The breakthrough of Sara Errani aside, the first two majors of 2012 have left the women’s game in a somewhat more orderly position than the 2011 majors did. The fierce ascendancy of Azarenka, the triumphant resurgence of Sharapova, the mercurial volatility of Serena, and the unbeatable-until-she-beats-herself fireworks displays of Kvitova have provided the dominant themes of the first half. As majors should, the Australian Open and Roland Garros reflected, underscored, and developed those themes. A setting for tradition and stability, Wimbledon could crystallize them further.
First quarter: The top seed at Wimbledon for the first time in her career, Sharapova hopes to break the dispiriting WTA trend of major champions exiting almost immediately at the next major. Although she lost before the quarterfinals here from 2007 through 2010, in part because of unkind draws, the new world #1 reinvigorated her grass-court prowess last year by reaching her first Wimbledon final since 2004. Ravaging her first-week opponents at her two previous majors this year, Sharapova could plow through them again here unless second-round foe Pironkova continues to find the magic that lifted her to a semifinal and a quarterfinal in her last two appearances. Thoroughly anonymous for most of the season, the willowy Bulgarian surfaced again in Eastbourne by upsetting Radwanska, but her serve should pose little threat to the top seed’s vicious returns. A month after her historic victory over Serena, Razzano could face Sharapova in the third round if she can avoid the post-breakthrough lull that usually affects a player of her stature. Defending a heaping mound of rankings points after reaching the semifinal here last year, Lisicki cannot look too far ahead to a meeting with Sharapova in the second week, for she opens against Petra Martic. This rising Croat halted Bartoli’s bid to defend semifinal points at Roland Garros and should have accumulated more momentum than an opponent who battles injuries too often to maintain consistency.
The most scintillating first-round match in the women’s draw, a meeting between Clijsters and Jankovic could disappoint considering the rustiness of the former and the unconvincing 2012 campaign of the latter, although she did reach the final at the rain-befuddled Birmingham event. Not far away lies one of the most plausible upset candidates for the first round, a meeting between Zvonareva and Mona Barthel. While the German won her maiden title this year and has troubled contenders like Azarenka with her serve, the Russian has struggled with shoulder injuries as she has sagged outside the top 10. A finalist at Wimbledon in 2012, Zvonareva defeated Clijsters that year, but she probably would enter a third-round match against her with less optimism this time. In addition to Sloane Stephens, located in Sharapova’s side of the quarter, American ambitions will rest upon Christina McHale, who defeated Wozniacki in Eastbourne. Blocking her route to the second week is Eastbourne runner-up Kerber, who has impressed throughout the year with the consistency that has made her the WTA wins leader and raised her into the top 10. If Clijsters enters the tournament with too few matches, however, the eighth seed may have entered with too many following an uncharacteristically busy schedule.
Second quarter: For the second straight major, in a bizarre twist, Radwanska could meet Venus Williams in the second round. Losing to Venus in one of her two previous Wimbledon quarterfinals, the Pole has won both of their meetings this year—on two different surfaces—and will hope to catch the five-time champion on a lethargic afternoon, as she did in Paris. Normally strong on grass, Hantuchova defeated Venus for the first time in the American’s comeback tournament at Eastbourne last year. Still, she has left little impact anywhere since a February title in Pattaya City and might not respond well to the experience of playing a marquee player on a marquee court. Having won the Dutch open against a depleted field this week, Petrova resembles Hantuchova in her game’s suitability to grass as well as her mental frailty when she earns an opportunity to defeat an opponent above her level. In her section lurks another champion of this month, Oudin, who seeks to survive the first round at consecutive majors as the North American hard courts approach. If Venus can summon even flashes of the tennis that allowed her to dominate this tournament for the last decade, she can overcome any of these obstacles with her experience and composure. Beyond Radwanska, her most plausible threat may come from Pennetta, who improbably has compiled a winning record against her on surfaces fast and slow.
Two of the three first-time major titlists produced by 2011 could meet on the second Monday in the lower half of this section, one of whom fancies grass much more than the other. While Li has not played on grass this year and may need time to recover from her Roland Garros debacle, she proved herself one of the few women capable of standing toe to toe with a surging Serena at Wimbledon—at least for a set. Overpowering servers still can rattle the Chinese champion, but she will face none of them in a first week of straightforward baseliners whose power her counterpunching can absorb. On the other hand, Roland Garros semifinalist Stosur rarely has savored her visits to the All England Club despite weapons that would seem aptly designed for grass: a robust serve and crisp volleys. When an Italian last denied her late in the Paris fortnight, she could not recover in time to mount a worthy threat at Wimbledon. Perhaps more likely to face Li in the second week instead, then, is her compatriot Peng Shuai. Enduring an unremarkable season to date, Peng’s compact swings and low contact point should mirror the strengths of this surface. Li has struggled at times against her compatriots because of the odd emotional dynamic, so an all-Chinese clash on the second Monday would pose an intriguing test.
