Wimbledon 2011: Caroline Wozniacki, Maria Sharapova and the Form of the Elite 16
Wimbledon gets underway today with the greatest players on the Tour battling it out for grass-court supremacy on the lush lawns of the All England Club.
Caroline Wozniacki enters SW19 as the No. 1 and the best player in the world, but there are no shortage of contenders looking to uproot her for a chance at one of the most coveted shields in the game.
Everyone from Li Na, Vera Zvonareva and Maria Sharapova to Sam Stosur, Svetlana Kuznetsova and Jelena Jankovic will feel like they have a realistic shot at playing meaningful tennis in the second week of the competition.
While Kim Clijsters will not feature in the tournament, defending champion Serena Williams will. Given the No. 7 seed by event organisers, Williams will need to keep proving she has fully healed from the injuries and illnesses that cost her the last 12 months of her career.
But not everyone comes into Wimbledon equally.
While some have had success on the clay court season and hope to ride that momentum, others have logged valuable hours on the grass of Eastbourne in a bid to fuel preparations.
Some have just played at a high level since the first balls got tossed into the air in Australia and New Zealand, whereas some have not lived up to their ability. In the case of Williams, she has but a few games under her belt.
Here's a look at how the top 16 women have fared in 2011, and what their form says about their chances of glory over the next two weeks.
Caroline Wozniacki, No. 1 Seed
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Caroline Wozniacki enters her fifth Wimbledon as the top seed for the first time, and she will be looking to right that grass court ship and make it into the second week.
The Dane has been into the fourth round in each of the past two years, and while her game is more suited to hard courts, there are few reasons why she isn't a legitimate contender to be standing in the last four.
She is 45-9 with five titles in 2011, including her recent victory in Copenhagen where she did not drop a set.
I know it's her home tourney and everything, but I would have liked to see her get some grass court practice at the AEGON Classic in Birmingham instead, especially considering she wasn't going to play at 's-Hertogenbosch or Eastbourne.
Wozniacki is 9-3 against players in the top 16 this year, and with the exception of that third-round loss to Daniela Hantuchova at the French and possibly her opening match of the season in Sydney, she has rarely been downright dominated in any of her losses.
Li Na, No. 3 Seed
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Li Na enters Wimbledon as the world No. 4—her highest-ever ranking—and the No. 3 seed. She won her first 11 matches of the year before losing out to Kim Clijsters in Melbourne, but she then lost five of her next six, including first-round exits in Dubai and Doha and, more notably, in Indian Wells and Miami.
She is 27-9 this season and she appears to be streaking in the right direction after some scorching performances on the red clay. Look at that first set of her fourth-round victory over world No. 9 Petra Kvitova at Roland Garros as a turning point.
After losing that opening set, 6-2, Li won all of the next eight sets en route to her first major title. And she didn't just beat tour players—she defeated world No. 4 Victoria Azarenka, seventh-seed Maria Sharapova and No. 5 Francesca Schiavone.
Last year's US Open appears to be a blip on Li's radar. Her fans will hope that her loss to Daniela Hantuchova in the second round of Eastbourne was the same.
If you're talking about form, though, who is hotter right now than the last Grand Slam winner at the peak of her career?
Maria Sharapova, No. 5 Seed
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Oh Maria, Maria. Ever since the French Open back in '08, people have been asking when—not if—the next Grand Slam would come. It's now been 14 Majors and more than three years since then, and there are serious doubts about whether another title is on the cards.
The glamour girl of women's tennis still has her supporters, but the number of people who realize her chances for a fourth major are probably gone continues to grow.
After failing to secure her career slam at the French, her attention now turns to a tournament she hasn't won since 2004 and honestly hasn't really been a major factor in since '06.
The funny thing is, she is probably in the middle of playing her best 12 months of tennis since she last hoisted the silverware at Roland Garros.
She's been to the fourth round of the last four majors, and her run last month in France got everyone excited once more for what might have been. The Russian seems to have been around forever, but she's still only 24.
