Five women's storylines to watch at Wimbledon
While the men's game is enjoying a golden age brought on by unprecedented strength at the top, women's tennis has suffered in the absence of Serena Williams. Considered one of the all-time great players with 13 major titles, Williams won Wimbledon last July, and then missed nearly a year of competition with health problems related to a pair of surgeries needed to repair a ligament in her big toe.
Earlier this year, Williams' career appeared to be in jeopardy, due to her time away from the court, the serious nature of her health problems, and her age (29). But she's also been the best women's player on the planet for the better part of a decade -- a steely-nerved competitor with powerful groundstrokes and a major weapon of a serve. Though she's currently ranked No. 26, she was given the seventh seed by the All-England Club brass in this, her second tournament back. And while she'll face talented Frenchwoman Aravane Rezai in the opening round and, potentially, the No. 3 seed Li Na in the quarterfinals, the two-time defending champion should have a good chance at claiming her fifth Wimbledon title.
There is precedent for Williams making a dramatic return to form: the 2007 Australian Open. Williams entered that tournament out of shape and ranked No. 81 in the world. Getting visibly fitter with each round, she kept raising her level of play up through the final, in which she destroyed Maria Sharapova, 6-1, 6-2, to take the title. Though four years have passed since that impressive display, Serena is still capable of finding her dominant form in short order, and her performance at the Eastbourne warm-up tournament -- a win over 2010 Wimbledon semifinalist Tsvetana Pironkova and then a three-set, three-plus-hour loss to world No. 3 Vera Zvonareva -- bodes well for the American's title chances.
Joy of six?
Serena's older sister, Venus, also is returning to tennis after a substantial layoff -- and she's seeking a sixth championship trophy (appropriately named the Venus Rosewater Dish). The eight-time Wimbledon finalist, who turned 31 on Friday, missed five months of competition this year with a hip flexor injury. She returned to play the tune-up tourney in Eastbourne, where she lost in the quarterfinals. Though the general consensus is that Venus' best tennis is behind her, grass is the one surface on which she can still hang with the best. Her age is not necessarily a liability, considering this year's French Open final featured a match-up of les anciennes: 29-year-old Li and 30-year-old Francesca Schiavone.
The only former Wimbledon champion in the draw who's not named Williams is Maria Sharapova, who, in 2004, at age 17, launched herself to superstardom by stunning Serena in straight sets in the final. Sharapova went on to win two more major titles before shoulder surgery in 2008 derailed her career. Now enjoying a resurgence, including a surprising run to this year's French Open semifinals on her worst surface, the No. 5 seed looks fit to contend for her second Wimbledon trophy. Cheering Sharapova from courtside will be her hoopster fiance, New Jersey Nets guard Sasha Vujacic.
If neither Williams sister is able to return to championship form during this Wimbledon fortnight, the tournament should give a number of unproven players the opportunity to claim her first major title, especially considering that world No. 2 Kim Clijsters has withdrawn with an ankle injury. Leading the list of the have-nots is world No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark. Wozniacki, 20, has spent 38 weeks atop the player rankings, but has only reached one Grand Slam final: the 2009 US Open. Also seeking her first Slam singles title is Russia's Vera Zvonareva, who lost to Serena in last year's Wimbledon final; and Australian veteran Sam Stosur, a 2010 French Open finalist. The participation of the fourth-seeded Victoria Azarenka, who has yet to make the semifinals of a Slam despite enormous potential, is in doubt after the Belarusian reaggravated a groin injury on Thursday.
Looking for a sleeper pick? Hantuchova is a name to commit to memory, and it's a breezy four syllables -- refreshing in a field that features Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Agnieszka Radwanska among the seeds. Daniela Hantuchova, 28, has never fulfilled the promise that she first showed at Wimbledon in 2003, when she made the quarters. But the Slovakian stunner has impressed this spring, taking out Wozniacki in the third round at the French Open, and defeating French Open champ Li and Venus this week at Eastbourne.
UPDATE: On Saturday at Eastbourne, Hantuchova retired from her semifinal against Petra Kvitova with an abdominal injury. The Slovak said after the match that she plans to have aggressive treatment in the hopes of being able to play when Wimbledon begins on Monday.