Saturday, June 19, 2010

Wimbledon Preview: Core Values?

Wimbledon is the most tradition-laden of the grand slams. Success at the All-England Club might not be any more long-lasting or historically significant than any achieved in Melbourne, Paris or New York, but sometimes it surely FEELS that way.

Winning in the neighborhood of London SW19 is no fly-by-night operation, after all. There, even first-time champions often travel a bumpy path to glory (see Novotna), and some all-time greats go their entire careers without ever tasting the sweetness of ultimate victory on Centre Court (see Seles). To win on the lawns is to reach the ultimate peak of athletic achie-

Well, there I go again... there's just something about Wimbledon that brings out my desire to put this tournament on a pedestal and then respectfully bow down to the sanctity of all that is the All-England Lawn Tennis and Croquet's Club annual fortnight of racket sport holiness, from the Slazengers to the barley water to the predominantly-white attire to the, well, you know, all that stuff. I guess Wimbledon will always stir the memories of the time when this tournament was the one at which my first mental images of the sport were born, and even while the U.S. Open has risen sharply in my mind over the years when it comes to my anticipation for the start of a slam (I've come to believe there's no more spectacular a tennis event than an epic night match on Ashe Stadium), this late-June/early-July fortnight will always mean just a bit more. So, sorry for the admittedly extra-thick hyperbole.

Anway, though, Wimbledon IS the oldest of the four biggest events on the annual tennis calendar. And while three of the four slams used to be played on grass (think of how many the likes of Navratilova, Sampras and Federer would have won THEN), now it's the only one that remains. For that reason, it's easy for some to view this tournament as more special than the others, while still others claim it to be something of an anachronism. However one might see the tournament, though, consistently being successful on grass is something of a special skill. Either learned, or come by naturally. Thus, it should come as no shock that the past decade-full of Wimbledon Ladies singles finals has been dominated by the same four women. Not coincidentally, they're the four biggest names in the women's game over that span.

I talked about them during Roland Garros when they all played on the same day of a slam (maybe for the first time). They're the WTA's "Core Four." The most successful women of their generation. Venus and Serena Williams, Justine Henin and Maria Sharapova. At least one has appeared in every Ladies final since 2000, and the singles championship was Core Four-full in six of those years. Of the twenty finalist slots from 2000-09, they filled sixteen of them. Only Lindsay Davenport ('00/'05), Amelie Mauresmo ('06) and Marion Bartoli ('07) have managed to break through, with Mauresmo being the only non-Core titlist of the decade.

All four are linked with Wimbledon in different ways. Venus is at her very best there, and it's where she won her first slam title. Only Serena has been her occasional foil, winning all three of her titles by defeating her sister in the four all-Williams Family Invitational meetings they've had in the Ladies Championship match. Sharapova won her first slam in London, as well, defeating Serena in the final to do it. And even while Henin has yet to win the title, her first career slam final was at SW19 in '01 (losing to Venus, naturally), and she singled out her desire to win this tournament as the biggest reason she ended her retirement and returned to the tour this season. To a woman, they've all got a great deal invested here.

While so many players have a difficult time adjusting to this one-month grass court semi-season, these four rarely do. Not surprisingly, they're the career grass court title leaders amongst active players and, Venus in particular, has more often than not been the player that the eventual champion has to go through in order to win the Wimbledon title (when she doesn't do it herself, that is).

5...Venus Williams
4...Justine Henin
3...Serena Williams
3...Maria Sharapova

1997 2nd Rd - lost to Magdalena Grzybowska
1998 QF - lost to eventual champion Jana Novotna
1999 QF - lost to eventual runner-up Steffi Graf
2000 won title, def. Davenport in Final
2001 won title, def. Henin in Final
2002 RU - lost to Serena in Final
2003 RU - lost to Serena in Final
2004 2nd Rd - lost to Karolina Sprem
2005 won title, def. Davenport in Final
2006 3rd Rd - lost to Jelena Jankovic
2007 won title, def. Bartoli in Final
2008 won title, def. Serena in Final
2009 RU - lost to Serena in Final

So, needless to say, it's hard to imagine much different happening in 2010. Craziness is fine at the other slams, but it just feels WRONG at this one, you know? Looking back at the history of the women's final in the Open era, the only winner who might be dubbed a legit "surprise" is Conchita Martinez in '94, when the best-known-as-a-claycourter Spaniard defeated a nearly 38-year old Navratiova to win her only slam title. The Ladies champ likes of Ann Jones (1969, but already a two-time slam winner and former Wimbledon finalist), Virginia Wade (1977, previously a two-time slam champ, as well) and Jana Novotna (1998, a former finalist and center of a star-crossed SW19 backstory up to that point) all had backgrounds that hinted at what they were capable of achieving.

