LONDON—For the last two years, the standard question before every women’s Grand Slam has been a simple one: Can anyone beat Serena Williams? That's still a question worth asking, of course, but there’s more to the WTA at the majors these days, when you consider Serena’s recent early losses at the Slams—she's gone out before the quarters in three of the last four—and the rise of a promising youth brigade in 2014.
All of which, to the neutral tennis fan, should be good news: That are a lot of possibilities in this draw; here's a look at a few of them.
Serena fans looking for rays of hope only have to look back at her last two French-Wimbledon transitions to find them. In 2012, she was stunned early in Paris by Virginie Razzano, before coming back to win two events at the All England Club, Wimbledon and the Olympics. Last year she won the French, and was ousted in the fourth round on Centre Court by Sabine Lisicki. There’s a sense that, like a lot of champions, Serena is at her best when she has something to prove. She’ll begin trying to prove it against Anna Tatishvili in her opener. More interesting could be a third-round match-up with Alize Cornet; the Frenchwoman upset Serena in Dubai in February.
To see how unbeatable Serena can be when she’s motivated, you need look no further than the woman at other end of this bracket. Maria Sharapova, the fifth seed and French Open champion, has lost to Williams 15 straight times. And for the second straight Slam, the two are slated to meet in the quarterfinals—Maria moved her ranking higher with her win in Paris, but not quite high enough. Just like Serena, the last time Sharapova won at Roland Garros she was knocked out in the fourth round at Wimbledon by Sabine Lisicki. This time Maria will start against Great Britain’s Samantha Murray. Angelique Kerber, a finalist this week in Eastbourne, is her possible fourth-round opponent.
Also here: Eugenie Bouchard and Andrea Petkovic, two breakout semifinalists from the French Open. Both are in Serena’s half, and both of their flat-hitting games should translate well to grass.
Sleeper: Camila Giorgi. If all goes right for the Macerata Mauler, which is admittedly difficult to imagine, she’ll play Sharapova, whom she beat at Indian Wells, in the third round.
Now we can see how much things have changed for Simona Halep in the last 12 months. In 2013, she came here unseeded and lost in the second round to Li Na. In 2014, as the No. 3 seed, she heads up her own quarter of the draw.
What Halep can do with it is anyone’s guess. The French Open finalist has the movement and the shot-making for grass, but she retired from her tune-up in the Netherlands this week with shoulder soreness. Whatever her condition, Halep, who has never been out of the second round at Wimbledon, has what appears to be a smooth road to the quarterfinals. She starts against Brazil’s Teliana Pereira, and the highest seed in her half is Carla Suarez Navarro.
The other side of this section has a Serbian flavor: Jelena Jankovic and Ana Ivanovic are the two top seeds. Jankovic is coming off a bad loss to Madison Keys, while Ivanovic won her grass-court warm-up last week in Birmingham without dropping a set. Each faces some danger in their openers, Jankovic from Kaia Kanepi, Ivanovic from Francesca Schiavone.
Tougher for Ivanovic could be a second-rounder against former Wimbledon semifinalist Jie Zheng, who beat her here in 2008. Even tougher than that is a possible third-rounder with Sabine Lisicki, last year’s runner-up here. Ivanovic won their only meeting, on clay, in Stuttgart this year, but Lisicki specializes in Wimbledon. One piece of good news for Ana: Lucie Safarova is nowhere near her.
Teen dreamers: Belinda Bencic, Vicky Duval, Donna Vekic, Taylor Townsend, and Madison Keys are all in this section. Keys looks to be the most dangerous at the moment.
First-round match to watch: Madison Keys vs. Monica Puig
Sleeper: Sabine Lisicki. In the absence of last year’s champion, Marion Bartoli, the woman Bartoli beat in the final will open the women’s draw on Centre Court on Tuesday. Lisicki's last memory there is a bad one, but she loves this place nonetheless.
It wouldn't be surprising if Agnieszka Radwanska came back to Wimbledon with mixed feelings. Each of the last two years, she’s found herself within reach of the title, and each time she has fallen heartbreakingly short. In 2014, judging by her draw, she could get another crack at her first major—it’s amazing what getting that No. 4 seed can do for your prospects, isn’t it?
Radwanska will start against Andrea Mitu; the highest seed in her half is grass-nonspecialist Sara Errani; and the highest seed in her quarter is Victoria Azarenka, who has played one match in three months. You might think that Aga’s form—she lost in the first round this week in Eastbourne and went out early in Paris—would hurt her, but she lost in the first round in Eastbourne in each of the last two years, and ended up in the final and the semis at Wimbledon. Grass is best for her reactive, finesse game, because it gives her counter-punches a little more pop.
First-round match to watch: Coco Vandeweghe vs. Garbine Muguruza. The American beat the Spaniard up-and-comer this week in ’s-Hertogenbosch on her way to the final.
Also here: Azarenka and Dominika Cibulkova. It has been a frustrating couple of months for both of them, but they’re the top two seeds in the upper half of this section, so a deep run is possible.
Caroline Garcia: So far she hasn’t followed up on her Fed Cup heroics from earlier in the year, but Garcia has the athleticism for grass. She starts against Errani.
Tsvetana Pironkova: Wimbledon is her playground; this time she opens against Varvara Lepchenko.
Svetlana Kuznetsova: She hasn’t done much here, or anywhere, in recent years, but Kuzzie reached the quarters in Paris. She might play Aga in the third round.
We conclude in the zone of unpredictability: The top two seeds here are Li Na and Petra Kvitova, which is both a daunting and a hopeful prospect for the other women in this quarter. You never know what you’re going to get from either player, but it could be very good.
Li is especially questionable at the moment. After an unprecedented run of consistency, the Aussie Open champ reverted to form and lost in the first round in Paris. How much will that shake her confidence at Wimbledon? She was a quarterfinalist here last year, and will open this time against Paula Kania of Poland. As for Kvitova, the 2011 champion will start against her countrywoman, Andrea Hlavackova.
Flavia Pennetta: The 12th seed, who lost in Eastbourne to Heather Watson, will open against Jana Cepelova.
Sloane Stephens: Matching her quarterfinal appearance from 2013 will take some work; she’ll start her campaign against Maria Kirilenko. Sloane does know how to beat players ranked below her.
Caroline Wozniacki: The 16th seed has had a nice run in Eastbourne, and her draw looks plausible through the fourth round.
Venus Williams: You can never sleep on a five-time champ, and she has beaten her potential third-round opponent, Petra Kvitova, the last two times they’ve played.