Wimbledon 2014: Can the cream of the crop take on Williams & Sharapova?

Wimbledon 2014 women's draw preview: Can anyone stop Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova at the championships?

maria sharapova
Maria Sharapova is the fifth seed at Wimbledon Photo: Mirsasha/Flickr

Serena Williams, top seed, world No1, 17-time Grand Slam champion and five times Wimbledon champion, has been working hard on the All England Club’s pristine emerald courts.

Not for her one of the intervening grass events that ease most women through the challenging transition from clay to grass.

She is, as she has been at almost every tournament since she won the first of her Wimbledon titles in 2002, the favourite to add to her tally of Majors, and the faster surface of grass is as good a place as any for her big serving, bit-hitting, aggressive game.

Yet one year ago, also favoured to defend her 2012 title—which she had backed up a month later with Olympic gold on the same court—she was a surprise loser in the fourth round to Sabine Lisicki.

The German went on to reach the final and affirm her own status as one of tennis’s best women on grass, not falling short of the quarters in her last four appearances. Her reward, in the absence of the woman who beat her here last year, Marion Bartoli—who retired after winning her first Major—is to fill the slot usually given to the defending champion on Centre Court on opening Tuesday.

But what of Williams? The 32-year-old American was also tipped to win the Australian Open—and again lost in the fourth round—as well as at Roland Garros, where she was defending champion—but made a hasty Round 2 exit. So Williams has a point to make, and most expect that she will.

Then there is the Sharapova question. It may be wrong to call theirs a rivalry—it has been too one-sided for that, with Williams having won their last 15 matches. It is a decade since the Russian was the shock winner in their first Wimbledon battle, the final of 2004, and Sharapova went on to beat Williams again at the WTA Championships, but has not since got the better of her nemesis.

However, Sharapova’s comeback from persistent shoulder problems—she dropped to a ranking of No9 by the start of this year’s clay season having missed the last five months of 2013—has shown not just resilience and self-belief but a few more weapons in her armoury.

She arrived at Wimbledon with her second consecutive French Open title, and her advances on the red dirt has come with improved footwork and mobility, just the qualities she needs on grass. Her serve too—though still sometimes wayward—is a big shot when it finds its mark.

Her tactical nous has sharpened, too. Enough to upset Williams? We may find out if both make it to the quarter-finals for, as luck would have it, the two super-stars of women’s tennis are drawn to cross swords there.

Apart from Williams and Sharapova, there are two more former Wimbledon champions in the field: Serena’s sister, Venus, a five-time winner; and Petra Kvitova, who denied Sharapova in the 2011 final.

But this summer, there are some real signs of cream rising to the top of the seedings. All of the top eight have reached at least a Grand Slam final, all have been ranked in the top three, and the top seven have all won a grass title during their careers.

Some may be counted as exciting new blood, like 22-year-old Simona Halep who stands at a career-high No3 after reaching her first Grand Slam final in Paris.

Some may be regarded as old hands reasserting youthful achievement: 29-year-old Jelena Jankovic is back to No7 in the rankings after becoming No1 six years ago but falling out of the top 20 in 2012.

And looking outside the scheduled quarter-final seedings, there are some young prospects who have been making their move into the big time.

The 20-year-old Garbine Muguruza was outside the top 100 18 months ago and is now at 27 with a first title and an impressive showing against Sharapova in the French Open quarters.

Another 20 year old with her first title this season is Eugenie Bouchard, up at No13 from 32 at the start of the year and with two Grand Slam semis on her resume. Meanwhile 19-year-old Madison Keys has just won her first title on the grass of Eastbourne.

So will the grass throw the form-book out of the window or will it weed out the wheat from the chaff to crown a familiar name?

Serena Williams quarter

There is no denying that Williams has a pretty tough draw if she is to reach her allotted place in the final weekend. Although she opens against No114 Anna Tatishvili, she could meet Alize Cornet in the third round, and the Frenchwoman defeated Williams earlier this year in Dubai.

Then things get still more interesting. In the fourth round, Williams could meet the all-court skill and power of either Andrea Petkovic or Bouchard, who both proved their 2014 form in reaching the Roland Garros semis.

Bouchard impressed against Sharapova in Paris, but she forms half of one of the opening matches in the draw against former world No5, Daniela Hantuchova. If she advances, her match-up with Petkovic, who has returned from persistent injury problems with a vengeance, jumps off the page.

