Serena Williams draw at Wimbledon could have been worse

In her first singles match of the year, Serena Williams could face one of the new leaders of the game she once dominated.

As an unseeded wild card at Wimbledon, Williams could have played at number 1. 1 Iga Swiatek, who won six tournaments in a row. Or Coco Gauff, the 18-year-old American who is about to break into the top 10 and just lost to Swiatek in the final of the French Open.

But when the draw was made on Friday, Williams avoided a major threat in the first round. Instead, she will play Harmony Tan, a 24-year-old unseeded Frenchwoman who is ranked 113 and will make her Wimbledon main draw debut.

The match will almost certainly be played on Center Court, where Williams won seven Wimbledon singles titles, six women’s doubles titles and two Olympic gold medals when the All England Club hosted a tennis tournament at the 2012 London Games.

But while Tang is setting foot on this famous patch of grass for the first time, Williams will also be in new territory. At 40, she remains arguably the biggest star in women’s tennis (Naomi Osaka is controversial), but Williams has played very little tennis in the last three years and hasn’t played the tour at all for almost a year before returning to Eastbourne this year. a week for two doubles matches with Ons Jaber.

They won them both before Jabeur withdrew with a right knee injury as a precaution ahead of Wimbledon where, unlike Williams, Jabeur is one of the big favorites for the title despite never reaching the Grand Final. helmet.

It’s a reflection of Jabeur’s shooting talent and recent win at the grass court tournament in Berlin, and a reminder that the women’s game is in transition. Reigning Wimbledon Women’s Champion Ashleigh Barty shocked the sport when she retired in March at the age of 25 after traveling far from her home in Australia and not wanting to keep fighting for the biggest prizes.

Swiatek, a 21-year-old from Poland, filled the gap convincingly by winning 35 matches in a row, and she could have done it 36 ​​by beating Croatia’s Jana Fett in the first round of Wimbledon. But Swiatek played little grass at this early stage in her career, and below her the pecking order on the tour is constantly changing.

After winning her six titles in a row, Swiatek defeated six different players in the final. Anette Kontaveit, the No. 1 seeded Wimbledon No. 2 behind Swiatek, has lost in the first round in three of her last four tournaments and has not played a match on grass this season, attributing her recent difficulties to her ongoing recovery from Covid-19.

This year, Wimbledon, which starts on Monday, will not offer full strength for women or men. Wimbledon banned Russian and Belarusian players from the competition, partly due to pressure from the British government following the invasion of Ukraine.

In response, the tours stripped Wimbledon of ranking points for the first time, and despite extensive discussions, both sides held firm to their positions.

Wimbledon kept its prize money at a normal level and although there were rumors that players could miss the tournament due to a lack of points, this did not happen. Of the players with the highest ratings, either the injured ones, like Alexander Zverev, Leila Fernandez and Osaka, or the suspended ones, like Daniil Medvedev and Arina Sobolenko, will be absent.

Wimbledon is the only major tennis tournament to keep Russians and Belarusians out, and the ban has excluded four of the top 40 men, including No. 1.1 Medvedev and No. 1.8 Andrey Rublev, both Russia. But Novak Djokovic, who has won the last three Wimbledon games, and his longtime rival Rafael Nadal are in the men’s category. So is Andy Murray, who is currently off-seeded and trying to recover from a stomach injury after an encouraging run to the grass final in Stuttgart.

Roger Federer, an eight-time Wimbledon singles champion who is still recovering from knee surgery at age 40, will miss the tournament for the first time since 1997 (he won the junior title in 1998 before playing in the main draw in 1999) .

Djokovic, who has a good draw, will face South Korea’s Kwon Sung-woo in the first round. Nadal, who played at Wimbledon for the first time since 2019, will face Argentina’s Francisco Cerundolo. Murray, the British star, will face James Duckworth of Australia.

The Wimbledon ban eliminated six of the top 40 women, including No. 1. 6 Sobolenko, a Belarusian, Wimbledon semi-finalist last year; No. 20 Victoria Azarenka, former world number one. one; and no. 34 Alexandra Sasnovich, Serena Williams’ last opponent at Wimbledon.

Sasnovich got ahead last year when Williams retired in the first set of their first round matchup after re-injuring her right hamstring after slipping on fresh grass on Center Court. Partly in response, Wimbledon allowed players to practice on center court for the first time before the tournament to wear the grass and improve their footing in the early rounds.

Williams, who has played at Wimbledon more than anyone else among women, already knows how to walk on the grass, but she is increasingly prone to injury and will now have to try to get in shape in a hurry.

Tang, despite his world ranking, has the tools to raise doubts and problems. She is an effective counter-puncher who loves to change pace with sweeps and throws, and can get Williams to dig deeper and move more than she would like at the start of her comeback.

Williams, with her first-strike strength and experience, certainly looks like the favorite, but if she gets past Tang, she will quickly face more clear threats. She could face No. Sarah Sorribes Tormo with 32 numbers, a tenacious Spaniard, could face No. 1 in the second round. 6 Karolina Pliskova, who lost to Barty in last year’s Wimbledon final. Williams has never played Tan or Sorribes and she shared her four previous matches with Pliskova, losing to her in the semi-finals of the 2016 US Open and the quarter-finals of the 2019 Australian Open.

By moving past the third round, Williams will be able to take on Gauff for the first time in a match that is sure to generate a lot of interest. But talking about a fourth round where Williams didn’t play singles at all in a year seems premature.

This is the second longest break of her remarkable career, second only to the 13-month break she took after winning the 2017 Australian Open when she was already two months pregnant with her daughter Olympia.

She looked understandably rusty and slow in the early stages of her doubles matches with Gills in Eastbourne, but she soon found her time and came up with some signature forced first serves in both wins. Her shots in position have often been reliable, but the trick will be to get into a better position in singles, where there are many more courts to cover and the potential for extended plays if Williams can’t dominate with her serves and full responses. .

A new wave of female players led by Swiatek has adapted to the power and generates it in abundance. A deep run by Williams would be a big achievement, but if there’s any Grand Slam where she could achieve it with such minimal preparation, it would be Wimbledon.