Her season has not been without its ups and downs, though. She climbed back into the top 10 in April for the first time in more than two years, made it to the semifinal and final of Indian Wells and Miami, respectively, and dispatched Caroline Wozniacki in Rome en route to her 23rd tour title.
However, she also missed Paris, Dubai and Doha with a viral illness and more recently had to pull out of Birmingham where she would have been the biggest star on hand by far.
Sharapova is 26-7 this year and she has defeated six players from the world's top 16 (Shahar Peer, Victoria Azarenka, Wozniacki, Samantha Stosur, Agnieszka Radwanska and Andrea Petkovic) in the last five weeks.
If she can put her illness and oft-erratic serving behind her, the first week of Wimbledon could be exciting to watch.
Vera Zvonareva, No. 2 Seed
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After really coming into her own at the 2009 Australian Open, Vera Zvonareva has quietly became one of the very best women on tour. She has matured a lot over the last 12 months, and two runner-up trophies and a semifinal appearance in her last four slams are a testament to her improvement.
Zvonareva made it to the finals of Wimbledon last year and she is hoping to go one better at her ninth try.
The 26-year-old is 30-11 this year with wins over top 10 players Caroline Wozniacki and Jelena Jankovic, but she is only 4-5 against top 16 players; a fourth-round contest with No. 15 seed Jankovic next week could be a banana skin.
Unlike Wozniacki, the second seed did log some hours on the grass this past week. She defeated Brit wildcard Heather Watson in straight sets in the first round of Eastbourne and followed that up with a hard-fought victory over returning Serena Williams after dropping the opener.
A third-round loss to Sam Stosur isn't the worst thing that could happen, and she looks on pace to cruise through the first few rounds.
Maybe more importantly, Zvonareva will just be happy to get off the clay where she frequently looked to labor even in her victories. Her victory on the hot, hard court of Doha seems a lot longer ago than the four calendar months suggest.
Marion Bartoli, No. 9 Seed
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Marion Bartoli is back inside the top 10 for the first time since 2007 and she is in great form. A Wimbledon runner-up in 2007, Bartoli has been rejuvenated by her run to the semis at last month's French Open.
Known for hammering the ball with double-handed strokes from both sides, Bartoli does not look to be feeling any of the effects of the right thigh injury that caused her to withdraw from Birmingham two weeks ago.
She claimed the title in Devonshire Park, home of the Eastbourne warm-up event, last week with wins over Lucie Safarova, Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez, No. 3 seed Victoria Azarenka, Sam Stosur and Petra Kvitova. It marked the fifth time she had reached the semis at this tournament.
Bartoli, 36-15 on the season, has logged a lot of sets so far this year, but we know she can play on grass, which is clearly to her advantage.
That said, she had won only three of nine matches against top 16 players coming into the grass court season, and in April she went out of three successive clay court tournaments to women ranked 72, 79 and 182.
The 26-year-old should have no troubles with her first two matches regardless of who the qualifier is in round one, but Flavia Pennetta (seeded No. 21) could be trouble in the third.
On the other side of the coin, if Serena Williams slips up early in the first week, that lower half of the second quarter is wide open and a showdown with Li Na in the quarters could be a possibility.
Victoria Azarenka, No. 4 Seed
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Victoria Azarenka has only made it to the second week at SW19 once, back in 2009, but it seemed as if 2011 represented a real chance for a deep run into the tournament.
The biggest question mark is now her health. The Belarussian was forced to retire from her third-round match at Eastbourne with Marion Bartoli with a right groin strain, casting doubt over just how fit she will be next week.
Even a slight pull will almost certainly limit her speed, range and movement—especially coming to the net—while a severe pull this soon after the initial injury would end her tournament completely.
It's a shame because Azarenka has looked good this year. She's 33-10 and she won back-to-back titles in Miami and Marbella in the middle of a solid spell of great form, where she won 16 of 17 matches across two surfaces on two continents.
Wins over Kim Clijsters, Vera Zvonareva and Agnieszka Radwanska this year have already confirmed that she can handle herself against the game's elite, and the fact that she has not lost to anybody outside the top 32 since last October underlines how much of a threat she can be.
