), but she's a multiple Grand Slam champ and former No. 1, so she might become inspired to partake of glory one more time.

No. 26 Christina McHale. . . Hot! The 20-year-old American has the patriot gene, and she's a tough and gritty competitor who won't be overly intimidated by the challenge of the Olympic quest. She's been gaining valuable experience, taking out Wozniacki in Eastbourne and playing talented Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova close at the same event before she lost, 6-4 in the third. Having Serena there in London competing alongside her and giving her advice will also help. I'm going out on a limb to predict that she'll be in the final eight—or better.

No. 14 Vera Zvonareva. . . Not. She's been sliding in the rankings, and clearly is no longer the player she was in 2010, when she finished No. 2 in the world on the strength of two Grand Slam finals. It's only gotten worse this year.

Zvonareva retired against Clijsters in the third round of Wimbledon, with some sort of respiratory difficulty, but was back on the court playing doubles just a few hours later. Odd. She's volatile and emotional, prone to choking and bouts of self-pity. But her Russian countrymen are mad for the Olympics, and she rewarded them in Beijing with a bronze medal. She can make up for a lot of recent disappointment if she earns a medal in London.

No. 13 Dominika Cibulkova. . . Hot! This Slovak dynamo is hampered by her short stature (she's just 5-foot-3) but she completed her preparation for Wimbledon with a tournament win at Carlsbad (d. Bartoli in the final), and her extreme degree of energy and electric shotmaking could carry her far on the grass at Wimbledon. She's better than her recent grass-court results suggest (last year, she was in the semis of 's-Hertogenbosch and the quarters of Wimbledon, with wins over current Olympians Julia Goerges and Aleksandra Wozniak). She is an excellent long-shot pick for a medal.

No. 9 Sara Errani. . . Hot! Forget about being the victim of that golden set by Shvedova at Wimbledon. Errani is having a career year, and the 25-year-old from Bologna has shown herself to be a tough little customer—emphasis on little (she has one inch and a Grand Slam final trophy on Cibulkova).

A finalist in the French Open, Errani has had better results on grass than that nightmare against Shvedova suggests. The Italian bounced back from that disappointment by winning at Palermo, and while that was on clay, and against so-so competition, it seems that she's back on track. If nothing else, this game counterpuncher could make life very difficult for any Top 5 player she meets.

No. 8 Caroline Wozniacki. . . Not. Wozniacki's free fall through the Top 10 continues; she's won just two matches in the last two majors. But things are so bad that she just might go out there and surprise everyone—although I doubt it.

PicNo. 7 Angelique Kerber. . . Hot! She's been nothing less than on fire since Rome, continuing her remarkable surge into the elite tier of the game. Can it really be that, as all accounts have it, this 24-year-old languished as a journeywoman until last fall only because she lacked the self-belief she currently possesses?

An athletic and mobile lefty, Kerber spearheads a powerful German squad. I would be amazed if the German women—Kerber, Sabine Lisicki (whom Kerber beat to take a semifinal place at Wimbledon), Goerges, and Mona Barthel—didn't walk away with at least one singles medal.

No. 5 Sam Stosur. . . Not hot. Take away that semi at the French Open (where Stosur was a former finalist) and Slammin' Sammy's year has been dismal. She's demonstrated that she hasn't overcome a cringe-inducing tendency to get tight and choke despite having won the U.S. Open in magnificent fashion last fall.

Given how poorly Stosur reacts to pressure, the best you can say for her is that there is absolutely no pressure now, because even her die-hard fans could be forgiven for giving up hope. Stosur's by rote, somewhat mechanical game has rarely stood the test of grass (she won just one match on grass this year, including at Wimbledon) and it probably will not this time around either.

No. 4 Serena Williams. . .Hot!!!! Olympic gold is the only item left on her champion's to-do list, and we're talking about singles gold here—she's already mined the Olympics for gold in doubles (twice, both times with her sister Venus). Serena is fired up, healthy, and when was the last time Serena played a tournament immediately after a Grand Slam (she won Stanford the week after the end of Wimbledon)? She did that partly to keep her momentum going for the Olympics, and that has to make her the odds-on favorite to wear the singles gold medal when she leaves London.

Afterthoughts: The way Serena asserted herself at Wimbledon makes it difficult to look at her companions in the Top 4 (Australian Open champ Victoria Azarenka, Wimbledon runner-up Agnieszka Radwanska, and French Open champ Maria Sharapova) as "hot" contenders, but they've also been far too reliable to be cast into the "not hot" bin with Stosur. The same goes for No. 6 Petra Kvitova, who at least is getting significantly warmer. Should Serena falter early on, any one of those women could win it all.

One thing that struck me is that as powerful as the German women are, the Russians are in surprisingly poor shape—with the outstanding exception of Sharapova. I find it hard to come up with three less inspiring contenders than the rest of the Russia's four-woman (maximum) contingent—Zvonareva (see above), Maria Kirilenko, and Nadia Petrova. It's a pity that Svetlana Kuznetsova, a multiple Grand Slam champ, and Pavlyuchenkova, a lavishly gifted but apparently confused 21-year-old, have performed so dismally this year. It will be interesting to see how the Russians—men and women—fare as a team.

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