Women at Wimbledon: 2011 Preview

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The French Open provided a lot of excitement earlier this month, but Wimbledon is setting up some heart-racing story lines as well. It's been a bumpy road for the women's tour lately so it will be interesting to see how things shake out at the All England Club.

Wimbledon remains the only major still contested on grass and it is a vastly different game than the one played on the red clay at Roland Garros or the blue hardcourt in Melbourne. Players who win a final on Wimbledon's Centre Court realize a lifelong dream as it is the oldest, and considered the most prestigious, of the four Grand Slam championships.

Held in the suburbs of London, Wimbledon is well-known for its pomp and circumstance including the very British afternoon tea, scones, clotted cream and strawberries along with a perfectly manicured grounds, trimmed topiaries and a strict all-white dress code. Don't be fooled however. With all the tradition there's still plenty of wild action at Wimbledon. Who, and what stories, will we be watching for this year?

Image Credit: ZUMApress.com

Venus & Serena

The big question for The Championships is whether the Williams sisters, who have both had extended absences from the game due to serious health issues, will restore balance to the topsy-turvy women's competition?

Venus and Serena can't really be compared to any other women on the tour because this sister act is just so darn dominant. The pair have won nine of the past 11 Wimbledon finals. In that time, only two other women have taken home the title (Amelie Mauresmo in 2006 and Maria Sharapova in 2004). In fact, the 10 top-ranked players have just nine major titles between them.

There are only five women in tennis history who have won more major singles championships than Serena. (Trivia time: Who are they? Margaret Court (24), Steffi Graf (22), Helen Wills Moody (19), Chris Evert (18) and Martina Navratilova (18)). Among active players, Serena ranks No. 1 with 13 wins, followed by Venus with seven.

In this year's women's draw, the seventh-seeded Serena and big sister Venus  are in opposite halves, setting up the possibility for a fifth sibling final at the All England Club. Such a match could provide a big boost for U.S. television. The 2008 Venus Williams' straight-set victory over sister Serena had  a 3.4 rating and a 10 share on NBC.

Serena, who has won four Wimbledon titles, is 3-1 against five-time champion Venus in the final match. Twenty-nine year-old Serena may be more of a threat than Venus, who turned 31 on Friday, because she is a better all-around player who excels on grass.

The big question on everyone's mind is whether Serena can draw on her super powers after such a long absence. She has played only two matches since winning Wimbledon last year due to life-threatening complications from an injury. Just four months ago, she was on what she calls her "death bed," laboring to breathe because of blood clots on her lungs. Before that, Serena sliced open right foot open on a shard of glass at a restaurant, severing two tendons, then had double surgery to repair the damage and was in a cast for 20 weeks.

Serena returned to play in Eastbourne this week for her Wimbledon warm-up, and while her game and fitness weren't what we're used to seeing, she showed she can still dig as deep as ever. She managed to recover from a 1-6 first set to beat Tsvetana Pironkova before losing in three sets (3-6, 7-6 (5), 7-5) to No. 3-ranked Vera Zvonareva in an improved second round.

As the defending Wimbledon champion, Serena's first-round match will open play on Centre Court on Tuesday. The former world No. 1 will play France's Aravane Rezai and could meet former Wimbledon runner-up Marion Bartoli in the fourth round in the top half of the draw. The ninth-seeded French Bartoli lost to Venus in the 2007 finale.

Venus also returned to the courts this week in Eastbourne, after being sidelined with a hip injury for almost five months. She lost to Daniela Hantuchova in the quarterfinals. Zvonareva, the new no.2 seed at Wimbledon, could meet Venus, who has been seeded 22nd, in the fourth round. The elder Williams will open against Akgul Amanmuradova of Uzbekistan while Zvonareva is scheduled to play Alison Riske of the United States. 

 

Top Seeds

Top-seeded Caroline Wozniacki, the No. 1-ranked player looking for her first Grand Slam title, meets Arantxa Parra Santonja of Spain in the first round. The popular Dane could sail through until a potential quarterfinal matchup against either the former No. 1 and three-time major champion Sharapova or 10th-seeded 2010 Roland Garros finalist Samantha Stosur. If she wins her early matches, Wozniaki could meet either Li or Serena in the semifinals.