If her groin holds up, it's not unreasonable to look ahead to the prospects of a potential quarter final clash with Francesca Schiavone.
Petra Kvitova, No. 8 Seed
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Petra Kvitova is a relative newcomer to the tour, but she has been soaring up the rankings. The 21-year-old Czech star didn't feature in the main draw of a Grand Slam until 2008 and she didn't make it into the world's top 40 until 2010.
Seeded No. 8, she may be one of the least well-known players of the top women in the draw, at least to those who didn't pay much attention to her remarkable run to the semis 12 months ago.
To refresh your memory, she is the woman who dumped Jie Zheng and 11th-seed Victoria Azarenka out in the opening week. She is also the woman who demolished Caroline Wozniacki 6-2, 6-0 in the round of 16 and who pushed top seed and eventual champ Serena Williams in the final four.
That said, let's look at her 2011 form. The lefty has looked good on the hard courts and more than capable of holding her own on the clay. She took the title in Brisbane at the start of the year when she was still ranked outside the top 32, made it to the quarters at the Australian Open and defeated Kim Clijsters en route to winning in Paris.
She is 35-7 this year and 6-2 against players in the top 16. She also enters Wimbledon on the strength of a solid run in Eastbourne where she pushed Marion Bartoli to 7-5 in the third set of the final.
Kvitova is a dark horse for another strong run, and with a qualifier and un-seeded Brit in the first two rounds, she should have no trouble adapting to the pace of the courts on first few days of the tournament.
Kvitova, described as having natural grass court abilities despite never winning a match on the surface prior to last year's run at Wimbledon, is Svetlana Kutnetsova's biggest obstacle to a trip to the quarterfinals and when all is said and done, she could also be the one that stops Vera Zvonareva from escaping this quarter of the draw.
Andrea Petkovic, No. 11 Seed
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Andrea Petkovic has risen to a career-best 11th in the world, mainly after rising from almost nowhere late last year.
The 23-year-old German had not made it past the second round in any of her eight previous Grand Slam appearances, dating back to 2007, until she made a somewhat surprise run to the fourth round of the US Open last September.
Since then, Petkovic has continued her fine form with consecutive quarterfinal runs at the Australian Open and at Roland Garros.
She is 33-12 this calendar year, having won on the clay of Strasbourg and reached the final of Brisbane and the semis at Miami. She's also undefeated in four Fed Cup ties and is a combined 7-4 against top 16 players.
A loss to Venus Williams in the first round of Eastbourne was not the ideal preparation for Wimbledon, but 10 wins out of her final 11 clay courts events of the year should still give her confidence ahead of what should be a very straight forward run to the third round and a potential meeting with Shahar Peer.
Francesca Schiavone, No. 6 Seed
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Francesca Schiavone has been a mainstay of the women's tour for the last decade, and it appears as if she's only getting better. She had always been good, but she had never been great.
Maybe she still isn't 'great,' but back-to-back finals at the French and quarterfinals appearances in New York and Melbourne are making her case a little stronger.
Historically, Schiavone has not fared too well at Wimbledon. She has lost in either the first or second round in eight of her ten appearances, and she crashed out in her opening match 12 months ago.
Looking specifically at 2011, Schiavone is 24-14. Seven of those loses have come to players in the world's top 16, so you can interpret that two ways: She is either unable to win the big matches, or that she is only ever losing to the very best in the world.
The truth is probably somewhere in between, but you can't ignore the fact that she is 11-9 when she hasn't played on clay this season.
Wins against Marion Bartoli (French Open) and Sam Stosur (in the Fed Cup) remind you of the ability she has, but it's too hard to overlook her collapse in Dubai to Svetlana Kuznetsova, her disappointing first-round loss to Jelena Dokic in Malaysia and her constant inability to get by those solid players just outside the top 10 such as Agnieszka Radwanska (ranked 13th), who has only dropped 11 games to Schiavone in three meetings in as many months.
