— Who will be this summer’s Queen of England? That’s not a royalty-related question – but rather a tennis one as in which woman will win the singles title at Wimbledon?
Well, a trio of players has the best chance at doing so -- two are sisters, Venus and Serena Williams. The other is Maria Sharapova. Between these three they have conquered Wimbledon seven times. Venus has won The Championships four times – including last year (and 2005, 2001 and 2000 as well) – Serena twice (2003 and 2002, beating older sis’ Venus both times for the title) and Maria once (2004). My pick is Sharapova.
Venus, Serena and Maria rank as my favorites, especially in light of the fairly recent retirement of Justine Henin, who was No. 1 in the world at the time she called it quits, stunning all of tennis just 11 days before the start of the French Open by announcing she had played her last match. In her last six Wimbledons, Henin had reached the semifinals five times and the finals twice. She had never won the title, but she had more than sufficient game to pull off that feat this year and complete a career Grand Slam had she kept playing.
The best leverage that Venus, Serena and Maria bring to the equation of calculating a Wimbledon winner is that they all truly love to play on grass. That just isn’t the case for the majority of the other players competing at Wimbledon. These other players have more trouble adapting to the lawn. They find more comfort playing on hard courts or clay courts.
What also sets Venus, Serena and Maria apart – and perhaps not necessarily as a positive -- is that when they arrive at Wimbledon they will not have played any grass tune-up events. It’s pretty amazing to think that these are the three favorites to win Wimbledon and they will play only one tournament on grass all year, which happens to be the most prestigious grass tournament on the entire year’s schedule -- Wimbledon.
Tennis on grass calls for an entirely different brand of game than is played on clay or hard courts. The court on a lawn plays faster, the ball bounces lower, the ball tends to skid upon landing and to add to that -- because it’s a natural surface -- the bounces can be uneven.
While this year’s French Open didn’t end well for Sharapova as she lost in the round-of-16 to Dinara Safina, she was moving much better on clay than ever before, hitting the ball well, and she showed her great grit and determination in wanting to keep winning on a surface she clearly doesn’t prefer. Sharapova had herself in position to win that encounter with her fellow Russian Safina -- even having match points against Safina – but her opponent just was a bit better than her in that match.
If Venus didn’t have a remarkable past history at Wimbledon, logic would say look at her 2008 results so far and probably discount any possibility of her winning this summer on the English lawns.
But the fact of the matter is that at No. 7, Venus is ranked considerably higher than she was when she won Wimbledon the last two times. When she won in 2005 she was the lowest ranked at No. 16 and lowest seed at No. 14 to become a Wimbledon women’s champion. She rewrote the history books again in 2007 when she became the lowest ranked at No. 31 and lowest seed at No. 23 to win at Wimbledon.
Serena arrives at Wimbledon coming off a very strange loss to Katarina Srebotnik in the third round at Roland Garros. It wasn’t as if she was a total fish out of water in Paris -- she won the title there in 2002 -- and in recent months she had worked hard to be fitter and trimmer. I was actually expecting big things from Serena at the French Open, but there are just days that a player – no matter how talented one is – that you come out flat.
What was surprising is that normally when a champion is having a flat day in an early-round match at a major that champion usually figures out a way to come through to the next round. I would hope that the third-round loss in Paris will make Serena hungrier for Wimbledon. Interestingly, Serena hasn’t gone beyond the quarterfinals at a major since winning the Australian Open in 2007 -- she lost three straight quarterfinals to Henin in the remaining 2007 majors, lost to Jelena Jankovic in this year’s Australian Open quarterfinals, and then in the third round in Paris to Srebotnik so she will want to get over the hump at Wimbledon.
The hard part for me in analyzing the title chances of Venus and Serena at Wimbledon is that one never knows just where they are at and what their mindset is going into a major. I guess the best way I can put it is I find them a little bit more perplexing to figure out than other elite players.
Obviously, worthy of discussion is the new world No. 1 Ana Ivanovic and her potential as a Wimbledon champion. Ivanovic has a great game on grass and my biggest reason for believing that she will be a major factor is her big serve. It is a huge advantage for a player to have that big a serve at Wimbledon because it’s difficult to break serve on grass.
Ivanovic can use her serve to set up her big forehand, which is quite the weapon. This skill translates well to grass because once she can get ahead in a point, it’s tougher for an opponent to play defense to get back to a neutral position on the surface.
Ivanovic also has a very beautiful slice backhand that bounces low and will be more difficult to return. I also feel that Ivanovic is more comfortable volleying than many of the other women on the tour. The fact that Ivanovic reached the semifinals at Wimbledon last year allows her to know she can play on the surface. But, even more importantly, having just won Roland Garros, she is a major winner. That distinction gives her an incredible cache. In a player’s own eyes as well as everybody else’s eyes, having won a major she is now a completely different player. All this makes me think that Ivanovic has an extremely good chance to do well at Wimbledon.
My feeling towards world No. 2 Jelena Jankovic is that she has one important missing element in her game to be considered a true prospect at the majors -- her serve. Certainly, her serve is good, but the other aforementioned women have great serves. They can come up with tough-to-return serves, or at the very least, put an opponent on the defensive with the shot.
Jankovic has to work for every point she wins, which can be a big bonus on most surfaces. But on grass, her ability to seemingly always get the ball back in play is just not as essential a weapon. The bottom line is that on the lawns, it’s just not easy to claw your way back into a point. I don’t see her winning the title, but I do think she can go far into the draw.
Safina is definitely starting to come into her own. In the past, Safina would mentally breakdown. But in Paris she showed that she could stay in the now, in her matches, even saving match points against Elena Dementieva in the fourth round and Maria Sharapova in the quarterfinals. I used to witness her have her wheels fall off on the court -- throwing her racket and such -- but of late she has the confidence of knowing she can overcome adversity to win matches. She’s definitely maturing.
Probably the most dangerous floater in the draw is 1999 Wimbledon champion Lindsay Davenport. She withdrew this week from the Eastbourne event with a bad knee, and she hasn’t played since defaulting against Sharapova in the Amelia Island semifinal in April. But Davenport thrives on playing on grass so if she’s fit she’ll probably be worth watching.
A name I should also mention is last year’s surprise Wimbledon finalist Marion Bartoli. The Frenchwoman’s current ranking of No. 11 is propped up by all those points she collected at Wimbledon last year. Bartoli had a great tournament last year, but I think her level of tennis has dropped back to where she was prior to her Wimbledon success of 2007. It’s very hard to anticipate the same performance from her this year.
The one player for me, personally, that I’m going to be curious to see how she does is Amelie Mauresmo. She’s a Wimbledon champion, plays well on the surface, but is struggling of late. I like her as a person. I enjoy her style of tennis and I really like watching her play on grass. As a true tennis fan, I like everything about her and I hope she has a wonderful Wimbledon.