June 22, 2013

Wimbledon preview: Serena’s the best, then there’s the rest

While the women’s side might see another Williams coronation, a four-way battle looms among the men.

There might still be those who are not ready to bestow the title of “Greatest Women’s Tennis Player of All Time” on Serena Williams, but there will always be a small, uninformed fringe.

With the best serve in women’s tennis — capable of reaching 124 mph — and the physical ability to back up that serve with mobility and penetrating ground strokes, Williams has separated herself from not only her competition, but also from the best to ever play the game.

Seldom are sports fans treated to watching the greatest player in the game, playing at the top of her game. That time is now for Williams as she defends her Wimbledon title and tries to win her 17th career Grand Slam singles title.

Williams is coming off winning her second French Open championship earlier this month, 11 years after winning her first in 2002. She moved within two Grand Slam titles of Hall of Famers Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, and is six shy of Steffi Graf’s all-time Open-era (since 1968) mark of 22.

With Williams’ recent run of domination in the women’s game, it would be a surprising upset if anyone could derail her these next two weeks at Wimbledon, short of a major meltdown or a misstep, such as the one that resulted in a turned ankle at the 2013 Australian Open, depriving her of a shot at winning the title. That one misstep could end up costing her a possible calendar-year Grand Slam.

While the French Open title came on her most challenging surface, the move to the grass of the All England Club only makes the gulf between Williams and her competition wider. Not only is she closing in on the records of the greats of the game at the age of 31, she’s as dominant as she’s ever been.

“I think she’s playing the best tennis of her career,” said ESPN commentator John McEnroe during a recent conference call. “She’s not only in the best place I’ve ever seen, I think she’s the best player that’s ever lived. I said that a while ago. But she’s cementing it in everyone’s mind. She’s just a level above anyone. There’s no doubt about it.”

Williams has a 31-match winning streak, and she’s dropped only five sets during that stretch, including only one set at the French Open against two-time major champion Svetlana Kuznetsova, who has pulled out of Wimbledon with an abdominal strain. Williams took her 13th consecutive victory over Maria Sharapova in the finals in Paris 6-4, 6-4.

It was in 2002-2003 that Williams put together one of her best runs, winning four consecutive Grand Slam singles titles for what is known as the “Serena Slam.” She won five of eight majors between 2008-2010 before she injured her foot and experienced a pulmonary embolism that threatened to end her career.

She also has come to understand that fame, and life in general, can be fleeting. That has been driven home by the murder of her older sister Yetunde Price in 2002 at the age of 31 and her sister Venus being diagnosed last year with Sjorgren’s syndrome, a painful and energy-sapping autoimmune disease that will cause her to miss Wimbledon for the first time in 17 years.

That understanding has focused Serena on her legacy and is driving her to be the best, McEnroe said.

“I think actually in a way what’s happened with her sister [Venus], the difficulties she’s had as she’s gotten into the later stages of her career, actually in a way helped Serena, because it made her realize she wanted to enjoy and take advantage of these last couple years.” he said. “She realized and maybe appreciated a little bit more the talent that she has.”

Last year, Williams lost three sets during her run at Wimbledon and went on to win the Olympic gold medal in London without losing a set, including a 6-0, 6-1 victory over Sharapova.

Williams has won 16 consecutive matches on grass since losing to Marion Bartoli of France 6-3, 7-6 (6) in the fourth round at Wimbledon in 2011. It was only her second tournament after the layoff from the foot injury and medical complications that followed.

Is there any chance her current streak could be snapped? Evert says, sure, there’s a chance, but don’t count on it.

“Trust me, nothing is set in stone,” Evert said. “It’s a two-week tournament. I don’t care what anybody says, when you get to be at the 28, 30, 31 age, you played 10 years, 12 years, 15 years on the tour, there are days that it isn’t there. There are days your body is not working. There are days you would rather not be out there, you’d rather be in bed, not get out of bed. Roger Federer, I think we’ve seen a couple days like that with him. I know Serena has been out of the game, she’s pumped up, and that’s probably not going to happen.”

Big Four, plus one

While the grass at Wimbledon separates Serena Williams from the rest of her competition, it is the equalizer on the men’s side, at least among the Big Four — 2011 Wimbledon champion and No. 1 ranked Novak Djokovic, seven-time Wimbledon champion Roger Federer, two-time Wimbledon champ Rafael Nadal and 2012 Olympic champion (at Wimbledon) Andy Murray.

All have a legitimate shot to win the title.

Wimbledon even threw a bit of a kink into the mix this week when it left No. 4-ranked David Ferrer as the No. 4 seed and left French Open champion Nadal at No. 5. Wimbledon uses a formula to set its seedings, and a big part of that formula relies on past grass-court results. Nadal, who missed seven months last year with a knee injury, didn’t play enough of the grass-court season to get the bump.

The result of the seeding means Nadal could meet Federer in the quarterfinals, forcing two of the top players in the game to face the prospect of having to win three consecutive matches against top-five players. Murray, last year’s runner-up, could be waiting in the semifinals and defending champion Djokovic in the finals.

“I think it is a tougher call to see who the favorite would be,” John McEnroe said. “I would pick Djokovic No. 1 and Murray 2. This is me personally based on sort of what’s been going on. I think Murray will be hungrier not playing the French [because of a back injury], and maybe a little fresher. Then Roger, because he still has such a great game for grass. It’s tough to win it back-to-back at his age. And Rafa having come back so great [from the knee injury]. ... That would be my 1 through 4.”

Safe bet? Those four have combined to win 32 of the past 33 Grand Slam titles.

“I think it’s important that you have people that separate themselves and there’s great rivalries like Nadal-Federer, Nadal-Djokovic, now Murray trying to break into the mix,” McEnroe said. “They have been unbelievably dominant, how successful they’ve been.… I think in a way it should be, if anything, an incentive to the other guys to try to break into the mix. If these guys are too good, more power to them.… I think we should enjoy it while we can.”

Chris Evert agreed: “There’s nothing boring about greatness.… I wish the women had four up there like the men do right now. Right now, it just seems to be one [Serena Williams].

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