A Channel Slam? A first-time Major winner? A record 24th title for the most successful player? A former champion resurgent?
With the glorious uncertainty of women’s tennis, any of the above mentioned scenarios can become a possibility at Wimbledon. Unlike the gentleman’s draw which is led by three distinct contenders, the ladies singles draw has no outright favourite guaranteed to make the second week. Instead, each section is packed with talent and primed for upsets assuring an entertaining two weeks.
The draw was similarly wide open last year with spotlight on returning Serena Williams. But what followed was a bloodbath of seeds that was unprecedented and shocking. For the first time in the Open Era, six of the top eight women’s seeds were out by the second round, with the ninth and tenth seeds falling in the third.
Seven-time champion Serena did reach the final but it was Angelique Kerber who beat all odds to win the title. Kerber and Serena are projected to meet in the fourth round of The Championships, but there is a long way and a ‘quarter of death’ to go before that.
In the year since her third Major, the defending champion has struggled for the most part but showed her chops on grass with a semi-final in Mallorca and final at Eastbourne. But in her comprehensive loss to Karolina Pliskova on Saturday emerged a storyline that has flattered to deceive for years now: Pliskova finally looking good to make a Major breakthrough.
Since losing in the second round at Birmingham to her twin, Pliskova hasn’t dropped a set in five matches. While the world No 3 has never progressed beyond the fourth round at the All England Club, she would fancy her chances this year with coach Conchita Martinez, with a semi-final at Australian Open and now a title on grass. As long as she can hold her nerves and properly use her big serve to bail, she stands a chance.
Quarter of Death
But the winner could well be the one who survives the quarter of death at the top of the draw which is loaded with potent grass court players almost all of whom can stitch together a title-winning run.
The section has five players who have held the world No 1 spot at sometime in their career, seven Grand Slam champions and four former winners at Wimbledon. Top seed Ashleigh Barty, Serena, Kerber, 2017 champion Garbine Muguruza, 2004 winner Maria Sharapova, last year’s semi-finalist Julia Goerges, the fast-rising Belinda Bencic, the promising Donna Vekic are all vying for that one quarter-final slot.
If a player can emerge victorious from this section, it would surely be an added advantage.
The odds would be on Barty and Serena.
The new world No 1 is a former junior champion here, fond of the surface and has a game that can be very dangerous on grass. Although she has a poor 2-3 record at Wimbledon, she is on a 12-match unbeaten streak after titles at French Open and Birmingham. The pressure of being the top seed and the injury that forced her to pull out from Eastbourne could be potential roadblocks and the year’s third Major will be a test of her mettle as much as skill.
For Serena, the All England Club is not only her ‘kingdom’ in a sense, it also represents her best chance at the elusive, record-equalling 24th title.
She is gunning for a record eighth title here that will tie her with Margaret Court’s all-time tally of 24. She has come close to it twice now and was commanding till the final last year, but the 37-year-old has suffered several strange meltdowns at crucial moments in the recent past.
But on the green grass where points can be kept short and a booming serve used to full effect, Serena can raise her game and claim the Venus Rosewater Dish again.
The ‘wild’ cards
The seeds in the other quarters won’t have it easy either, with grass being a great leveller.
Already admitting that she is not at home on the surface, second seed Naomi Osaka has to open against Yulia Putintseva, who stunned her in straight sets in the second round of the Birmingham Classic.
Major winners Caroline Wozniacki, Sloane Stephens, Simona Halep are also erratic on grass while two-time champion Petra Kvitova is coming off an injury layoff. Pliskova, Kiki Bertens, Johanna Konta, Elina Svitolina, Madison Keys, Aryna Sabalenka all have the game as well, but blow hot-and-cold.
So even with a pedigree in the ranks, there is a possibility of Wimbledon seeing a first-time champion from among the many exciting prospects. There are a host of ‘wild’ cards with the quality to reach the final on their given day, which is compounded by the dynamics of grass-court play soon after the clay-court season. As seen at the Australian and French Open, unseeded players have proved their credentials with sharp hitting and deep runs.
Nobody would be surprised if that were to happen again. But some would be disappointed.
In the men’s competition, the call for a breakthrough champion grows louder everyday, but in the women’s draw, the hope is for a consistent champion. Can Barty win back-to-back Majors like Osaka. Can the slew of one-Slam winners back their performance with another? Can Pliskova come good on the expectations? No preview can predict anything but a competitive Grand Slam.