This is the second in a two-part Wimbledon Preview – find the guide to the men’s singles here.
The women’s singles tour is the most exciting part of tennis right now. The big guns of the past decade are, for a variety of reasons, not quite firing. A younger generation have emerged, and unlike in the men’s game, these players are actually competing for and winning, major honours. This has made it impossible to accurately predict the winner of any big tournament, something which makes for very dramatic viewing.
Refreshing and intriguing as it is, the very unpredictability of the women’s game makes it hard to preview. In this piece I’ve done my best to give a good introduction to the wide cast of players who might play a role at Wimbledon, but I haven’t managed to get everyone in. Don’t be surprised if a player who isn’t mentioned here reaches the latter rounds of this tournament.
The season so far
Each of last years grand slams had a different champion, so there was no one dominant player coming into 2019. There was a clear breakout star of last year though, the 21 year old Japanese winner of the Us Open, Naomi Osaka. Osaka’s amazingly well-rounded game, un-youthful intelligence and hilarious off-court honesty and persona made her a player easy to watch and even easier to admire. She managed to fight through some very difficult matches to make it to the final of the first major of the year, The Australian Open – you should check out the highlights of her third round match with Hsieh Su-Wei cause it was a bloody excellent match.
Her opponent in the final was Petra Kvitova. Kvitova’s story is one of the most compelling in professional sport. A two time slam winner, she suffered a huge setback in late 2016 when she was attacked at her home by a burglar, and stabbed in her left hand. As a left-handed player, the nerve damage she suffered was potentially career ending. In her own words, she had to re-learn how to hold a racquet. Her results had been improving for two years, and her ascent to the final of another major tournament, in particular her two set dismantling of Danielle Collins in the semi-finals, confirmed a quite remarkable comeback. (Do yourself a favour and check out the Guardian’s wonderful recent interview with her)
The final itself was a wonderful three set affair; as dramatic and competitive a grand slam final as I have seen for a long time. After taking the first set, Osaka lost the second from a position of strength, allowing Kvitova to start to play some outrageous tennis. The Japanese player left for a comfort break at the start of the third set quite literally in tears, before re-grouping, and winning a great final set six games to four. Osaka’s win took her to no. 1 in the world, and quality of play in the final made it an uplifting and entertaining watch.
The spring hard court swing saw big wins for two exciting Canadian players. Bianca Andreescu, at only 19 years of age, won the premier mandatory event in Indian Wells, beating a host of top players along the way; Garbine Muguruza, Elena Svitolina, Angelique Kerber. Andreescu has since struggled with injury, but the level of her play and ability to back up big wins with more even bigger wins, makes her a potential superstar. Canada also dominated at the premier event in Dubai, as Belinda Bencic took the title.
The Clay court season lacked any dominant players, and so the big titles were shared out amongst a host of red-dirt loving players. 2018 French Open Champion Simona Halep showed her love of the surface as she got to the final of Madrid, losing a quality match against Dutch player Kiki Bertens. The tournament in Rome was won by Karolina Pliskova, with a win against a resurgent Johanna Konta in the final.
Going in to Roland Garros then, the women’s singles was as unpredictable and fluid as it had been for the previous couple seasons. A couple of young players took advantage of this open field, and progressed deep into the tournament. Amanda Anismova, a 17 year old American new to the professional game, made her way to the semi finals by combining the powerful hitting and the confident movement that a clay court demands. She lost a (very strange) match against Ash Barty in the last four, but she showed enough during the two weeks to excite the crowd and wider tennis world.
Nineteen year old czech Marketa Vondrousova went one better than her American counterpart, making it all the way to the final. Vondrousova’s competitive instinct was on display in a gutsy semi final win againt Konta, as she battled from set points down in both sets to win it. Throughout the tournament she made great use of her drop shot, pushing players behind the base line before chipping the ball gently over the net.
In the end however, The 2019 French Open belonged to Australian Ash Barty. Until recently, Barty had not enjoyed playing on clay, famously remarking last year that every week on clay was just, ‘a week closer to the grass’. Despite this, Barty played a great tournament and an even better final. She raced in a double break lead against Vondrousova and never really looked back. Her humility, inventive game, and visible delight in taking a grand slam, made her a worthy and popular winner of clay’s biggest prize.
With women’s tennis being so open, and with so many young players being actual competitors for the title, it makes no sense to split things into ‘competitors’ and ‘young talent’ as I did with the men’s draw. Instead, here’s a brief swoop through some of the players I find intriguing going into Wimbledon next week.