Schiavone is probably seeded exactly where she deserves to be, but in my mind she is one of the least likely players to make a serious impact at Wimbledon. There are just too many good players, as well as a host of lesser-heralded players, who can defeat her on any given day.
Jelena Jankovic, No. 15 Seed
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Jelena Jankovic is in a tough quarter of the draw and she will have to carry all of her solid 2011 form with her onto the grass if she hopes to make it to the second week here for the first time in eight attempts.
The Serbian has been to the fourth round in four of her last five attempts, but she has never had that one breakthrough like she has had at every other Grand Slam event.
Jankovic, who has been in the final of the US Open (2008) and semis at the Australian Open (2008) and Roland Garros (2007, 2008 and 2010) is 28-13 this year, but she has not been in action since her fourth-round loss to Francesca Schiavone on the Parisian clay.
With little grass court preparation, and no real-speed tournament action, under her belt, she may struggle early.
That said, Jankovic is playing well in 2011. She made it to the final in Monterrey and was one set away from the title, and she reached the semis of Dubai, Doha and Charleston.
Jankovic might not have enough to get past the elite names in the draw (she has lost five of her six matches against women in the top 16 so far this season, including three to Caroline Wozniaki) but a gritty performance like the one she turned in against Aussie Sam Stosur back in February can carry her a long way.
She's not the force she was at her peak three years ago, but she's still a former world No. 1 with a whole lot of game.
Sam Stosur, No. 10 Seed
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Samantha Stosur climbed as high as fourth in the world earlier this year, but she has dropped to No. 10, the position she has been seeded for Wimbledon.
As much talent as the Aussie has shown at the French Open the last three years, and even last year's US Open and Aussie Open, the fact remains that she's never been a serious contender at Wimbledon.
It's great that she made it to her third Eastbourne semifinal in the last four years, but so far those previous warm-up events have led to three first-week exits when the serious action gets underway in London.
Looking at her performances in 2011, it's not hard to see why she has slipped from her lofty position knocking on the door of the top three just four months ago.
She has made it to the quarterfinal stage of just three tournaments (Dubai in February, lost to Jelena Jankovic in the quarters; Stuttgart in April, lost to Julia Goerges in the semis; and Rome, lost to Maria Sharapova in the finals) and she hasn't won a Tour title since Charleston back in April 2010.
Stosur has only defeated three top-16 players in 2011 (including Francesca Schiavone and Li Na back to back in Rome) and her 21-13 record suggests she could struggle at Wimbledon.
Svetlana Kuznetsova, No. 12 Seed
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Svetlana Kuznetsova is not the dominant force she was three or four years ago, but don't underestimate the former world No. 2.
With three quarterfinal appearances at Wimbledon already in her locker, another run to the second week is a very real possibility. Although not entirely suited to grass, Kuznetsova has enough tools to pose a threat to almost everyone in the bottom quarter of the women's draw.
The Russian is 25-14 this season, but with the exception of a run to the finals in Dubai as the 16th seed back in February, her success has been limited to one other semifinal appearance in Marbella.
Most comfortable on clay, Kuztensova will take confidence from four solid performances at Roland Garros, but her quarterfinal loss to Marion Bartoli really sums up her season which has seen a 4-5 record against the elite 16 in the world.
Kuznetsova defeated Arantxa Rus in the first round of 's-Hertogenbosch last week, and she rallied from a set down to beat Sara Errani in the second round before falling to world No. 23 Dominika Cibulkova.
Eight sets of grass court warm-up tennis is perfect preparation, and while she hasn't had the strongest season to date, she has a solid baseline game to cause problems.
Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, No. 14 Seed
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Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova is the world No. 14 and the 14th seed at SW19. She made her debut inside the top 15 following her run to the third round at the Australian Open to start the year, and she followed it up with a championship in Monterrey, which featured rallying from a set down to beat Serbian Jelena Jankovic in the final.
Pavlyuchenkova has been to the semis of Brisbane and the quarters of both the French Open and Madrid, but she will be disappointed with a straight-sets loss to world No. 53 Bojana Jovanovski in the first round of Eastbourne.
