Wimbledon braced for new women’s shock

37
Jeļena Ostapenko
Reuters

With Serena Williams preparing for the birth of her first child and Maria Sharapova sidelined by a thigh injury, the race to be crowned Wimbledon champion is the most wide-open in a generation.

Having stepped away from the court as she waits to become a mother in September, Williams, who won Wimbledon in 2015 and 2016, has created a power vacuum at the top that Sharapova was expected to fill when the Russian returned from her doping suspension.

Instead, Sharapova lasted just three tournaments before a muscle injury in Rome forced the five-time major winner to withdraw from the Wimbledon qualifying tournament.

In the absence of American great Williams, who has 23 Grand Slam titles on her CV, and the headline-grabbing Sharapova, women’s tennis has an undeniable lack of star power heading into Wimbledon, which gets underway on Monday.

But the flip-side is the opportunity for the sport’s less heralded names to seize the spotlight, as Latvia’s Jelena Ostapenko showed with her unexpected breakthrough triumph at the French Open.

“There are about 15 women who could win this year. It’s one of the most open ever,” said John Lloyd, a former British men’s number one now working as a BBC commentator.

Ostapenko, 20, shot up to 13th in the world after coming from a set and 3-0 down to defeat Simona Halep in the Roland Garros final.

Now she has to prove that stunning success was more than a flash in the pan.

A junior Wimbledon champion in 2014, Ostapenko’s game is well suited for the low-bouncing lawns of the All England Club, now that she had learned to enjoy a surface she once thought was only “for soccer”.

While Ostapenko arrives in London on a wave of post-Paris euphoria, world number two Halep is still struggling to come to terms with her failure to win her first Grand Slam.

Three games away from the title and the world number one ranking, Halep crumbled to her second major final defeat — the other coming at the 2014 French Open.

The 25-year-old Romanian has never been past the semi-finals at Wimbledon, but would dearly love to break her title drought over the next fortnight.

– Horrific injury –

“I still have, before going to sleep, some thoughts about that final,” Halep said.

“The very tough thought is one set, 3-0 up. That one is killing me actually.”

Halep’s battle with current number one Angelique Kerber for pole position in the WTA rankings will be an intriguing sub-plot at Wimbledon.

Kerber needs to improve dramatically after making unwanted history when her defeat against Ekaterina Makarova made her the first top-ranked woman in the Open era to fall in the opening round at Roland Garros. 

Beaten by Serena in the Wimbledon final 12 months ago, Kerber, who won the Australian and US Opens last year, has yet to claim a single WTA title in 2017.

If Petra Kvitova gets her hands on the Venus Rosewater Dish for a third time, it would complete a fairytale comeback for the Czech following the horrific hand injury she sustained while being attacked by a knife-wielding burglar in her home in December.

Kvitova, the Wimbledon champion in 2011 and 2014, was out of action for six months, but she returned at the French Open before winning the Birmingham title on grass last week.

The 27-year-old pulled out of Eastbourne due to an abdominal injury, but hopes to make a strong run at her favourite Grand Slam.

“I’ve been through a very difficult time in my life. Winning in Birmingham gives me some extra confidence that I am still able to fight,” she said.

Four-time Wimbledon winner Venus Williams, aged 37, will be another sentimental favourite. 

Former world number one Victoria Azarenka is back in action after taking a year off to become a mother.

“My life has taken a 180-degree turn but I have not lost my competitive spirit,” Azarenka said.