There are no shortage of men’s storylines for the upcoming Wimbledon tournament. Between the fierce pressure Andy Murray will be under to mount an acceptable defense of his title and the prospects of Rafael Nadal after two years of bitter disappointment (to mention just two themes), it’s pretty easy to overlook the landscape in the women’s game.
That’s a pity, for that landscape is more varied and colorful than it has been in years. Have we learned nothing from the last year’s finalists, Marion Bartoli and Sabine Lisicki, neither of whom was considered a prime contender when the tournament began?
Bartoli won’t even be back to defend the title this year—an apt situation given that “wide open” this year may mean “wider open than ever.”
You can probably thank the Williams sisters for that. One or the other has won 10 of the last 14 Wimbledon singles titles, and no other woman who’s won in that decade-and-a-half span has repeated as champion.
Venus, who turned 34 yesterday, is still hanging in there at No. 30 on the computer, but she’s struggled with Sjogren’s syndrome and hasn’t been as far as the fourth round of a major since 2011, at Wimbledon. The correct thing to say is that she remains capable of anything, but the reality is that Venus hasn’t been able to demonstrate that on a big stage for quite a while. Yes, she’s a great champion. No, she may not have a miracle left to give.
Serena, closer to 33 than 32, is a more interesting candidate. Upset last year by Lisicki, the world No. 1 made it known how grievously injured she feels about her demotion. But as much as many of us love Serena for her own bombast, she took surprising losses in the first two Grand Slam tournaments of the year, losing to Ana Ivanovic in the fourth round of the Australian Open, and to Garbine Muguruza in the second round of the French Open. The latter, a 6-2, 6-2 shocker, is the worst loss Serena has ever suffered at a Grand Slam tournament.
Stark fact: Serena looks more vulnerable than she has in a long time—but a comment like that always demands one of those warnings you find attributed to the Surgeon General of the United States: Underestimating Serena Williams may be hazardous to your chances in the office pool.
But wait. . . hasn’t anyone noticed the leaps and bounds Maria Sharapova has taken over the past two years? The present narrative for the budding candy mogul has two threads: Her emergence as the best clay-court player since Justine Henin, and her ongoing crusade to get another win over Serena (the head-to-head is 16-2 in favor of Williams, who was last beaten by Sharapova almost a decade ago). But what if Sharapova were to, say, win Wimbledon on the 10th anniversary of her first, landmark win over Serena?
It may seem a reach, but Sharapova could wipe away a lot of frustration, and gain more respect that a single victory would produce anywhere else, if she wins Wimbledon and has a win over her nemesis en route. Sharapova is almost five years younger than Williams and is playing her best tennis more consistently. More important, I doubt that Sharapova left either her confidence or her improved mobility behind at Roland Garros. The caveat—and it’s a significant one—is that Wimbledon has tripped up the former champion in the past. She’s taken some bad losses there, and Wimbledon is a karma factory.
Now here’s something to consider: Apart from those three contenders, there will be only one other former champion in the mix this year, Petra Kvitova. That improves the chances of the 2011 winner (at least on paper), but she has a habit of melting down into a puddle of Silly Putty whenever the pressure becomes intense.
It’s that kind of failure that invites the kind of mischief that gave us the Lisicki-Bartoli final last year. Bartoli has retired since then, and Lisicki has been more or less spinning her wheels. But the fact that those two made the final must have many women thinking, “Why not me?”
A potential first-time champion that stands out in the crowd is Victoria Azarenka, who’s already a two-time Grand Slam champ and former No. 1. She’s back from a foot injury, and while she lost the first match she’s played since Indian Wells the other day to Camila Giorgi (who whacked 53 winners in a three-setter in Eastbourne), Azarenka is a proven star, she hasn’t forgotten how to fight and win. And even if she doesn’t have the stuff to win seven matches, she can knock out any number of dangerous contenders—like Lisicki.
When last seen, Lisicki was taking a terrible beating at the hands of fellow German Mona Barthel at Roland Garros. She retired down 6-1, 3-0 with a wrist injury, but she’s landed in London and has been tweeting her love for Wimbledon since she arrived. You have to wonder if it won’t take more—a lot more—for her to be able to repeat her 2013 performance.
WTA No. 2 Li Na is easily overlooked, and that’s baffling. Okay, she’s never been past the quarterfinals at Wimbledon, but she has a game and physique ideally suited to grass. She won the first Grand Slam event of this year, but played atrociously in her first-round loss at Roland Garros. With the situation at the top unsettled, this is a great chance for Li.
Simona Halep, who lost that heartbreaking French Open final to Sharapova a few weeks ago, has never been past the second round at Wimbledon. The world No. 3 isn’t a fan of grass, yet with her mobility and lethal mix of precision and power, there’s nothing to keep her from doing well there. She’s always been a prudent, one-step-at-a-time kind of player, and perhaps the next step for her is proving herself on grass.
Agnieszka Radwanska, the Wimbledon finalist in 2012, has been a real disappointment. With very few exceptions, she’s shied away from a big occasion instead of embracing it. Long on creativity and brains but short on muscle and power, she can’t afford to compete without a high degree of determination; the big hitters will just eat her lunch if she can’t muster the right attitude. And right now it looks as if the draw will be loaded with plenty of women—Andrea Petkovic or Dominika Cibulkova, anyone?—who will be hungry enough to take what a player of Radwanska’s elite class is willing to give her.
By my count, there are nine characters in search of the title Bartoli left up for grabs, and that makes nine characters in search of a story—and others hoping to intrude and write one of their own.