In other words, don't expect a Roland Garros sequel - Schiavo II: You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet, with a new star donning the white cape. In fact, one could make an argument that no one in the field other than the Core Four could POSSIBLY win 2010's third slam (save one potential, Backspin-cringing exception who comes up clearly in the #5 position when it comes to career grass court titles and SW19 success).

The draw says that the Core Four can't all reach the semifinals for the first time ever, but two can reach the final. And one WILL win... I mean, unless Francesca has been cloned or something.

Here's a quick overview of the draw, quarter-by-quarter:

(1)S.WILLIAMS QUARTER: Even though one potentially big Round of 16 match stands as a tricky obstacle, Serena should come through. Pity poor Maria Sharapova, as she enters this Wimbledon with her best chance to do some damage in years. Yep, she could face Williams in the 4th Round in yet another example of why high seeds are important. She lost to Henin in Paris, and will probably get taken out by Serena here. If only she'd been drawn into a non-Sisters section. Potential Stosurian spoilers? Well, Hantuchova is in here and could face Sharapova in the 3rd Round. Li, but (shocker!) her health is in question. A-Rad is a former junior Wimbledon champ. Kuznetsova has good SW19 history, and seemed to pick up things a bit in Eastbourne. If she's finally got her head right, she's someone to keep an eye on. But, still, after losing in Paris, London is Serena's "make-up" title. Sharapova will have to focus on New York.
RANKS: 1.S.Williams... 2.Sharapova... 3.Kuznetsova... 4.Radwanska
FLOATERS: Petkovic & Tanasugarn

(3)WOZNIACKI QUARTER: Due to injuries, lack of preparation and inconsistent grass court history this is the toughest section to call. It should be great fun to watch it play out, though. I was fully prepared to pick Azarenka to come through and reach the SF after her week of play in Eastbourne, but then I saw her painfully dragging herself through the final against Makarova. If healthy, she might be the favorite here. If she's no better than she was today, she probably won't last the first few rounds. She was scheduled to face Wozniacki in the Round of 16, but I'm thinking she won't make the date now. I think C-Woz will, though she got precious little grass match prep after losing to Rezai in the opening match of her Eastbourne title defense attempt. I think she'll work her way into things and still be kicking around in the second week (but Pavlyuchenkova in the 3rd Round could be interesting). Rezai is in here, too, but she ended up retiring from Eastbourne. If healthy, she's a threat to be an unexpected semifinalist, especially after Sam Stosur couldn't keep up her grass court run in that same Eastbourne event, losing in the SF (also to Makarova, who qualified and had a fabulous week). The RG runner-up has no great history at Wimbledon, but it's hard to escape the thought that she SHOULD. I still hold onto that hope. But there could be a "surprise" final four berth from this quarter. Hmmm, Zheng has already been a Wimbledon semifinalist, and she might face Azarenka in the 3rd Round.
RANKS (w/ injured Azarenka): 1.Stosur... 2.Wozniacki... 3.Rezai... 4.Zheng
RANKS (w/ healthy Azarenka): 1.Azarenka... 2.Stosur... 3.Wozniacki... 4.Rezai
FLOATERS: Cirstea & Lucic