French Open champion Li Na, the third seed who has appeared in both Grand Slam finals this year, will open her Wimbledon fortnight against Russian Alla Kudryavtseva. Li is a better grass court player than she is on clay, making her victory at the French Open all the more surprising. She has a potentially tough second-round match against Sabine Lisicki, who won the Birmingham title on grass last week and was awarded one of four wild cards at Wimbledon. Li's best results at Wimbledon were in 2010 and 2006, when she reached the quarterfinals. The Chinese sensation could meet Serena in this year's quarterfinal match which should be an exciting match-up.

The world No. 2 and reigning Australian and U.S. Open champion Clijsters dropped out of Wimbledon this week due to a foot injury (apparently unrelated to a recent ankle injury). With Clijsters, who is always a major contender, out of the tournament, the eventual winner has one less top name to face en route to a Wimbledon victory.

Maria Sharapova, the 2004 Wimbledon champion, will open against fellow Russian Anna Chakvetadze. If she's fully recovered from her shoulder injury and is playing as well as she has been this year, Sharapova could face the Aussie Stosur in the fourth round. After a surprise Wimbledon victory over Serena when she was just 17 years old, Sharapova has won only two other Grand Slam events, and none since her 2008 shoulder surgery. She recently said that a 2011 win at Wimbledon would mean more than any other title in her career.

Sixth-seeded French Open runner- up and 2010 Roland Garros winner Francesca Schiavone will open against former top-10 Aussie Jelena Dokic, a finalist on grass in The Netherlands this week. Schiavone could meet Azarenka in the final four.

Dark Horses:  It's tough to imagine anyone but Serena or Venus having a shot at the title. But if a player gets past either sister in any of the rounds leading up to the final, they could go all the way. Petra Kvitova from the Czech Republic, is the top lefthander on the women's tour. The powerful baseline player made it to the Wimbledon semifinals last year, beating Azarenka and Wozniacki in straight sets, before losing to Serena. However Kvitova was ousted in the final at Eastbourne on Saturday by Marion Bartoli. With Bartoli's victory at the Wimbledon tune-up, and a prior Wimbledon final under her belt, she could come into the All England Club with a lot of confidence but she has to beat Serena in the fourth round to make a run.  Li is also a possibility if she can defeat Serena in the quarter-finals and if Zvonareva, the new no. 2 seed, can get past Venus, she's a legitimate threat as well.

 

It all comes down to how mentally tough the players are. As Solomon Ryan of the Bleacher Report writes:

Tennis is a mind game, and last year after Francesca Schiavone won the French, she sort of fell of the map for a little while. Not only that, on the heels of her 2010 French Open victory, Schiavone was routed in the first round of last year’s Wimbledon to Vera Douchevina, a player who nobody had heard of before or since.

Grand Slams are up there at the pinnacle of sporting events and this year's Wimbledon promises major drama. What we'll see - especially in the women's game - is anyone's guess. Will Serena make a comeback from a year-long health sabbatical to defend her title? Will the No. 1-ranked Caroline Wozniacki shake the monkey off her back and capture her first major title to prove she's worthy of the top seed? Could Li Na, the new toast of China, win her second Grand Slam in a row? Will Sharapova, one of the highest paid female tennis players in the world, end her slump and prove she's still a top contender? Or will the women's Wimbledon winner be a total surprise much like the 2011 (and 2010) French Open? Whatever happens, it will definitely be interesting.

The action starts Monday.

Not near a television? Twitter to the rescue. Be sure to follow these sites and players to keep up with what’s happening.

@WTA Tour: http://www.twitter.com/WTATour (Sony Ericsson WTA Tour)
@WTA Results: http://www.twitter.com/wtaresults (WTA Results)
@Wimbledonhttp://twitter.com/wimbledon (Wimbledon)

@SerenaJWilliamshttp://www.twitter.com/serenajwilliams (Serena Williams)
@VenusesWilliamshttp://www.twitter.com/venuseswilliams (Venus Williams)
@CaroWozniackihttp://www.twitter.com/CaroWozniacki (Caroline Wozniacki)
@Jelena_Jankovichttp://www.twitter.com/jelena_jankovic (Jelena Jankovic)
@ClijstersKimhttp://www.twitter.com/clijsterskim (Kim Clijsters)
@Vika7http://www.twitter.com/vika7 (Victoria Azarenka)
@Justine_Heninhttp://www.twitter.com/Justine_Henin (Justine Henin)
@AnneKeothavonghttp://twitter.com/annekeothavong (Anne Keothavong)
@MirzaSania http://twitter.com/MirzaSania (Sania Mirza)

@jschonb

dare to dream

Also online at prettytough.com and womentalksports.com

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