By John Huston
The women—or as The Championships at Wimbledon puts it, the ladies—have brought the drama even before the first ball has been struck this year. First, five-time winner Venus Williams pulled out of The Championships, missing the tournament for the only time in her career. (At this stage in the game, her soldiering through the clay season with an injured back seems ill-advised.) Next, five-time champ and current No. 1 Serena Williams uncorked an Internet tempest with a warped remark about the Steubenville rape case in a just-published Rolling Stone profile. (Though her subsequent apology hedged a bit, she’s to be credited for actually reaching out and speaking with the victim and her family.) Who was next to court controversy? Seemingly mild-mannered 2011 champ Petra Kvitova, who sidestepped rather than denied rumors that she’s a factor in the divorce of ATP pro Radek Stepanek and former top player Nicole Vaidisova. Of course, leave it to Maria Sharapova to somehow overshadow almost all of this—from rape culture debates to Czech soap operas—by adding another catty chapter to the seemingly endless Serena/Rolling Stone fallout. At this point, everyone from CNN to TMZ is weighing in. Let the games begin.
Top seed Serena’s first challenge at the tournament could arrive in the second round from Jie Zheng: the 2008 semifinalist’s quick-strike game has troubled Serena here more than once in the past. In the third round, Serena could meet another grass specialist, Tamira Paszek, but Paszek’s form this year has been beyond dire and her ranking is set to take a monumental dive. The fourth round is likely to bring either Elena Vesnina, who routed Venus in the first round last year, or Sabine Lisicki, who usually raises her game at this tournament. Angelique Kerber (a semifinalist in 2012, but struggling more recently) and Maria Kirilenko (a quarterfinalist last year) are the top seeds of the other half, which also includes three Americans: Alison Riske, Mallory Burdette, and Google Glass-wearing Bethanie Mattek-Sands.
Sleeper candidates: Kaia Kanepi, Vesnina, Mattek-Sands.
First-round drama: Kirilenko vs. Laura Robson, Mattek-Sands vs. Kerber.
The fact that last year’s finalist Agnieszka Radwanska is now an unlikely blonde tends to overshadow her results of late. On the other side of this quarter, Li Na has also been struggling. Packed with hard-to-call first-round matches, this section could hold some surprises. Players worth keeping an eye on include: Madison Keys, still adapting to a surface that should suit her; 2011 semifinalist Tsvetana Pironkova, whose unorthodox game has wreaked havoc here in years past; grass specialist Magdalena Rybarikova, who beat Li to take the 2009 Eastbourne title; the still-formidable-at-times Nadia Petrova; Daniela Hantuchova, who just won this year’s Birmingham grass tuneup; and last but not least, Simona Halep, one of 2013’s rising WTA forces, who is currently on a tear. Halep upset Li Na in the first-round of the 2011 US Open, so Li can’t be looking forward to an imminent second-round rematch.
Sleeper candidates: The aforementioned non-seeds, especially Halep.
First-round drama: Heather Watson vs. Keys, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova vs. Pironkova.
This quarter includes myriad characterful first-round matches. Maria Sharapova, the section’s top seed, faces a young glam power player, France’s Kristina Mladenovic, straight out of the gate. Perhaps the first sixteen-year-old to spark excitement since Maria Sharapova, Birmingham finalist Donna Vekic comes up against the streakily effective Czech player Petra Cetkovska in her first match. But the real marquee opener has to be the battle between the US’s most quiet new contender, Jamie Hampton, and its mouthiest, Sloane Stephens. Stephens has been banking on Slam results to secure her ranking, and it’s been quite some time since she’s faced an opponent of Hampton’s caliber this early at a major. The fact that Hampton has reached the finals of Eastbourne adds to the tension. It’s probably also worth noting that Caroline Wozniacki is starting to win matches again, and 2007 finalist Marion Bartoli, while adrift of late, has a kind draw.
Sleeper candidates: Hampton, Vekic, Cetkovska, Lucie Safarova.
First-round drama: Stephens vs. Hampton, Vekic vs. Cetkovska, Michelle Larcher de Brito vs. Melanie Oudin, Sharapova vs. Mladenovic.
Maria Sharapova has long been accused of getting cakewalk draws, but for at least the second major in a row, Sharapova fans have to be gnashing their teeth at Victoria Azarenka’s lightweight neighbors in the early rounds. Meltdowns excepted, Azarenka is unlikely to face even the glimmer of a challenge until the fourth round. Jelena Jankovic’s quadrant of this section might be open season, with Kirsten Flipkens, Yanina Wickmayer, or a random big-hitter possibly coming through to meet Vika. The other half is harder to predict. Petra Kvitova’s form here in 2011 was scary to behold, but those days are gone, and she could be vulnerable in both the second and third rounds. Her sister in post-Slam swan dives, Ana Ivanovic, is the other top seed, and she continues to dominate the red carpet more than the green court.
Sleeper candidate: Ekaterina Makarova
First-round drama: Virginie Razzano vs. Ivanovic.