By John Huston
MARIA AND SERENA—THE SAGA CONTINUES: Last year at this time, Maria Sharapova was taking aim at Serena Williams in the press room, stung not only by a loss to her nemesis in the French Open final, but also by some comments by Serena in a controversial Rolling Stone profile. This year, Maria heads into Wimbledon on a high, with a win in Paris, and the battle has shifted back to the court—just like in Roland Garros, she and Serena are in the same quarter of the draw. It’s the tenth anniversary of Sharapova’s “debutante” Slam win over Williams in the 2004 final, and you can rest assured that even that 2012 drubbing in the Olympics isn’t enough payback for Serena, ultimate master of the grudge match. But Serena’s quest to match Martina Navratilova’s Slam count has been in a holding pattern, and her second-round defeat at the French had her worst-ever scoreline at a major. Will she rebound?
YOUNG AMERICANS—IT’S NOT JUST A SLOANE THING: The arrival of another major means that Sloane Stephens has her sights set on joining “the big girls” in the second week—but if she reaches it, can she take the next step? Last year, she gave surprise champ Marion Bartoli her closest scare. Should she make her usual date with the fourth round, she might face Petra Kvitova.
The good news is that some other young (or youngish) Americans are asserting themselves on the grass—first and foremost, Madison Keys, who says it’s by far her favorite surface. Keys took a set from 2012 finalist Agnieszka Radwanska at Wimbledon last year, and she’s blitzed through the field in Eastbourne this week, but she isn’t alone. Coco Vandeweghe is also on a sudden tear, having served well over 100 aces in two grass tournaments, including a perfect four-ace game. Will either Keys and Vandeweghe (or both) win a maiden WTA title before Sloane? They’re relatively green on the grass, but let’s not forget wild card Taylor Townsend and qualifier Victoria Duval. Both face seeds in the first round, but if Townsend wins, she’ll likely take on Keys in a next-generation marquee match.
THE ENIGMA THAT IS LI NA: With her compact, relatively flat groundies, Li Na should excel on grass, and she’s been solid at Wimbledon. But her year to date has been characteristically erratic, careening from an Aussie Open win to a first-round French Open exit. Which Na will show up in London?
VIKA’S BACK (AND ANA, TOO)! We last saw her throwing f-bombs at her coach in Indian Wells. Now, after a three-month hiatus to heal a foot injury and recharge, Vika Azarenka has returned—sans Redfoo. Grass isn’t her favorite surface—in fact, she picked up her nagging foot injury in the first round of Wimbledon last year, so she’ll be playing with nothing to lose. She has some big hitters in her immediate path, including a potential third-round bout with Coco Vandeweghe or Serena’s French Open conqueror Garbine Muguruza. And while it’s a bit of cliche to say that Ana Ivanovic is showing signs of past Slam-winning glory, the 2008 French Open winner—still just 26—is having a resurgent year, having won three titles already.
SIMONA AND EUGENIE—THE HEIR APPARENTS: Romania’s Simona Halep won new fans during her close loss to Sharapova in the French Open final. Halep was the only pro to win tournaments on all surfaces (hard, clay, grass, and indoor) last year, and her soft draw this go-round is a nice reward after facing Li Na in the first round in 2013. But she retired from her only match since Paris, citing a shoulder injury. Eugenie Bouchard has reached the semis of the last two Slams, and grass suits her aggressive court positioning. The draw gods haven’t been kind this time, though, giving her Daniela Hantuchova in the first round, and a possible fourth-round date with Serena.
VENUS AND PETRA—PAST CHAMPIONS, CURRENT QUESTION MARKS: Aside from Serena and Sharapova, the only other Wimbledon champions in the draw are five-time victor Venus Williams and 2011 winner Petra Kvitova. They’re set for a third-round collision, but even though these two have been incredible on the All England Club’s turf, let’s take things one match at a time.
THE WOZ—SINGLE AND LOVING IT: Caroline Wozniacki entered Roland Garros reeling from a romantic breakup, but some bikini wedding party time—yes, you read that right—on the beach with Serena (who knows a thing or two about post-relationship rebounds) seems to have renewed her focus on court. Her serve was a weapon during impressive wins over Sam Stosur, Sloane Stephens, and Camila Giorgi in Eastbourne this week.
ITALY IS FIERY ON THE GRASS: Speaking of Giorgi, if Sharapova honors her part of the Serena-Maria quarterfinals date, she might have to beat the financially controversial young Italian in the third round—the same round where Giorgi defeated her at Indian Wells this year. Some fire blasted out from under Giorgi’s icy exterior during her Eastbourne match against Wozniacki, where she half-angrily, half-reflexively struck a dead ball into the crowd (pegging a spectator—other players have been disqualified for less) and gave the kind of handshake that immediately inspires GIFs and goes viral. In the process, she outdid countrywoman Francesca Schiavone, who had a 10-minute argument with officials at the same tourney.
SABINE LISICKI—THE FRENCH CONNECTION: For the past three years, Sabine Lisicki has knocked the reigning French Open champ out of Wimbledon: Li Na in 2011; Maria Sharapova in 2012, and Serena Williams last year. But Lisicki has her work cut out for her making it four in a row: she’ll have to reach the semifinals to face Sharapova (if Sharapova gets there).
MARION BARTOLI—ONE YEAR LATER: This year’s Championships is a rare one in which the defending champion has already retired. In fact, Marion Bartoli bolted like lightning from the courts shortly after realizing her childhood dream of a Wimbledon title. Bartoli recently got people talking by retiring while a set and a game down—something she had a rep for on tour—in an exho match against a British junior. She’ll be doing commentary this year.
BEWARE—GRASS GOATS LURK IN CORNERS OF THE DRAW: Gotta love the randomness of the English lawns and Wimbledon, where grass wonders such as Sabine Lisicki, Jie Zheng, Tsvetana Pironkova, Tamira Paszek, Kirsten Flipkens, and even Michelle Larcher de Brito suddenly reverse losing streaks and topple the highest seeds, sometimes contending in the late stages. Who will join their ranks this year? Break out the strawberries and cream and place your bets. I have this hunch about Alison Riske…