Third quarter: As Serena’s star waned and Kvitova’s waxed last year, onlookers eagerly await the moment when these shot-making juggernauts would intersect. That moment might arrive in the quarterfinals this fortnight, yet the uncertain form of both women this season leaves such an outcome far from certain. After the embarrassment of her loss to Razzano at Roland Garros, Serena surely will attack her first few opponents with vigor redoubled. The contrast in power notwithstanding, Zheng Jie has caused her headaches at times with her aggressive returning and combative energy, which propelled the doubles specialist to a singles title this year and a strong week in Birmingham. Serena generally finds that type of opponent more formidable than shot-makers like herself (see S for possible fourth-round opponent Safarova), whom she can outserve and outhit from the baseline with her superior athleticism. Among the more intriguing storylines of this section is the question of whether Errani can build upon her magnificent Roland Garros achievement to consolidate her newfound status in the top 10. No longer just a clay specialist, this latest Italian reached the quarterfinals in Melbourne but would need to battle past Serena and perhaps Roland Garros sensation Shvedova to do the same here.
In one of the most enigmatic seasons for a leading contender on either Tour, Kvitova has reached the semifinals at both majors while frequently falling early at other tournaments as she has succumbed to illness, injury, and her inherent inconsistency. The defending Wimbledon champion has played only two matches against top-10 opponents since the Australian Open, both straight-sets loss to Sharapova, and will feel greatly relieved to see the Russian in the opposite half of the draw. Recalling her ludicrously toothless draw at Roland Garros are the early rounds at this tournament, where she should feel little pressure against the likes of Pavlyuchenkova , Baltacha, and Lepchenko, whom she crushed last month. Of some interest is the first-round meeting between 2008 junior champion Laura Robson and Schiavone, largely because the italian’s almost total obsolescence offers the feisty youngster an opportunity to secure the most significant victory of her career. Threatened before by Cibulkova, Kvitova could face last year’s quarterfinalist at the start to the second week in a true test of her mental resilience. If she displays the confidence necessary to overcome that obstacle, she might knock on Serena’s door with the confidence that she needs to outlast her fellow champion. Once the American marches deep into a tournament, though, she becomes increasingly focused and thus more difficult to defeat. A stubborn competitor herself, Kvitova would face the daunting challenge of conquering Serena at her own game.
Fourth quarter: Many are the intriguing characters and narratives that populate this section, from Wozniacki’s decline to Kuznetsova’s stagnation to Bartoli’s mood to Azarenka’s counterattack against her first adversity since she became #1. Adding further layers of curiosity, Eastbourne champion Paszek ad Dutch Open champion Urszula Radwanska hope to continue their overachieving ways in a quarter that also features the youngest woman in the draw (Australia’s Ashleigh Barty) and the oldest woman (Japan’s Kimiko Date-Krumm). Having claimed boldly that she could win Wimbledon this year, despite having no semifinals here to her name, Wozniacki could play her first two matches against June champions Paszek and Cornet, her third against Kuznetsova, and her fourth against Bartoli. That sequence of tests could steel her, if she passes them, for the challenge of meeting her friend Vika for the first time since they traded positions at the top ranking. Barely edging into a seeded position, Kuznetsova will hope to disrupt that appointment by playing more as she did in her Paris victory over Radwanska than as she did in her Paris loss to Errani a round later. Able to subdue Serena last year in one of her strongest single-match efforts ever, Bartoli finds the grass ideally suited to her double-fisted style but may find her strategy complicated by the multifaceted style of Roberta Vinci, who can measure her biting backhand slice to the surface’s low bounce.
Unimpressive in the first week at Roland Garros, Azarenka telegraphed early signs of vulnerability that she must seek to avoid here. Although none of her opponents leaps off the draw as a genuine upset threat, neither did Alberta Brianti in the first round of the last major. Within range of regaining #1 after this tournament, the second seed will aim to unleash plenty of penetrating returns against the modest servers in her section. When she reaches the second week, a more imposing server could loom in the person of Ivanovic or Goerges. Neither brunette has showcased her finest tennis on grass, preferring the longer reaction time of slower surfaces, and both start against skillful opponents in Martinez Sanchez and Peer. If Vika does emerge from this section, which seems likely, she may tackle the intriguing task of regaining her mastery over Bartoli. Outside a retirement at Eastbourne last year, Azarenka had dominated the double-fister in virtually all of their meetings until a loss at Istanbul in November (in essentially a dead rubber) and the streak-stopper at Miami in March. The weary Australian Open champion found no answers for Bartoli on that occasion, but the pressure now rests on her to reaffirm her supremacy.
Final: Sharapova vs. Serena
Champion: Serena Williams