The Fab Five, Revisited: Wimbledon 2013 Women’s Contenders

Serena Williams, about to make lethal look effortless.

Serena Williams, about to make lethal look effortless.

This companion to a Monday article on the Wimbledon men’s field discusses five key women to watch during the next fortnight.  Tennis Grandstand will feature a joint preview on the men’s and women’s draws after they appear, but this article provides a general overview of the contenders.

1)     Serena Williams:  One woman in the Wimbledon draw holds more singles titles there than all of the other 127 combined.  In each successive appearance, Serena sets a new tournament ace record as she showcases the shot that separates her from the competition, and that separated her sister from the competition before her.  She has not lost a match since February, compiling a streak of 31 consecutive victories that she seeks to extend from hard courts through clay to grass.  But the most impressive statistic regarding Serena, who pursues her 17th major title, may be her stranglehold over the other women on this list.  The 31-year-old veteran owns a 31-4 career mark against the rest of the top four, so her greatest test could come from an unheralded opponent in the early rounds.  Or it could come from her health, the only reason why she does not currently hold all four of the major titles.

2)     Victoria Azarenka:  In the last twelve months, Azarenka has lost to only one match to someone other than Serena on a surface other than clay.  That span included a Wimbledon semifinal and a bronze medal at the Olympics, which showed that she can contend on grass despite a relatively modest serve.  Now a two-time major champion, Azarenka probably has not reached her peak period yet.  She still needs to prove that she can defeat a healthy Serena at a major, and her own health remains a significant question mark.  Azarenka issues walkovers, retirements, and withdrawals at a much higher rate than most of her contemporaries, although she rarely retires from a major.  While grass does not suit her reliance on rhythmic baseline rallies and frequent service breaks, it does reward her crisp footwork and groundstroke depth.  Moreover, her feistiness leaves her unruffled by the magnitude of the sport’s grandest stage.

3)     Maria Sharapova:  If Azarenka needs to prove that she can defeat Serena at a major, Sharapova needs to prove that she can defeat Serena anywhere.  Four losses to the American this year have left her not clearly closer to doing so, but she reasserted herself in another key rivalry last month.  Defeating Azarenka in a compelling Roland Garros semifinal, Sharapova extended a four-month, seven-tournament span during which she has not lost to anyone but Serena.  She often labels Wimbledon her favorite tournament, probably because she broke through there for her first major title in 2004.  Over the last few years, Sharapova has shifted away (a bit) from the quick-strike tennis that shone so brightly on grass.  Past the fourth round only once in her last six Wimbledon appearances, she prefers surfaces that give her more time to aim her weapons.  Perceptibly taller than in 2004, Sharapova can struggle with the low bounce on grass.

4)     Agnieszka Radwanska:  Associated with the grip-it-and-rip-it style of shot-makers like Sharapova or the Williams sisters, grass also can showcase the more subtle talents of last year’s finalist.  Among them are compact swings, keen reflexes, and deft touch at the net, which have made Radwanska a serial quarterfinalist at Wimbledon.  Her 2012 appearance there marked the only time in eight attempts that she has advanced past the quarterfinals at any major, and she profited from an especially accommodating draw.  Gone in the first round of Eastbourne last week, Radwanska has recorded reasonably consistent results for most of 2013 that have kept her entrenched at No. 4.  On the other hand, she has not produced anything spectacular this season to move higher up the hierarchy.  Radwanska has improved her serve over the years, but it remains a vulnerability that costs her on a surface where holding serve matters so much.

5)     Petra Kvitova:  The only woman not named Williams to win here since 2006, Kvitova defeated Azarenka and Sharapova en route to the 2011 title.  She has not lost to anyone but Serena here since 2009, although her results at majors have dwindled over the last year.  A fourth-round exit at the US Open preceded first-week losses at the Australian Open and Roland Garros, where Kvitova had reached the semifinals in 2012.  She might need to defeat all of the top three women in succession, but her enormous first strikes on serve and return can trouble any opponent on a fast surface.  Kvitova’s main challenge lies in sustaining her form for more than a few matches at a time, or even from start to finish in one match.  Too often playing to the level of the competition, she must show more discipline this fortnight.