Wimbledon has long been the domain of Venus and Serena Williams, but in 2012 the All England Club could very much belong to Maria Sharapova.
The reigning French Open champion heads to London extremely high on confidence after completing a prized Career Grand Slam on a surface unanimously considered her weakest. With the quick lawns rewarding her big serve and flat aggressive groundstrokes more than the slow red clay of Paris, many believe the Russian is primed to build on her major tally and further tighten her grip on the world No.1 ranking.
But no doubt Sharapova will have to go through one – or both – of the Williams sisters as she aims to get her hands on the Venus Rosewater Dish for the second time.
Extraordinarily, only twice has the Wimbledon women’s final not featured a Williams since the year 2000. Five-time winner Venus and Serena, a four-time champion, have also faced each other in four Wimbledon finals to cement their dominance at tennis’ most prestigious tournament.
The first time neither sister won the championship in the new millennium was in 2004, when Sharapova won her first ever major title at 17 years of age. In a sublime performance, she upended Serena in straight sets in one of the biggest upsets in Wimbledon history.
That loss subsequently motivated Serena, who has since dominated the pair’s head-to-head. Sharapova dodged a bullet in Paris when Serena bombed in the first round, preventing a projected quarterfinal match-up. She will probably be keen to avoid Serena – and Venus too – at the All England Club, with the sisters forever driven by Grand Slam glory, far more match-fit than 12 months ago, and gearing toward gold at the London Olympics just three weeks later at the same venue.
But Sharapova is a steely competitor, herself motivated by tough losses and able to rebound from disappointment. In her last two major finals – Wimbledon 2011 and Australian Open 2012 – she lost heavily to Petra Kvitova and Victoria Azarenka respectively, yet has gone a collective 3-1 against the pair since losing at Melbourne Park.
Kvitova has generally slipped quietly under the radar this season despite being the defending Wimbledon champion. The main reason has been the fact she has failed to reach a tournament final in 2012 after winning six titles in a banner 2011 season. Yet the Czech is rounding into form at just the right time, reaching the semifinals at Roland Garros last week before falling to Sharapova.
A Wimbledon semifinalist in 2010 prior to her run to the title last year, Kvitova’s game should go up a level when she steps out onto the lawns she loves.
Last year at Wimbledon was really where it all began for Azarenka too, with the Belarusian reaching her first career Grand Slam semifinal. It helped her rise to world No.3 and foreshadowed her stellar start to the 2012 season in which she won the Australian Open, took the No.1 ranking and built a 26-match winning streak. With her momentum slowing on clay, Azarenka is another player whose aggressive baseline game will benefit from the move to grass.
Outside of this five, it’s harder to tell who might do damage at the All England Club. World No. 11 Li Na, who imploded in the fourth round of her French Open title defence, has a game perfectly suited to grass, and is twice a quarterfinalist at SW19. So too does No.8 Marion Bartoli, the 2007 Wimbledon finalist and who defeated Serena on her way to the quarterfinals last year.
Theoretically, fifth-ranked Sam Stosur should perform well on the grass thanks to her booming serve, attacking game, excellent net skills and well-executed slice backhand, but has traditionally – and inexplicably – come undone at Wimbledon. Caroline Wozniacki, down to No.9 from top spot in just six months, has a history of being hit off the SW19 lawns by heavy-hitting opponents, while third-ranked Agnieszka Radwanska, also a counterpuncher, may face a similar fate.
And there are the many rising stars of 2012 – Angelique Kerber, Sara Errani and Mona Barthel among them – who have yet to show what they can accomplish on grass.
It sets the stage for an intriguing fortnight of tennis at Wimbledon, but as history shows, the cream of the grasscourt crop always rises to the top.