One of them, Serena Williams, can surely count herself among the greatest ever to take the honour.
With elder sister Venus, fellow five-time singles champion, sidelined with a back injury, there are just two other women in the draw who have tasted victory here: Petra Kvitova winning her single Major here in 2011, and Maria Sharapova, champion in 2004.
So not only is Serena looking to defend her title, she is—in the eyes of most—expected to defend it. And her record since she triumphed here last year is more than eloquent in explaining why.
She will arrive on her stage on Tuesday with an unbeaten run of five titles, from Miami’s hard courts to Roland Garros’s clay, and Charleston, Madrid and Rome in between, plus a couple of hard-court ties back in the States for Fed Cup.
She has not lost a match since February, a stretch of 31 consecutive victories.
Not surprisingly, she reclaimed the No1 ranking this February—the oldest woman to do so—and will remain there at least until after Wimbledon, 11 years after she first reached the top.
Williams may be the one to beat, but she heads a powerful trio that owns between them, in the last 12 months, all the Grand Slams and Premier Mandatories as well as a share of the No1 ranking. That trio still occupies the top three places: Williams at No1, Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka at No2—the last woman to beat Williams, in the Doha final—and Sharapova at No3 with the Indian Wells and Stuttgart titles.
Yet despite the credentials of Azarenka and Sharapova, the records of these two women against the mighty Serena are far from encouraging: Each has won only two matches against her. Williams, however, has won 14 against Sharapova, including four matches this season—indeed the Russian has not beaten her since 2004—and 12 against Azarenka.
And it is not just the number of victories but the nature of them. In the French Open final, Sharapova won only eight games. In the Rome final, Azarenka won just four.
So when the draw was made in SW19, the big question, just as in Paris, was whether Sharapova would fall into Williams’ half or in the rather more evenly balanced Azarenka half: The Russian has a 6-7 head-to-head against the Belarusian but has won their last two matches. And her wish was granted.
It turned out to be the No4 seed, Agnieszka Radwanska, who drew the short straw—though in fact, it was the popular Pole who reached the final against Williams last summer, and what’s more, she took the second set in a fine 6-1, 5-7, 6-2 performance.
This time, however, if Radwanska is to reach her second Major final, she will have to get past Williams—or hope that someone else does.
There are certainly some contenders, but it will take a great run indeed to prevent Williams from equalling Federer’s 17 singles Grand Slams.
Williams, in winning the French Open, has rarely sounded or looked more confident and healthy, so it is hard to see any early opponent beating her unless Williams has a lapse in concentration or is slow to warm up. It has happened—everyone will remember her shock first-round exit in Paris last year—but it is unlikely to come from Mandy Minella.
Her second opponent, Zheng Jie, is a reprise of their marathon meeting here last year, a two-and-a-half hour three setter that demanded 23 aces from Williams to seal the match, 9-7. But Williams is unlikely to allow a similar drama.
It is in round four that the big names sit. Former semi-finalist Sabine Lisicki, with a powerful game made for grass, faces the former French Open champion, Francesca Schiavone—playing her 52nd consecutive Major—in an intriguing opener, with former US Open champion, Sam Stosur, in the third round. If Stosur makes it to the quarters, Williams will be wary: the Australian beat her in the 2011 US Open title match.
The players lined up for the first quarter-final are No7 Angelique Kerber, also with a big power game, or one of the form players of season so far, Maria Kirilenko, who is in the top 10 for the first time in her career.
It is against Kirilenko that top-ranked Briton Laura Robson is drawn, and she often rises to the challenge on the big stage, so an upset is possible, but Tara Moore against Kaia Kanepi—and then probably Kerber—looks too big an ask.
The popular Pole made a real impression on Wimbledon and on Williams in her first Grand Slam final last year, and has reached the quarters twice before, too. There is no doubt that her deft and crafty game suits grass, but she has not enjoyed the most consistent form since winning the first two events in the pre-Australian Open swing.
