The pretenders to Queen Serena’s throne

There have been five different winners in the five previous Grand Slams, and none has shown that she can consistently defeat all comers.

Serena Williams returns to the scene of her most awe-inspiring triumphs, where she’s collected seven crowns, two short of Martina Navratilova’s record nine. More importantly, Williams stands one short of Margaret Court’s all-time record 24 major titles.   -  AP

Since Serena Williams abdicated her throne for marriage and motherhood, five different women have captured Grand Slam titles. None, however, has shown the stuff of champions. None has shown that she can consistently defeat all comers.

The women’s singles draw includes five past winners of Wimbledon – Petra Kvitova, Maria Sharapova, Serena and Venus Williams and reigning champion Garbine Muguruza. Seven former and the current world No.1 also strengthen the draw as Muguruza, Sharapova and the Williams sisters are joined by Caroline Wozniacki, Karolina Pliskova and Simona Halep, the 2018 French Open champion.

Now, Serena has returned to the scene of her most awe-inspiring triumphs, where she’s collected seven crowns, two short of Martina Navratilova’s record nine. More importantly, Williams stands one short of Margaret Court’s all-time record 24 major titles.

Serena is so tantalizingly near but so challengingly far from equalling this iconic achievement. At 36, she may no longer possess the strength to blast aces regularly and the speed to retrieve distant shots. But, as we witnessed at the recent French Open, her fierce competitiveness has not waned. Wrongly denied a seeding, she took matters into her own hands, Serena-style. Wearing a black catsuit that facilitates blood circulation, she mowed down Kristyna Pliskova, 17th seed Ashleigh Barty and 11th seed Julia Goerges to set up a highly anticipated duel with the resurgent Maria Sharapova. Then a painful chest muscle strain forced Serena to withdraw.

Even if Serena is ranked outside the top 32 – she’s now back into the top 200 – Wimbledon will undoubtedly seed her based on her extraordinary record there. A seeding will give her a chance to face unseeded opponents in the first two rounds, which will help her get match-tough and gain momentum.

Will her comeback sizzle or fizzle at the Big W? Which women are primed to fill the huge void that a declining Serena would create? Let’s separate the contenders from the pretenders.

Garbine Muguruza

Garbine Muguruza upset Serena Williams to win the 2016 French Open and overpowered Venus Williams to take the 2017 Wimbledon.   -  AFP

 

When the Spanish star is good, she’s extremely good. “Mugu-ruthless” upset Serena Williams to win the 2016 French Open and overpowered Venus Williams to take the 2017 Wimbledon. But when she’s bad, she is often very bad. This season, for example, Mugu has lost to No.88 Su-Wei Hsieh in the Australian Open second round and No.100 Sachia Vickery in the Indian Wells second round.

Like many perfectionists, the 24-year-old Spaniard is unreasonably tough on herself. If she learns to enjoy competing more and goes with the flow when she makes inevitable errors, she can grab several more Grand Slam titles. Although she will fail in her bid to become the first woman outside of the Williams sisters to defend the Wimbledon singles title since Steffi Graf in 1996, she will reach at least the quarterfinals.

Simona Halep

Fortunately, No.1 ranked Halep learned the right lesson after blowing a 6-4, 3-0 lead to Jelena Ostapenko in the 2017 French Open final: fight not flight. That heartbreaking loss inspired her to pull a similar Houdini-like escape herself against Sloane Stephens in the 2018 French Open final.

“The fact that I didn’t give up after the one here last year means that I’m strong inside,” said Halep, who had previously lost three ultra-close major finals. “I do this just because I love this sport. I love to be competitive on court and I’ve learned in those 12 months that if you don’t give up, you are able to do anything.”

World No.1 Simona Halep now plays aggressively enough to win on hard courts, but pure power players have captured every Wimbledon since 1997, when Martina Hingis prevailed.   -  AP

 

The 26-year-old Romanian now plays aggressively enough to also win on hard courts, but pure power players have captured every Wimbledon since 1997, when Martina Hingis prevailed. Halep leads the WTA Tour in return games won at 50.4 per cent among players with 20 or more matches. But she won’t win Wimbledon, or even reach the final, until she wins more games on her own, rather ordinary serve.

Sloane Stephens

Judging by past results, the French Open runner-up tends to falter after her biggest successes. She dropped eight straight matches after winning the 2017 US Open. She went only 6-4 after capturing the Miami Open in March. To break through at Wimbledon, she’ll have to reverse another negative trend. She’s reached the Wimbledon quarterfinals only once, back in 2013, and lost in the first round last year.