(4)JANKOVIC QUARTER: If C-Woz's quarter is potentially the wildest, it's Jankovic's that could have the most "big" matches. Even though JJ has won a grass title, and even beaten Venus at Wimbledon, she's probably the third pick here because of the presence of the Belgians. Meanwhile, Petrova is here, as well. She could face Henin in the 3rd Round. If she's in good working order, always a question with Nadia, she could very well pull an upset there. Just a tough match might soften Justine up for Clijsters, who looked great in Eastbourne before finally seeing Azarenka pull back her game from implosion on a few occasions in their QF match the other day. Clijsters made the SF her last trip to SW19 in 2006, and since the Club courts play more like hard courts now than ever this event would seem to be a good fit for her (and right after she does or does not co-star as Barbie in the new "Toy Story 3" movie, too). Henin just won in the Netherlands, but she didn't exactly play the fiercest of competition there. Maybe the quicker points will play to her advantage here, not allowing her mind to wander during matches as has sometimes been the case this season. Winning Wimbledon WAS her goal, so maybe she'll attack this tournament like she hasn't any other since her slam return in Melbourne in January. Maybe. Right now, though, I'm expecting the worst, and only hoping for the best. In the end, the Henin/Clijsters winner will probably play JJ for a spot in the semifinals.
RANKS: 1.Clijsters... 2.Henin... 3.Jankovic... 4.Petrova
FLOATERS: Riske & Flipkens

(2)V.WILLIAMS QUARTER: Even with Eastbourne champ Makarova potentially awaiting her in the 2nd Round, Venus has to feel pretty good about her draw here. She doesn't have Sharapova lurking around a corner, nor Henin or Clijsters situated as potential obstacles. With those three's respective seeds this year, ANY could have been plopped into Venus' lap in the 4th Round or QF, but did not. Not that there aren't potential pitfalls. Try Kleybanova in the 3rd Round, or past Wimbledon finalist Bartoli in the QF. But it's no given that either of those match-ups will come off. Schiavone played well on grass in '09, but after her Paris heroics she seems to currently be experiencing one of those "Fed Cup hangovers" that she has always tended to fall into after winning big matches for Team Italia over the years. She's only played one match since RG, and it didn't last long. Write in Venus in ink here, especially now that late word has come that both Dinara Safina (a possible 3rd Rd. opponent) and Maria Jose Martinez-Sanchez (possible QF) both have pulled out of the tournament.
RANKS: 1.V.Williams... 2.Bartoli... 3. Kleybanova... 4.K.Bondarenko
FLOATERS: Makarova & Ivanovic

...the Q-Player of the Week for the second straight slam, the world #79 made it through qualifying as the #1 seed (she must have missed the direct entry deadline or something).
RISERS: Bethanie Mattek-Sands/USA, Shenay Perry/USA & Anastasiya Yakimova/BLR
SURPRISES: Romina Oprandi/ITA & Andrea Hlavackova/CZE
VETERANS: Nuria Llagostera-Vives/ESP & Greta Arn/HUN
COMEBACKS: Mirjana Lucic/CRO & Eleni Daniilidou/GRE
FRESH FACES: Monica Niculescu/ROU & Kurumi Nara/JPN
DOWN: Johanna Larsson/SWE (1q), Jelena Dokic/AUS (2q) and Anastasia Pivovarova/RUS (3q)
WILD CARDS: Noppawan Lertcheewakarn/THA, Katie O'Brien/GBR, Alison Riske/USA, Laura Robson/GBR, Chanelle Scheepers/RSA, Melanie South/GBR, Heather Watson/GBR
LUCKY LOSERS: Stephanie Dubois/CAN, Anastasia Pivovarova/RUS
OLDEST QUALIFIERS: Greta Arn (31), Nuria Llagostera-Vives (30), Mirjana Lucic (28), Eleni Daniilidou (27)
YOUNGEST QUALIFIERS: Kurumi Nara (18), Monica Niculescu (22)
YOUNGEST WILD CARDS: Laura Robson (16), Heather Watson (18), Noppawan Lertcheewakarn (18)

Q1: Namigata def. Ka.Pliskova 6-2/4-6/14-12
...the Pliskova sisters are just not having a good time at slams lately, are they?
Q2: Ditty def. Dokic 5-7/7-5/6-2
...ten years after her run to the Wimbledon semifinals, Dokic went out at the hands of a doubles specialist ranked #566 in singles.
Q3: Daniilidou def. Pivovarova 6-0/6-0
...ummm, Pivovarova did nothing here to show she should be in the main draw, but the removals of Safina and MJMS's names from the draw got her in anyway as a Lucky Loser. She'll play Sharapova.