So with an early exit in Eastbourne this week, she may not be tipped to repeat last year’s run, but she has a benign draw in the first couple of rounds. Her first seed is No30 Mona Barthel, with either Nadia Petrova and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova lined up for the fourth round.
Radwanska will have to overturn an inferior head-to-head against Na Li if she is to reach the quarters, though, and Li has already won both their meetings this year—albeit on hard courts.
One of the names that might challenge Li before that, though, is not a seed but Daniela Hantuchova, titlist in Birmingham and working hard on grass at Stoke Park this week. She looked in confident and sharp shape, but so has Simona Halep, a possible second-round opponent for Li. The Romanian has just won her first title and reached the semis in Rome: clay, maybe, but confidence breeds confidence.
British No2 Heather Watson sits in Radwanska’s eighth, and has a first meeting against teenager Madison Keys in the first round. Watson will, though, have some hopes of reaching the first weekend if her fitness is fully recovered from the bout of glandular fever that hit her spring season.
Sharapova looked super-relaxed when she arrived for her press obligations, and had no regrets about her decision to bypass any pre-Wimbledon tournament:
“I came straight to London after Paris, took a couple days off, and started practising. It’s been really nice. I have a couple of friends that are living here now, so been able to spend a bit of time. It’s nice to be in a quiet area listening to the birds singing instead of the taxis honking. And just practise.”
So the driven professional surfaced, showing how keen she is to win her second title in the place where she won her first as a teenager, nine years ago:
“It’s always just nice to get back to working, to playing, working on a few things here and there. Sometimes when you get in a groove of playing so many matches, you lose that work ethic a bit.”
Sharapova’s first week looks a straightforward one, too, though her first seed Lucie Safarova, pressed her hard on Stuttgart’s clay. She could meet former Wimbledon finalist, the recently inconsistent Marion Bartoli in fourth round.
The constantly-improving No5 seed Sara Errani, if she gets past Caroline Wozniacki, is a tough quarter-final opponent. The petite, attacking Italian pushed Sharapova hard in both Indian Wells and Miami this year, and rarely puts in a poor performance.
Sloane Stephens, who plays Eastbourne finalist and fellow American Jamie Hampton in her opener, is an alternative opponent for Errani if she produces her best against Wozniacki.
But Sharapova is second only to Williams in Grand Slam singles titles and in grass-court match-wins: It’s hard to see her not making the semis, though surprisingly, she has only got beyond the fourth round once since 2006—perhaps the result of her huge improvement.
Wild card Briton, No 232 Sam Murray, is in Bartoli’s segment and scheduled against No22 Sorana Cirstea in the second round.
Azarenka has managed to keep a low profile coming into Wimbledon and, like Williams and Sharapova, has steered clear of preparatory tournaments:
“I never like to play the week before a Grand Slam…the short period between the French Open, you need some time to recover, to be fresh.”
She has the kind of all-round game, movement and power that suggest she should excel on the grass, and indeed has reached the semis in the last two years, and won bronze at the London Olympics. And her draw looks a good one until the second week.
The fourth round brings one Serb on a surge, Jelena Jankovic—back up to 16 in the rankings—though the grass has never been a happy hunting ground for her.
Azarenka could, in theory, face another former No1 Serb in Ana Ivanovic in the quarters, but Kvitova looks the better bet to reach the quarters. Certainly a meeting between the 2011 champion and Azarenka could be the quarter of the women’s tournament, bearing in mind that Kvitova defeated Azarenka and Sharapova en route to the 2011 title.
However, a fourth-round exit at the US Open was followed by first-week losses at the Australian Open and Roland Garros for Kvitova. She may face all three top seeds to win her second title—and that would require much more consistency than she has shown all season except in Dubai.
Elena Baltacha, only recently back on tour, got her grass season off to a great start by winning in Nottingham and almost put out Kirilenko in Eastbourne. She plays Flavia Pennetta in her opener, with the prospect of Azarenka in the second round.
Jo Konta has a tough opener against Jankovic while Anne Keothavong is in Kvitova’s section.
Final: Williams beats Sharapova
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