Wimbledon 2016: No Azarenka, no Sharapova, so if not Serena Williams, then who?

Can anyone stop Serena Williams from winning a seventh title at Wimbledon this year?

The pressure, it seems, gets to even the very best. A year ago, when Serena Williams won her sixth Wimbledon title, she was on the cusp of equalling one of the most dominant records in tennis: the 22 Major singles titles won by Steffi Graf.

What’s more, many could see few impediments to Williams arriving at the defence of her title here this year shoulder to shoulder with the all-time record of Margaret Court, with 24. After all, Williams headed the rankings by a country mile, had won all four Majors in a row—for the second time, as it happens—and was in the physical shape of her life.

What few anticipated was that Williams would struggle to overcome the biggest foe of all: herself.

It did not help, perhaps, that the first shot at her 22nd title came in front of her biggest audience and her greatest fans, at the US Open.

The defending champion had won there three times in a row, but now would have to face and beat three American women, including her sister Venus. By the time she faced a third set against Roberta Vinci in the semis, Williams could find no more. Exhausted physically and emotionally, she did not play again in 2015.

In her first tournament back, Williams looked certain to do it in Australia, and barely dropped a game let alone a set in her swift progress to the final, only to be beaten by Angelique Kerber in the performance of her life, again in three sets.

Williams rose to the challenge again by winning Rome in the lead up to Roland Garros, again looked sure to make No22, and lost only one set, until Garbine Muguruza won two sets in a row in the final. Suddenly Williams looked tense, stressed, and unable to control her own destiny.

Now, at Wimbledon, the writing is on the wall again. Now she has the pressure of “22” but also of “No1”. She will pass her 300th week during the fortnight, and reach 177 consecutive weeks—the second-longest ever streak—but each of the next four seeds, Muguruza, Agnieszka Radwanska, Kerber, and Simona Halep, has a shot at the top. Once again, Williams destiny is in her own hands.

No pressure, then—as she assured the media in her pre-tournament conference: “Well, this year I don’t feel as much tension as I usually do. I’m feeling pretty good. I don’t feel any pressure or stress.”

Not that she or any other player would admit to it, any more than they would admit to looking deeper into the draw than their first opponent.

In Williams’ case, though, such a look provides interesting reading. For her 17th Wimbledon has done the champion no favours.

Williams-Vinci quarter

After a qualifier, the second round brings Williams either Christina McHale or Daniela Hantuchova, and then, in a strange twist of fate, the same third-round home-grown meeting with Briton Heather Watson, who pushed the world No1 to a 7-5 third set in one of the matches of last year’s tournament.

However, Williams is more likely to face the in-form French woman, No31 seed Kristina Mladenovic, followed by either Sloane Stephens, who has taken the first set from Williams in three of their six matches, or one of the other Major champions in the field, No13 seed Svetlana Kuznetsova. However, in perhaps the best match of the first round, the Russian will play the unseeded former No1, Caroline Wozniacki, who is making her way back from injury.

In another twist, Williams could play the woman who beat her in the US Open, Vinci, in the quarters, though ‘s-Hertogenbosch champion Coco Vandeweghe and No11 seed Timea Bacsinszky are alternative seeds, and the feisty Italian will be tested by Alison Riske in the first round.

Kvitova-Radwanska quarter

The two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova, though not the highest seed in the her eighth, will hope to face former Wimbledon finalist Radwanska for a chance to meet reach the semis.

Radwanska’s segment is particularly challenging, with her first being No30 Caroline Garcia, who has just won the new Mallorca title, then possibly home favourite Johanna Konta, seeded here for the first time and at a career-high 16, though the Briton faces an unseeded player making a great grass run in Monica Puig, a semi-finalist in Nottingham and Eastbourne.

If it is not Konta for Radwanska, then it is likely to be Eastbourne champion Dominika Cibulkova, who beat Radwanska on her way to that title, or another former Wimbledon finalist, Eugenie Bouchard.

Kvitova opens against Sorana Cirstea, then could face Eastbourne quarter-finalist Ekaterina Makarova, and her first seed is Birmingham finalist Barbora Strycova. To reach the quarters, she is likely to face the top seed in this eighth, Belinda Bencic, who made the semis in ’s-Hertogenbosch but has been carrying a leg injury since, and was troubled by back problems throughout the clay season.

Kerber-Halep quarter

On paper, the No4 and No5 seeds, Kerber and Halep respectively, should vie with one another for a tilt at the semis and, beyond that, the No1 ranking.

Kerber’s opener against Laura Robson is an interesting one, as the home darling, making her way back to the tour after two years of injury woes, has the weapons to upset Kerber if she plays to her old form. While still a teenager, Robson beat Kerber in their first-round contest here in 2011 in a compelling three-setter.

Should Kerber or Robson make the fourth round, there is another big hurdle in the shape of Karolina Pliskova, whose grass credentials include the Nottingham title and a final finish in Eastbourne this week. However she has a dangerous opener against Yanina Wickmayer, with Ana Ivanovic in the third round.

Halep’s segment includes Birmingham champion and No9 seed Madison Keys as a possible fourth-round opponent. Neither of the other seeds, though—Sara Errani and Kiki Bertens—have enjoyed much grass success, but Halep’s form is untested after she pulled out of her only grass event with an Achilles problem.

Muguruza-Venus Williams quarter

Muguruza, the French Open champion and a finalist here last year, has shown she has the temperament as well as the game for the biggest stages. So while her only venture onto grass since Paris was a first-round loss in Mallorca, she is strongly favoured for a strong run again at Wimbledon.

Her route is tricky. Her opener is Camila Giorgi, with Lucie Safarova, a former Wimbledon semi-finalist, as her first seed, while the fourth round could bring Elina Svitolina, Sam Stosur or former Wimbledon finalist, Sabine Lisicki. All that before a possible quarter-final against the elder Williams sister.

The formidable No8 seed and five-time champion is playing her 19th Wimbledon, though she has not reached the quarters since 2010. Seeds who may trip her up are Daria Kasatkina, Jelena Jankovic and Carla Suarez Navarro.

Also worth knowing

British women

Konta, seeded No16—opens against Puig, (Bouchard R2)
Watson, ranked No50—opens against Annika Beck (Serena Williams R3)
Naomi Broady, ranked No84—opens against No17 seed Svitolina
Tara Moore, wild card, ranked No229—opens against Alison van Uytvanck (Kuznetsova or Wozniacki in R2)
Laura Robson, wild card, ranked No294—opens against Kerber
Katie Swan, wild card, ranked No441—opens against Timea Babos

Previous Wimbledon champions/finalists in draw

Winners: Serena Williams (six times and defending from eight finals), Venus Williams (five times from eight finals), Kvitova (twice)
Runners-up: Muguruza, Bouchard, Lisicki, Radwanska once each

Other Major champions in draw

Kuznetsova, Ivanovic, Francesca Schiavone, Stosur, Kerber

Targeting No1 ranking

Muguruza, Radwanska and Kerber have to reach at least the final to stand a chance; Halep would need to win with Williams winning not a match.

Grass winners this season

Nottingham: Pliskova beat Riske
‘s-Hertogenbosch: Vandeweghe beat Mladenovic
Birmingham: Keys beat Strycova
Mallorca: Garcia beat Sevastova
Eastbourne: Cibulkova beat Pliskova

Age no barrier

The draw has 16 over-30s, with Venus Williams and Schiavone the oldest at 36. Jankovic, age 31, has the longest active streak of Major appearances—Wimbledon will be her 51st.
There are six teenagers in the draw: youngest is 17-year-old Swan, and two 19-year-olds are seeded, Bencic and Kasatkina

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