2006 Meilen Tu/USA
2007 Olga Govortsova/BLR & Hsieh Su-Wei/TPE
2008 Eva Hrdinova/CZE & Maria Jose Martinez-Sanchez/ESP
2009 Victoriya Kutuzova/UKR
2010 Kaia Kanepi/EST

3...United States
2...Czech Republic
2...Kaia Kanepi, EST (R/W)
2...Nuria Llagostera-Vives, ESP (R/W)
2...Kurumi Nara, JPN (R/W)
2...Shenay Perry, USA (A/W)

#14 Victoria Azarenka vs. Mirjana Lucic(Q)
...after looking great all week, Azarenka was hobbling again in the Eastbourne final. Lucic reached the Ladies semifinals in 1999.
#25 Lucie Safarova vs. Dominika Cibulkova
...she SHOULDN'T lose this one, but it's Safarova, so...
#9 Li Na vs. Chanelle Scheepers(WC)
...(see Safarova above, but substitute "Li"). Plus, she retired from her match last week.
#18 Aravane Rezai vs. Magdalena Rybarikova serious was her injury in Eastbourne?
#5 Francesca Schiavone vs. Vera Dushevina
...Francesca's mind has been elsewhere lately.
#15 Yanina Wickmayer vs. Alison Riske(WC)
...Riske's already beaten the Belgian on grass once this month.
#33 Melanie Oudin vs. Anna-Lena Groenefeld
...ALG had Safina staring her in the face in the original draw. Now it's Oudin.
#21 Vera Zvonareva vs. Nuria Llagostera-Vives
...Zvonareva has disappeared lately, and NLV just made it through three qualifying matches.

1. Nuria Llagostera-Vives, ESP... if she can get past Zvonareva in 1st Rd.
2. Kurumi Nara, JPN... especially if Li (2nd Rd.) isn't physically prepared
3. Andrea Hlavackova, CZE... faces Lertcheewarkarn in 1st, Llagostera-Vives/Zvonareva winner in 2nd
4. Monica Niculescu, ROU... in section with Dulko, Pennetta and Medina-Garrigues
5. Shenay Perry, USA... gets fellow qualfier Yakimova in 1st, Kirilenko/Voegele in 2nd
1. Alison Riske, USA... Wickmayer opener is tough, but winnable
2. Chanelle Scheepers, RSA... depends on the extend of Li's thigh injury in 1st Rd.
3. Melanie South, GBR... 1st Round opponent Kulikova has some big wins in '10, but not on grass
4. Heather Watson, GBR... gets qualifier Oprandi in 1st Rd.
1. Elena Baltacha, GBR... can she take out Bartoli in 2nd Round?
2. Melanie South, GBR... in same section with Schiavone and Shvedova
3. Anne Keothavong, GBR... not yet back to form, and Rodionova/Kuznetsova combo a toughie
4. Heather Watson, GBR... she has a better chance than Robson
5. Katie O'Brien, GBR... it depends on which Alona shows up in Round 1
6. Laura Robson, GBR... sluts of the world unite! Or not. (She faces JJ in 1st Rd.)

1st Rd. - #1 S.Williams vs. Larcher de Brito
...hmmm, I wonder what the commentators will be talking about?
1st Rd. - (WC)Robson vs. #4 Jankovic
...hmmm, I wonder if one of them will say something cheeky after the match?
2nd Rd. - #10 Pennetta vs. Dulko
...doubles partner vs. doubles partner. Hey, Dulko DID defeat Navratilova at Wimbledon once.
2nd Rd. - #26 Kleybanova vs. Kudryavtseva
...a nice Russian vs. Russian matchup that will never be mentioned on ESPN2
2nd Rd. - #2 V.Williams vs. Makarova
...Makarova just won in Eastbourne.
2nd Rd. - #13 Peer vs. Mirza
...two players no strangers to off-court controversy.
2nd Rd. - #12 Petrova vs. Schnyder
...unpredictability, they name is "Patty." Except for when it's named "Nadia."
3rd Rd. - #4 Jankovic vs. #28 A.Bondarenko'd be their third meeting in a slam in 2010.
3rd Rd. - #2 V.Williams vs. #26 Kleybanova
...Kleybanova always meets up with the biggest names at the slams.
4th Rd. - #1 S.Williams vs. #16 Sharapova
...The Big Bang: SW19 Edition? Umm, yeah, I guess I tried that once before, huh?
4th Rd. - #3 Wozniacki vs. #14 Azarenka
...this one had a bit more intrigue attached before Azarenka looked much the worse for wear in the Eastbourne final.
4th Rd. - #8 Clijsters vs. #17 Henin/#12 Petrova
...either way, a big story. Petrova destroyed KC in Oz, while Henin usually rules over her countrywomen in slams. Maybe not this time, though.

