Sharapova favourite to reign at Wimbledon
With the red clay of Roland Garros tamed, Maria Sharapova heads to the less alien setting of Wimbledon’s grass a clear favourite having completed the career grand slam and regained her place at the pinnacle of the rankings.
Having washed the red dust out of her long blonde hair, she waves goodbye to her least favourite surface — on which she once described herself as a “cow on ice” — and says hello to Centre Court where she feels much more at home.
The Russian arrives as the number one seed and world number one having managed to keep her long limbs in check to win her first French Open title.
In doing so, Sharapova proved that she is head and shoulders above the current crop of women players.
Those who would be expected to challenge her at Wimbledon, such as four-times champion Serena Williams and last year’s winner Petra Kvitova, have all looked distinctly second best in the run-up to this year’s event.
Williams suffered a humiliating first-round exit in Paris at the hands of Virginie Razzano, while Kvitova was convincingly swatted aside by Sharapova in a one-sided semi-final, before being beaten in the first round at the Eastbourne International.
For the younger Williams sister, Paris defeat came as a shock after she had looked in fine fettle with a run of 17 straight wins, which included the Madrid title on clay, in the build up to Roland Garros.
The world number six is perhaps the only player who can rival and outpunch Sharapova when it comes to playing aggressive front-foot tennis which is borne out by an 8-2 winning record against the Russian.
As she nears the end of a trophy-laden career in which she has won 13 grand slams and emerged from a life-threatening injury, the American’s hunger for more is frequently called into question, however.
“I’ve been through so much in my life, I just always think things can be worse,” was her philosophical take on defeat in Paris.
Sharapova, on the other hand, comes to Wimbledon having joined an exclusive club of 10 women who have won all four majors.
When you combine that with the impressive run of form that has taken her to three titles in 2012 and into three of the last four major finals, she is the woman whom all the others must try to beat.
“I can’t wait to step on it (the grass) and start working and getting ready for Wimbledon,” Sharapova told reporters after hoisting the Suzanne Lenglen Cup.
“Everyone wants to beat a grand slam champion and beat the number one so when I step out on court I am going to start working towards improving.”
The verdant surroundings of south west London, where she won her first grand slam title at 17, offer her the perfect opportunity to convert her fine form into a vice-like grip on the women’s game.
She is 6/5 to reach her eighth major final but while she is undoubtedly the star attraction there are some dangerous outsiders lying in wait.
Serena’s sister Venus will be floating in the draw with the potential to torpedo the hopes of any seed unlucky enough to meet her in the early rounds.
Venus has slipped to number 55 in the rankings having suffered with Sjogren’s Syndrome, a fatigue-inducing, chronic illness that forced her to pull out of last year’s US Open and this year’s Australian Open.
She lost in the second round in Paris, but grass is where her big serves and rasping ground strokes come into their own and as Marion Bartoli told reporters in Eastbourne: “If you draw her in the first round that is very hard.”
Kvitova came into last year’s Wimbledon seeded eight and with very few people putting money on her to win a first grand slam title. She returns as the defending champion and a marked woman.
“I think that defending is tougher,” she said at Eastbourne.
“The first time, there is no expectation on you, you just play. It is not like the people expect that you can win.”
Her left-handed serve and aggressive, flat ground strokes mean her game is ideally suited to the grass, but she looked far from a potential double champion when she exited Eastbourne in the first round to Russian Ekaterina Makarova, ranked 48th in the world.
“As a player there is more expectation on me,” she added.
“Everyone is watching and I feel there is more pressure on me.”
There were high expectations on Belarussian Victoria Azarenka heading into Roland Garros after she began the year by winning four tournaments including the Australian Open.
Her fourth-round defeat to Dominika Cibulkova in Paris, coupled with her record at Wimbledon where the world number two has never been past the quarter-finals, mean she is below the lower-ranked Kvitova and Williams in the betting.
Apart from the consistent Sharapova, the women’s game has proved unpredictable of late with players frequently coming out of the woodwork to offer a challenge to the bigger names.
In Paris it was Sara Errani who fought her way through to the final despite her lowly ranking of 24, but the diminutive Italian does not imagine a repeat on the grass. “I don’t expect to make finals in other tournaments,” she said after picking up the runners-up trophy at Roland Garros.