In the lower segment, Sharapova’s run is also tricky. She opens against British wild card Samantha Murray but then could face compatriot Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in the third round. An alternative, though, is Camila Giorgi, who beat Sharapova in Indian Wells.

Sharapova is slated to meet either No9 seed Angelique Kerber—finalist in Eastbourne—or 2013 Wimbledon semi-finalist Kirsten Flipkens in the fourth-round before her scheduled match with Williams.

Semi-finalist: Williams

Simona Halep quarter

Simona Halep, the form player of the Tour over the last year, hit the grass running with the second of six titles that she won in 2013 in ‘s-Hertogenbosch.

Although she retired in the second round there this week with a shoulder problem, she assured press in London that all was now well. She has gone from strength to strength this year, pushing Sharapova to the limit in the French Open final. And her segment at Wimbledon is a decent one as far as the quarters.

She opens against the 91-ranked Teliana Pereira, with possibly compatriot Sorana Cirstea in the third round, then either No21 Roberta Vinci or No14 Carla Suarez Navarro, before facing Jankovic in the quarters.

The Serb has a tougher run, not least an opener against Kaia Kanepi, plus a lurking Keys, fresh from her first title, in the third. And the fourth round promises headlines, with Jankovic’s opponent likely to come the winner between Ivanovic, who has just won in Birmingham, and Lisicki.

Whoever makes the last eight will certainly have earned their place: A Halep-Lisicki quarter-final, though, should produce fireworks, especially on grass.

Also here is an array of teenage talent: last year’s junior titlist, Belinda Bencic, Victoria Duval, Donna Vekic and Taylor Townsend—who could meet Keys in the second round.

Semi-finalist: Halep

Agnieszka Radwanska quarter

The popular Pole comes to grass with some strong results on hard courts and middling ones on clay—give or take a semi run on the faster red stuff in Madrid. But she has some real ability on the green stuff, her smart, tactical and slice-packed game taking her to the final in 2012 and the semis last year.

She could well make the semis again, unless Victoria Azarenaka, herself twice a Wimbledon semi-finalist, finds enough form and fitness to take her place if they meet in the quarters.

Seeded a lowly No8 after missing most of the season with an ankle injury, Azarenka made her return in Eastbourne but lost her opener, so is an unknown quantity. And the third round holds one of those young players tipped to make an impression here, Muguruza, the Spaniard who shocked Williams en route to the quarters at Roland Garros.

The dangerous Lucie Safarova and Dominika Cibulkova compete in an intriguing third round to meet Azarenka in the fourth, with Cibulkova now a Grand Slam finalist.

The highest seed in Radwanska’s eighth is clay specialist, Sara Errani, but she faces a threat in the third round from the unpredictable former US Open and French Open champion, Svetlana Kuznetsova.

Also here, and facing Muguruza in the first round, is s’-Hertogenbosch winner Vandeweghe. The American won their recent grass encounter.

The oldest woman in the draw, Kimiko Date-Krumm, opens against No22 seed Ekaterina Makarova, in the Errani segment.

Semi-finalist: Radwanska

La Na quarter

Li’s quarter is packed with former Grand Slam winners aside from herself, the reigning Australian champion. Fortunately, she avoids the biggest threats until the fourth round, where she is slated to meet the winner between former No1 Caroline Wozniacki and former US Open champion Sam Stosur.

Then Li could find herself against one of the few women to have won the Wimbledon title, No6 seed Petra Kvitova, though the tall Czech may have to face the five-time former champion, Venus Williams, in the third round. The last two matches between them were decided in a third-set tie-breaker, so expect a contest of the highest order.

Kvitova’s section also poses Sloane Stephens, a quarter-finalist last year, or Flavia Pennetta in the fourth round, but if Li is to advance beyond her Wimbledon best quarter finish last year, she will most likely have to face and beat Kvitova in a first meeting on grass.

Semi-finalist: Li

Final: Williams beats Radwanska

There are five British women in the draw:

No70 Heather Watson plays No52, Ajla Tomljanovic;
Jo Konta, No109, is up against No60, Shuai Peng;
Naomi Broady, No164, plays Timea Babos, ranked 94;
No 242 Samantha Murray faces No5 Maria Sharapova;
No245 Tara Moore plays Vera Zvonareva (former world No2 and a Wimbledon finalist in 2010, though currently ranked 561 after long injury lay-off)

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