Wimbledon begins this week, with the women’s game still dominated by the story lines, if not yet the form, of Serena Williams.
Williams enters the tournament seeded 25th in the singles draw, after the Wimbledon seeding committee used their discretionary powers to rank a player who has played only three tournaments in the past 12 months.
The most recent was an injury-curtailed appearance at the French Open that stopped short of offering conclusive evidence of Williams’s continued competitiveness at an elite level. Williams’s three early-round wins at Roland Garros were solid, but no proof that the 36-year-old would pick up where she left off before her maternity leave.
Yet in the year she has been out, no other player has managed to emphatically resolve the question of whether Williams’s absence represented the end of an era, or a curious interregnum period in a great champion’s sustained dominance.
A New Challenger?
The player who has come closest, perhaps, is Simona Halep. The No. 1-ranked player in the world is also the top seed at Wimbledon and, has finally broken a psychological barrier that seemed to afflict her in major finals.
Halep overcame Sloane Stephens at Roland Garros last month, ending a streak of three losses in Grand Slam finals.
In fact, the Romanian had lost six of the last seven finals she had played in, while otherwise being a model of consistency. She has reached at least the semifinals in six of the nine tournaments she has played this year, and even without a major title has been ranked No. 1 in the world since October.
By her own admission Halep has always had the talent, but had seemingly lacked the psychological and physical dimension to do more than plateau near the peak of the game.
Speaking with the WTA Insider Courtney Nguyen after the French Open, Halep recalled how she had been “devastated” to lose the 2017 French Open final, but that the loss had become a turning point in her career.
“I said it’s going to happen one day,” Halep said. “First place is the mental strength. The game I always had. I was there close many times, 2014 in Singapore …” Halep was referring to her run to the WTA Finals, where she lost to Williams, 6-3, 6-0. “But the mental part I was not very close. This year for sure is the best way that I’ve been on court. The attitude now, I’m happy about it. I’m not ashamed anymore.”
Halep also credited the hours of gym work she had put in after the Australian Open in January. Following the loss to Caroline Wozniacki in the final, Halep put an emphasis on her conditioning and strength after concluding that “at this point, the gym is more important than the tennis because tennis I have played for 20 years already.”
Now Halep is attempting to emulate the select group of players in the modern Open era who have achieved a “Channel Slam” by winning the Wimbledon and the French Open championships back-to-back.
Even without the wild-card factor of whatever danger Williams presents, Halep must make her way through a competitive field to achieve the second leg of that double. Of all the stats to consider when examining the current crowded Top 10 in women’s tennis, the most telling might be that at the start of the French Open, Halep, the incumbent, was one of six women who could have ended the tournament ranked No. 1.
That Halep emerged with her ranking not only intact but reinforced, is an encouraging indicator, but any one of that chasing group of Caroline Wozniacki, the defending Wimbledon champion Garbiñe Muguruza, Elina Svitolina, Karolina Pliskova and Caroline Garcia will hold realistic hopes of going deep into the tournament. Add to that group the United States Open champion Sloane Stephens, who lost in the finals at Roland Garros, and the two-time former Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova, and the depth of the field is apparent.
Preparing for Grass
The No. 2 seed Wozniacki, like Halep, was recently ranked No. 1 in the world without a Grand Slam title to her name. She too made a breakthrough this year, in beating Halep for the Australian Open title, but lost in the fourth round of the French Open.
Having been eliminated early at Roland Garros, Wozniacki elected to compete at the Eastbourne International to prepare herself on grass for Wimbledon.
The transition from the slow, high-bouncing surfaces of the clay court season, to the fast, low-bouncing surfaces of the grass court summer swing, is perhaps the most abrupt technical adjustment in the sport’s calendar. The tournaments in Britain at Birmingham, Nottingham and Eastbourne have traditionally represented a chance for players to try and play themselves up to speed in the few short weeks between the French Open and Wimbledon.
It’s a strategy that has its risks. Kvitova had to withdraw from Eastbourne last week after aggravating a hamstring injury that happened in winning the Birmingham title. With such a short window for recovery, even minor injuries in the pre-Wimbledon run tend to mean that form or momentum take second place to prudence.
“With Wimbledon around the corner I couldn’t take the risk of making it worse,” Kvitova said in a statement.
However players arrive at Wimbledon, the short lead-in time, the unfamiliar surface and minimal atmosphere on some of the outer courts, means that the first couple of rounds can easily derail an underprepared seed.
The Seed Game
The decision on whether to seed Williams was always going to have ramifications throughout the draw. Lower-ranked players had legitimate reason to fear being bumped out of a spot they’d earned. Higher-ranked players faced the prospect of their seeding pitting them against a dangerous Williams before they’d had a chance to play themselves into form.
Muguruza spoke for many of those players when she told the Press Association, “I know she’s Serena Williams and she can play incredible and you can never underestimate a champion like her, even though she didn’t play as much. She’s always a danger in whatever draw, whatever tournament.”
None of the top eight seeds can now face Williams any sooner than the third round, and most have been vocal in support of her case to be seeded. Speaking at Eastbourne, Wozniacki said, “She’s the greatest player to ever play the sport. Having won so many Grand Slams and being No. 1 for so many years, she deserves a seeding.”
The player who lost the seed to Williams is the No. 32-ranked player in the world, Dominika Cibulkova of Slovakia, who described the decision as “not fair.” Other lower-ranked seeds such as Johanna Konta of Britain, the No. 22 seed, had also spoken out against any sign of favor to Williams.
For many observers though, current tournament rankings should reflect that Williams remains the unquestioned benchmark for the women’s game. Before the Wimbledon seedings were announced, the United States Open organizers changed the seeding rules to reflect Williams’s circumstances.
Complaints will persist about the exemption for one player, no matter how exceptional, but as John McEnroe, the former three-time Wimbledon champion and a member of the seeding committee, bluntly put it when asked at the Queens Club Championship in London about Cibulkova’s complaints:
“What’s her name? No offense. You’re talking about Serena.”
Source : NYtimes