Ash Barty has to be the favourite, albeit not an overwhelming one. Barty has had an amazing year, winning multiple big titles, and with her win in Nottingham a week ago, she overtook Osaka and became world no. 1. Barty won the clay court major last month, but grass has always been her favourite surface. Her game is very well suited to Wimbledon; capable of hitting winners off her much improved forehand, Barty really excels at the variety that grass rewards. Her matches are full of clever slices, well timed drop-shots and spin-mix ups. She’s one of my favourite players to watch, and her form going in to Wimbledon suggests that she may be lifting another major trophy in a fortnight’s time
Casual tennis fans will be wondering why I haven’t yet mentioned the greatest player to ever play the sport; Serena Williams. The reason is that Serena has not really reached her pre-pregnancy level. This is entirely understandable; her life was in danger during the birth, and recovery from a year out of professional endurance sport is always very difficult. I do not follow others in believing Serena is playing ‘badly’; she reached two slam finals last year and has had some big wins over big players in that time.
Since the mess in last years US Open final however, Serena has not quite looked herself. I still believe she would benefit psychologically from properly addressing what happened last September, but this seems unlikely now.
Combined, this stuff means that Serena is not really a favourite for the title here, but she is Serena Williams; if she plays her best tennis she’ll win, because she’s better at this sport than anyone else ever has been. QED.
Venus Williams is nearly forty and is still playing top level tennis. I feel this statement alone is an achievement, and one that people just take for granted. With Venus, we just sort of assume she’ll still be around and be competitive. Of course she will, she’s Venus. But to play a physically demanding sport as you approach your fifth decade, after dealing with the health issues Venus has faced, is an amazing achievement. I can’t say I expect her to challenge this year, but then again I actually wouldn’t feel surprised if she did. She’s bloomin Venus Williams.
In a rather lovely turn of events, Venus’s first round opponent will be fifteen year old American qualifier Cori Gauff. Gauff’s age and newness to the tour means that she is unlikely to make much progress in the draw, but she’s not too bothered. She was inspired to play the sport by players like the Williams sisters, and she is excited to have a go against one of the best grass court players of all time. For some context, Venus Williams had already won four grand slam titles when Gauff was born. That is ridiculous.
One past champion who I do expect to challenge this year is Kvitova. The Czech loves playing on grass; the speed and low bounce of the courts suits her aggressive game Kvitova is also a big game player; her loss in the Melbourne to Osaka was her first in a final. The stage doesn’t come any bigger than Wimbledon, and so she is well-placed to repeat her 2011 and 2014 heroics. Considering what she’s been through since then, I might have a wee tear or two if I see her holding the Venus Rosewater dish again. No one deserves it more
There’s also a group of players who are good enough to win a grand slam, but have never been overly comfortable on grass. Simona Halep is one such player – her title at Roland Garros last year ended her losing streak in slam finals, but I don’t think she’ll extend her new winning habit in London. Halep’s rival Sloane Stephens is also capable of quite breathtaking tennis; when she plays her best almost no one can live with her. Like Halep however, she is most comfortable on clay or hard courts, and I can’t see her winning a second major title in two weeks time.
Osaka is in a similar camp; a hard court specialist who has all the talent in the world but not the experience needed to adapt quickly to grass. Moreover Osaka has struggled to hit peak form since splitting with Coach Sascha Bajin in February. Another quality player with some coaching issues is Garbine Muguruza, the spanish former champion. Mugruzua has been in odd form for a couple seasons now, and I can’t see her overcoming her issues to win the title.
There’s then a group of players who either can, or have, competed for slam titles before but who I have doubts about. Victoria Azarenka (pictured above) is one such player. She is coming back into form after struggles off the court but I think Wimbledon is a few months too soon. Karolina Pliskova has had great form before the tournament, but the same was true before she under-performed at the french open in May.
What about the defending champion, Angelique Kerber? Kerber has, in the past, struggled to back up big victories. Her personality and game suits being out of the spotlight, or if in it, being considered an underdog. Her recent performances haven’t exactly been bad (she made the final of Eastbourne last week) but nor have they lit up the tour. She showed last year she had what it takes to win the biggest title of them all, even if that form has been largely absent since then.
I hope I’ve got across just how open and exciting the women’s singles is this year. It is refreshing on it’s terms, but doubly so considering the continued reign of the big three in the other singles tournament.
There is a good chance this tournament will be won by a player mentioned in passing, or not at all, in this preview. I’m sure I’ve even left out obvious contenders, as I am quite overwhelmed by the task of introducing the field of talent.
This event should be great this year, and I hope Wimbledon actually play some bloody women on the show courts in the early rounds, and build the excitement and drama that the depth of talent deserves.
There’ll be no blog next week, as I am preparing to start a summer job in sunny Oxford. Hope you enjoy the tennis, and find my little previews aid your enjoyment of it.