...Queen Elizabeth is scheduled to attend this Wimbledon. It'll be the first time she's shown since Virginia Wade won the Ladies title in 1977. Hmmm... just what Andy Murray needs -- more pressure.

...Matt Harvey has been named "Championships Poet," and will sum up the day's events in poetic form each night on the Wimbledon website.

...Elena Dementieva's calf injury will prevent her from competing in her forty-seventh straight slam. Her streak was the longest current active streak on either the men's or women's tour. Now, the streak leader (hmmm, I wonder if we're ever see another streaker on Centre Court?) is Roger Federer with forty-three.

...Serena Williams is the #1 seed in the women's draw, making it six different Wimbledon #1's in the last six years. There have been six consecutive different #1's at Paris, and five in Melbourne. As long as she plays in New York, Williams will become the sixth different U.S. Open #1, as well.

...Venus says her Wimbledon dress is inspired by Tina Turner. It's "a shimmy dress," she reports. Plus, "it's got fringe." Can't wait.

...speaking of Venus, she and Serena will be going for a fifth straight slam Doubles crown, and their fifth career Wimbledon championship. They would seem to be as close to a lock for this as any champions at any slam this year. Overall, their SW19 record as a duo is 29-1, and they carry a 27-set Wimbledon winning streak into this tournament.

#1 S.Williams d. #16 Sharapova
#19 Kuznetsova d. #7 A.Radwanska
#3 Wozniacki d. #23 Zheng
#6 Stosur d. #18 Rezai
#8 Clijsters d. #17 Henin
#7 Jankovic d. (WC)Riske
#11 Bartoli d. #30 Shvedova
#2 V.Williams d. #13 Peer, I'm not attempting some reverse-cursination tactic here. I really think you-know-who has a better chance of making a move here than 2.0 does. Of course, she usually proves me wrong one way or the other.

#1 S.Williams d. #19 Kuznetsova
#6 Stosur d. #3 Wozniacki
#8 Clijsters d. #7 Jankovic
#2 V.Williams d. #11 Bartoli

...there's a whole lot of speculation in the Stosur pick. If she'd at least reached the Eastbourne final, I'd feel better. Of course, if Azarenka was healthy I'd be picking HER through in the section.

#1 S.Williams d. #6 Stosur
#2 V.Williams d. #8 Clijsters

...whatever permutations prove correct along the way, the likelihood that the same two players reach the final for a third straight year is good.

#1 S.Williams d. #2 V.Williams

...without Serena, Venus would be pushing against Navartilova for the all-time Wimbledon title mark right about now.

Rafael Nadal should have issue with the All-England Club regarding his seed.

With all due respect to Roger Federer's grass court history, the Swiss Mister should really be the #2 seed at this tournament. Instead, he's the top-seeded man for the seventh straight year. Remember, the last time Nadal played at SW19 all he did was defeat Federer in "The Greatest Match Ever Played." Last year, Federer barely got past Andy Roddick in the final while Rafa was out with knee issues. Since then, Nadal has returned to #1 and appears healthy coming into London. While seeding Federer ahead of him this time has some traditional merit, it really shouldn't have happened this year.

Should Venus be seeded ahead of world #1 Serena based on having won more Wimbledon titles in her career, even though the last time they played on grass it was Serena who won in the final? No, and world #1 Rafa is in the role of Serena, versus Roger is being Venus at this particular moment in time. And if so much weight is being given to LAST year's final, then shouldn't Roddick have had his seeding bumped up to #3 then, ahead of Djokovic?

Just a thought.

Thankfully, everything will be settled on the court, where Federer is trying to tie Pete Sampras' Open era record of seven Wimbledon titles. Before last weekend, Federer had a 76-1 mark on grass going back to a loss at SW19 in 2002, with the defeat in the GMEP being his record's only blemish. But then he lost the Halle final to Lleyton Hewitt, losing for the first time in sixteen matches against the Aussie and ending Federer's 29-match winning streak in that tournament. Does it signal a vulnerability on grass for Federer? What about Nadal's loss in London to Feliciano Lopez days after the Roland Garros final?

