Since the start of 2011, all six major titles have gone to women who never before triumphed at that tournament, and four have gone to first-time major titlists. As the All England Club prepares to open the portals to its lawns, a fifth breakthrough remains a possibility. All the same, we open our review of the contenders with three former champions.
1. Maria: Likely basking in the glow of her historic triumph at Roland Garros, the new world #1 may struggle to reassemble her motivation within just two weeks. Sharapova rarely has played her best tennis while holding the top ranking, suggesting that she becomes most lethal when she feels determined to prove herself. With the more coveted prize (for her) of the Olympics soon to follow, one hardly could fault her if she saves ammunition for a concerted assault on the gold medal. On the other hand, her first major title since shoulder injury may have removed an oppressive weight from her shoulders and emboldened her to swing with redoubled confidence. And Sharapova long has viewed Wimbledon as her favorite major and ranked her 2004 breakthrough there among her fondest memories. A finalist again last year after a series of disappointing efforts, the top-ranked woman relishes the surface’s receptiveness to her trademark first-strike tennis. Able to win points there with only one or two savage blows, Sharapova sometimes struggles with the low bounce. As long as she can stay away from Serena again, though, nobody will hold a mental advantage over a woman enjoying the best first half of her career. Sharapova has constructed a career out of spectacular but sporadic ambushes. Can she establish herself in the WTA throne more firmly than she did in four previous trips to the top?
2. Serena: In four majors since her heroic return, the 13-time major champion has reached the quarterfinals just once. A Venus-tying fifth crown at Wimbledon would offer an ideal reward for Serena after overcoming her recent adversity, validating her comeback much as Roland Garros validated Sharapova’s second career this spring. Toppled by Bartoli on the middle Monday last year, she could not find her legendary serve when the second set hung in the balance. With the wounds of a first-round defeat at Roland Garros festering in her mind, Serena should not lack for determination at a major that some insiders have identified as a crucial turning point in her fortunes, for better or for worse. While grass cloaks her lack of durability, its quick matches can resist the momentum shifts on which Serena too often relies. When expectations towered in Paris, following an undefeated clay season, she stumbled under the pressure. Now that expectations have faded as serious questions regarding her viability have arisen, Serena may seize this moment to make the sort of statement in which she specializes. As the blue clay of Madrid showed, she can not only conquer but crush the best women in the sport—provided that she brings a sound body and mind to the court. The WTA’s greatest active player remains its greatest enigma too.
3. Petra: If Sharapova needs to avoid Serena, Kvitova needs to avoid Sharapova despite her victory over the Russian in last year’s final. Since that stirring Saturday, she has lost three semifinals to her fellow Wimbledon champion, including at both 2012 majors. Seemingly destined to claim the #1 ranking herself when 2011 ended, Kvitova has not defeated a top-10 opponent or reached a final all season, while only one of her last ten victories at majors has come against a foe in the top twenty. Combined with the pressure of defending the most significant title of her career, that drought might doom her to a disastrous demise. On the other hand, Kvitova established herself as a contender not one Wimbledon ago but two, when she defeated Wozniacki and Azarenka en route to the semifinals. Unlike her exploits elsewhere, her dominance on grass thus traces a steady trend that bodes well for a third straight fortnight of excellence. Notorious for her abrupt ebbs and flows, Kvitova can survive her inherent inconsistency more easily on grass. Arguably the best server in the WTA outside Serena, she should deploy her darting lefty missiles to especially devastating effect here. But much depends on her early draw, where she usually encounters patches of friction before finding her groove.