Now ranked a career-high No.4, the 25-year-old American has the athleticism and versatility to succeed on grass. But she may have too much insouciance and too little intensity to weather the storms she’ll face on unpredictable grass in high-pressure matches. She should make the quarterfinals on talent alone. When she gets a Nadal-like hunger, she’ll go farther.

Angelique Kerber

Will the real Angelique Kerber please stand up. In 2016, the German lefty captured the Australian and US Opens, reached the Wimbledon and WTA Championships finals and won an Olympics silver medal. Last year, she plummeted from No.1 to No.21 in the world.

This season, the 30-year-old German has risen to No.11 thanks to winning Sydney and reaching the semifinals at the Australian Open and Dubai and the quarterfinals at Roland Garros, Miami, Indian Wells and Doha. These solid but unspectacular results, however, are offset by a mediocre 5-7 record against top 10 players.

If the 2016 Kerber reappears with the requisite groundstrokes and service power to complement her defensive prowess, she’ll make the semis; if not, she’ll be upset early.

Elina Svitolina

The comely blonde with the rhythmical name has improved her ranking seven straight years, finishing a career-high No.3 last year. In 2017, Svitolina reached a career-best fourth round at Wimbledon and won a Tour-high five titles. Hopes were high that the 23-year-old Ukrainian would capture her first major title at the 2018 Australian Open. “The great thing about Svitolina is that she’s so fast she can play different ways,” praised former No. 1 Lindsay Davenport there. “She can play consistently or aggressively.”

True enough, but Svitolina faltered badly in the Australian quarters, losing 6-4, 6-0 to No.37 Elise Mertens. She rebounded to take the Dubai title with decisive wins over Daria Kasatkina, Kerber and Naomi Osaka. In Rome three months later, she captured her biggest clay court title to date by eliminating Kerber and Kasatkina again and trouncing No.1 Halep 6-4, 6-0 in the final.

Svitolina has never played her best tennis at a Grand Slam event. That pattern will change at the Big W this July when she’ll break through to reach her first Major final.

The Baltic Bashers

Jelena Ostapenko has yet to consistently reproduce the sensational shot-making that propelled her to the 2017 French Open title at barely 20. The baby-faced Latvian slugger peaked this season by reaching the Miami Open final with impressive wins over Kvitova and Svitolina. By advancing to the Wimbledon quarters last year, this all-surface player proved she can play on grass. Ostapenko could match that this year because her booming, flat groundstrokes will whiz on the grass.

The Baltics can also can take pride in 22-year-old Anett Kontaveit from Estonia. Kontaveit, who displays fearless, breathtaking power, ambushed Ostapenko at the Aussie Open, Kerber at Stuttgart, Venus Williams at Madrid, Venus and Wozniacki at Rome and Kvitova at Roland Garros. Her favourite tournament is Wimbledon, so don’t be surprised if she scores more upsets there.

Petra Kvitova

Petra Kvitova's comeback has been especially heartwarming, and the popular Czech leads the WTA Tour with five titles this year.

 

Comeback stories have abounded on the pro tours during the past 18 months, but none more heart-warming than that of Petra Kvitova. The popular Czech was severely stabbed in her playing hand by an intruder in her Prague apartment in December 2016. Sidelined for six months after extensive surgery, she feared she would never again compete at the elite level that produced Wimbledon titles in 2011 and 2014.

But Kvitova surprised everyone when she won the Birmingham tournament on grass a year ago, title she defended this year. The 6’ left-hander’s comeback accelerated this season by already winning a tour-leading five titles, including St Petersburg (Russia), Doha, Prague and Madrid. Along the way, she racked up a nifty 6-1 record against top 10 opponents. Importantly, Kvitova has shown that when the going gets tough, the tough get going by going a dazzling 13-2 in three-set matches.

When the beaming Kvitova holds the Venus Rosewater Dish after capturing her third Wimbledon crown, the feel-good story of the decade will become even more amazing.

Dark horses

Maria Sharapova won her first Major at Wimbledon way back in 2004, shocking Serena in the final. Her recent comeback gained considerable momentum when she made the French Open quarters, a run highlighted by a 6-2, 6-1 demotion of sixth seed Karolina Pliskova. Sharapova may be past her peak at 31, but this tough-as-nails competitor is still a formidable foe.

CoCo Vandeweghe achieved a career-high No.10 ranking last year thanks to semifinal showings at the Aussie and US Opens and her second quarterfinal finish at Wimbledon. When the strutting, 6’1” Coco gets hot, she whacks aces and winners in profusion.

Naomi Osaka displayed her dynamic game by winning her biggest title at Indian Wells, trouncing Sharapova, Radwanska, Pliskova, Halep and Kasatkina. The unpredictable 20-year-old Japanese could easily take out more stars on grass.

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