Who Can Challenge Serena Williams at Wimbledon After Sharapova, Azarenka Exits?

Chris SkeltonContributor IIJune 27, 2013

Who Can Challenge Serena Williams at Wimbledon After Sharapova, Azarenka Exits?

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    Defending champion and world No. 1 Serena Williams entered Wimbledon this year as a heavy favorite for the title. Early exits by world No. 2 Victoria Azarenka and No. 3 Maria Sharapova—rivals whom she has dominated anyhow—have only enhanced Serena's prospects further.

    In their absence, another title for the American may seem like a foregone conclusion.

    But does Wimbledon have another plot twist in store? These seven women have the best chance to flip the script and produce what would be the greatest shock of all.

Sabine Lisicki

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    Seeding: 23

    Would face Serena in: Fourth round (round of 16)

    Upside: Lisicki loves the grass and has reached the quarterfinals or better in her last three Wimbledon appearances, including a 2011 semifinal. She has defeated four major champions on these lawns, most notably Maria Sharapova last year. One of the best servers in the WTA, Lisicki can match Serena bomb-for-bomb and hold-for-hold better than most women can. 

    Downside: Few women can beat Serena at her own game, for she combines her powerful first strikes with an athleticism that other heavy hitters lack. Serena dominated Lisicki in their only completed match to date, exposing the German's lack of options when her first serve deserted her. 

Angelique Kerber

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    Seeding: 7

    Would face Serena in: Quarterfinal 

    Upside: Over the last 12 months, Serena has lost in straight sets to only one opponent: Kerber. The German outmaneuvered her in Cincinnati last August while never dropping serve. Kerber reached the semifinals at Wimbledon last year with victories over Kim Clijsters and Lisicki.

    Downside: Serena earned her revenge against Kerber at the 2012 year-end championships, allowing her just five games. A moody competitor, Kerber sometimes loses belief too quickly against elite opponents. She counter-punches effectively, even on a fast court, but her left-handed game lacks the variety to disrupt the champion's rhythm.

Agnieszka Radwanska

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    Seeding: 4

    Would face Serena in: Semifinal

    Upside: Facing Serena in last year's Wimbledon final, Radwanska regrouped from a poor start to force a third set. She owns a bigger bag of tricks than any elite woman, and she flustered the American with them until Serena overcame her nerves. The grass rewards Radwanska's compact swings and deft touch in the forecourt. 

    Downside: Despite improvements, Radwanska's modest serve still leaves her vulnerable to aggressive returners like Serena. The American has won all five of their previous meetings, most of them resoundingly. Serena elevates her intensity in proportion to the quality of her opponent, which explains her career-long dominance against the WTA top five.

Li Na

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    Seeding: 6

    Would face Serena in: Semifinal

    Upside: Although she never has reached the Wimbledon semifinals, Li has plenty of shot-making talent to succeed on grass. Her belief rarely wavers, no matter the opponent, and she has stood toe-to-toe with Serena at majors before. Most of their matches have stayed competitive throughout, including seven tiebreaks and three three-setters.

    Downside: Li owns just one victory in their eight career meetings, as Serena consistently has won the big points. While she has no glaring weakness on which the American can pounce, she holds no clear advantage over an in-form Serena in any area of the game.  

Petra Kvitova

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    Seeding: 8

    Would face Serena in: Final

    Upside: Like Lisicki, Kvitova has reached the quarterfinals or better in her last three Wimbledon appearances. She wields enormous power and showed no nerves in upsetting the heavily favored Maria Sharapova to win the 2011 Wimbledon title. She nearly ambushed Serena this February in Doha, leading 4-1 in the third set before the American roared back.

    Downside: Serena inflicted both of Kvitova's last two losses at Wimbledon, both in straight sets. One never knows what to expect of the Czech from one moment to the next. She rarely sustains her fiercest form throughout a match, and that inconsistency cannot stop Serena in a major final.

Marion Bartoli

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    Seeding: 15

    Would face Serena in: Final

    Upside: Two years ago, Bartoli inflicted the only defeat that Serena has suffered at Wimbledon since 2008. The Frenchwoman reached the Wimbledon final six years ago, lashing her double-fisted groundstrokes at audacious angles. 

    Downside: Serena won their other three meetings convincingly, and she can chalk up the loss to rust in the second event of her 2011 comeback. Bartoli has uncorked a deluge of double faults and service breaks this year as she struggles through a coaching transition. She has not reached a final since last August, so the chances of this matchup materializing seem remote.

Sloane Stephens

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    Seeding: 17

    Would face Serena in: Final

    Upside: Stephens is the only woman who has defeated Serena at a major since the 2012 French Open. Knocking off her compatriot at the Australian Open, she showed a surprising degree of confidence considering the gulf separating them in age and experience. 

    Downside: Serena probably would not have lost their match in January had an injury not overtaken her. She had dominated Stephens at a small tournament a few weeks earlier, and she led by a set and a break in that Melbourne loss. One would expect some nerves from Stephens in her first major final, if she gets there, which should allow Serena to take control at the outset.