Victories over Sam Stosur in Madrid in May and over Vera Zvonareva at the last Slam at Roland Garros find her in decent form, but she has never been past the third round at Wimbledon, so keep expectations muted.
'The teenager should be okay in the first two rounds again this year, but if Kaia Kanepi doesn't get her in the third, Victoria Azarenka will at the end of Week 1.
Julia Goerges, No. 16 Seed
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Julia Goerges makes the top 16 based mainly on Kim Clijsters' absence and everyone else moving up one seed, but nobody can deny her rapid rise.
She's won two-thirds of her matches in 2011 and claimed wins over Caroline Wozniacki (in Madrid) and Victoria Azarenka and Sam Stosur (both in Stuttgart).
She's up 24 places in the world rankings since entering 2011 as the No. 40, and a solid run at Wimbledon could potentially lift her even closer to the top 10.
A loss to Ana Ivanovic in the first round of Eastbourne wasn't ideal, but don't rule this tall German out. Back-to-back first-round exits at Wimbledon look like a thing of the past now, and judging from some of the spectacular tennis she has played over the last six months, a breakthrough isn't far away.
A run in the doubles with Russian hottie Maria Kirilenko is more probably more realistic this year, but if she can escape the dangerous Anabel Medina Garrigues in Round One, a very winnable contest with either Mathilde Johansson or homegrown Brit Heather Watson awaits in the second.
Agnieszka Radwanska, No. 13 Seed
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Agnieszka Radwanska has performed as well—if not better—at Wimbledon than any other Slam, and she comes into this week's Major in average form.
The 22-year-old Pole is 20-10 this year, and with the exception of Rome right before the French Open, she had only lost in the opening round of one tournament (Doha, to Lucie Safarova) back in February.
Three straight-sets wins over the likes of Francesca Schiavone in Miami, Stuttgart and Eastbourne proves that she can hold her own with top women, and her strong performance against Maria Sharapova last month in the fourth round at Roland Garros will do her confidence no harm.
Even when Radwanska loses to the best in the game, it has often been closer than the loss implies. She pushed Kim Clijsters to a second set tiebreak in the Australian Open quarter, and only a third-set breaker sealed her fate to Victoria Azarenka at Indian Wells after winning the opener.
In addition, she took eight games off Vera Zvonareva in her two-set loss in Miami and nine off of world No. 1 Caroline Wozniaki a week later on the German clay courts.
Radwanska made it to the quarters of Eastbourne last week, losing to Petra Kvitova, 1-6, 6-2, 7-6 (2). She's not in the best form of her life, but she's no pushover, especially on grass.
Serena Williams, No. 7 Seed
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If you're talking about talent or the ability to win Wilbledon, Serena Williams almost automatically has to be near the top of your list. If, like this article, though, you're looking at form over the first half of the tennis season, the younger Williams sister is a big unknown.
Williams' dominance at Wimbledon is unquestioned. She's won four singles titles and been to another two finals and she has lost just once there since 2008. Everyone knows, though, that this is not the same Serena defending her title this year as is was a year ago.
After winning her record-breaking fifth Australian Open in 2010 over unseeded Justine Henin, Williams missed three months early in the season with a left knee injury, played in just four other events and then missed all of the post-Wimbledon tournaments with a right foot injury.
The same foot injury caused her to skip the Australian Open, Indian Wells, Miami, Charleston, Madrid, Rome and Roland Garros this year.
In her first event since playing Wimbledon last year, Williams reached the second round of Eastbourne as a wild card, defeating Tsvetana Pironkova in three sets before falling to top seed Vera Zvonareva.
Aravane Rezai, ranked as high as 15th in the world just last October, is certainly no cupcake in the first round for Williams, and even if she survives that challenge, there is enough talent in the lower half of that second section (Marion Bartoli, Flavia Pennetta, maybe Maria Kirilenko) to cause Williams problems if she stumbles.
Whether the tournament committee was right to seed Serena seventh is another question altogether.