There might be a surprise coming here, but probably not.

#1 Federer d. Troicki
#12 Berdych d. #31 Hanescu
#15 Hewitt d. #3 Djokovic
#11 Cilic d. #5 Roddick
#10 Tsonga d. #8 Verdasco
#4 Murray d. #18 Querrey
#6 Soderling d. #24 Baghdatis
#2 Nadal d. #23 Isner

...Federer's draw seems easier than Nadal's, so there's the first advantage of having the #1 seed. Roddick might outlast Cilic, but Croats have fared well at Wimbledon in the past (and Cilic has already reached a slam SF in '10) and there's a reason why that 16-14 5th set loss in the final stung so much -- Roddick might not ever get a better chance to win his second slam. If the pressure gets to Murray, Querrey could pull the upset.

#1 Federer d. #12 Berdych
#11 Cilic d. #15 Hewitt
#4 Murray d. #10 Tsonga
#2 Nadal d. #6 Soderling

...Soderling must still have a Roger/Rafa magnet in his tennis bag. At this point, the sense of the inevitable would be no doubt setting in.

#1 Federer d. #11 Cilic
#2 Nadal d. #4 Murray

...and there it is.

#2 Nadal d. #1 Federer

...seriously, what Third Act could follow the drama of the 2008 and 2009 finals? It'd be nice to get to find out.

If Rafa did win here, he'd head to NYC with the chance to win Roland Garros, Wimbledon and the Open in succession. Federer couldn't do it after winning in Paris and London last year, and neither could Nadal after doing the same in '08. In fact, the last man to pull it off was Rod Laver in 1969.

2000 Martina Hingis, SUI
2001 Martina Hingis, SUI
2002 Venus Williams, USA
2003 Serena Williams, USA
2004 Serena Williams, USA
2005 Lindsay Davenport, USA
2006 Amelie Mauresmo, FRA
2007 Justine Henin, BEL
2008 Ana Ivanovic, SRB
2009 Dinara Safina, RUS
2010 Serena Williams, USA

9...Martina Navratilova
7...Steffi Graf
5...Venus Williams
5...Billie Jean King (+1 pre-Open era)
7...Pete Sampras
6...Roger Federer
5...Bjorn Borg

2002 Vera Dushevina/RUS d. Maria Sharapova/RUS
2003 Kirsten Flipkens/BEL d. Anna Chakvetadze/RUS
2004 Kateryna Bondarenko/UKR d. Ana Ivanovic/SRB
2005 Agnieszka Radwanska/POL d. Tamira Paszek/AUT
2006 Caroline Wozniacki/DEN d. Magdalena Rybarikova/SVK
2007 Urszula Radwanska/POL d. Madison Brengle/USA
2008 Laura Robson/GBR d. Noppawan Lertcheewakarn/THA
2009 Noppawan Lertcheewakarn/THA d. Kristina Mladenovic/FRA

2005: Venus Williams(W), Lindsay Davenport(RU), Amelie Mauresmo, Maria Sharapova
2006: Amelie Mauresmo(W), Justine Henin-H.(RU), Maria Sharapova, Kim Clijsters
2007: Venus Williams(W), Marion Bartoli(RU), Ana Ivanovic, Justine Henin
2008: Venus Williams(W), Serena Williams(RU), Zheng Jie, Elena Dementieva
2009: Serena Williams(W), Venus Williams(RU), Elena Dementieva, Dinara Safina

All for now. Day 1 awaits. A "Bare Bones" Backspin arrives tomorrow.


Blogger Vicki said...

Todd I would like to correct a mistake in your Wimbledon preview.

Steffi lost two Winbledon finals one was in 87 or there abouts her first and she lost her last in 99 to Lindsay Davenport.

Sun Jun 20, 07:14:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Todd Spiker said...

Whoops! Thanks. Yeah, I used that list in the past, but couldn't find it. So I had to put it together again, and missed that when I did.

Exactly, the other final Graf lost was in 1987, to Navratilova. That match was the subject of the most recent "Time Capsule," too.

Sun Jun 20, 08:42:00 PM EDT  

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