4. Vika: Surrendering the #1 ranking sooner than many expected, Vika now stands at a crossroads that could define the rest of her season. The Australian Open champion can rest secure in her accomplishments to this stage, a magnificent campaign already, or she can will herself to build upon them in the disciplined manner that befits a champion. For most of her 26-match winning streak, Azarenka looked every inch a champion, steely and purposeful but not stifling the passion that has propelled her. When her progress slowed on clay, her immaturity resurfaced more glaringly in both actions and words, reminding observers that she still has advanced just twice past the quarterfinals at a major. A crucial shot on grass, Azarenka’s serve crumbled in consecutive thrashings at clay finals this spring. Relying so much on her return and supple movement, she might fall victim to a streaky server on a torrid surge. Nevertheless, her first career major semifinal came here at Wimbledon, where the fast grass rewarded her balanced groundstrokes and aggressive court positioning. Thoroughly dominant over Radwanska, whom she has defeated six times this year, Vika will hope to face the Pole once more rather than Kvitova, who swept her three times last year and at consecutive Wimbledons. Moreover, she has garnered no more success against Serena lately than has Sharapova.
5. Nails: Impressive en route to the quarterfinals here in 2010, Li not only reached her second straight Birmingham final that year but recorded her second straight victory over Sharapova at the small grass-court tournament. Her low center of gravity, compact footwork, and efficient movement position her effectively to succeed on this surface, as does her ability to absorb and redirect pace. Unfortunate to draw a surging Lisicki in the second round of Wimbledon last year, Li lost after holding two match points in a frustrating episode of a pattern that has plagued her since the start of 2011. Not without reason did she earn her playful nickname, but the former Roland Garros champion has combined her steeliness in adversity with fecklessness in good fortune—an unusual trait in a player of her accomplishments. Outside the top 10 following a dismal attempt to defend her title in Paris, Li may relish the absence of pressure and exploit a situation where few points and fewer expectations rest upon her. Although she lately has lost the momentum in her rivalry with Azarenka, she continues to trouble Sharapova and Kvitova at times, although her less impressive serve may leave her at a disadvantage to both rivals here.
6. Marion: A surprise finalist five years ago, the feisty, polarizing double-fister unleashed glimpses of that form in a 2011 charge that carried her within a set of the semifinals. Undone by Lisicki’s vastly superior serve, like Li, Bartoli amazed audiences by matching Serena’s first-strike power from start to finish and by boldly seizing the initiative when their clash could have slipped away. One of the few notable players to survive her first match in Eastbourne, she finds the short points of grass ideally suited to a game high in shot-making audacity but low in durability or variety. Although Bartoli’s physical fitness has hampered her too often for an elite player, her psychological strength still has buttressed through many an intense affair. As she nears the lofty plateau of 500 career victories, this colorful personality with a colorful playing style has developed a habit of mounting ambushes at the least expected moments. A tranquil first half so far thus may suggest a tempest on the horizon.
Less likely to host the Venus Rosewater Dish are two members of the top five. Although Radwanska has reached two of her five major quarterfinals at Wimbledon, she has admitted fatigue from a crowded first-half schedule that has left her the victim of her own accomplishments. Gone in the first round of Rome, the first week of Roland Garros, and the first round of Eastbourne, she will benefit from the extra jolt of acceleration provided by grass but will struggle to match the WTA’s leading servers hold for hold or break for break. Hoping to heal from another deflating loss to an Italian in Paris, meanwhile, is the woman whose nerves have betrayed her there twice in three years. Stosur designs her game for surfaces with high bounces, where she can showcase her kick serve and spin-soaked forehand, despite her startling achievement in New York. After Schiavone halted her in 2010, she brought little confidence to a tournament that punishes the tentative and the anxious. If she can reach the net, however, her crisp volleys separate her from several leading rivals.
Having transitioned creditably from hard courts to clay by reaching the Roland Garros quarterfinals, Kerber can complete her transformation into an all-surface threat at the All England Club. By contrast, Lisicki and Pironkova can build confidence from memories of their most successful major, where each has plotted a path to the semifinals before. Their notable prowess on grass reveals how a wide range of styles can adapt to the surface, receptive to both the iron fist and the velvet glove. Somewhat overlooked amidst the trendier contenders for the Venus Rosewater Dish, moreover, is the woman who shares its name and has held it no fewer than five times. A sixth title would rank as the most remarkable accomplishment of her remarkable career to date, but Venus would thrill simply by reaching the second week and challenging an elite foe, which she has done more than once already in 2012.