By Simon Evans
MANCHESTER, England (Reuters) – The absence of expectant mother Serena Williams and a failure by any of the other top women to produce the kind of dominance the American seven-times champion has consistently delivered makes this year’s Wimbledon the most open in years.
As Williams takes time out to give birth to her first child, last year’s losing finalist and world number one Angelique Kerber could be regarded as the favorite but the German has endured a poor season, and is lacking both confidence and form.
“It is pretty open, you see the results of the tournaments you just can’t pick a winner because you never know what to expect, who is going to have the better week or two,” world number nine Dominika Cibulkova told Reuters.
“It is about who is going to be the most consistent, solid and have the luck,” the Slovakian added.
Such is the absence of a clear favorite, that the bookmaker’s current choice, Petra Kvitova, would have to produce one of the most remarkable comebacks the sport has ever seen to claim her third Wimbledon title.
In December, her career was hanging by a thread after she was knifed during a break-in at her house in the Czech Republic, suffering serious tendon damage to her left hand.
The 27-year-old returned to action at the French Open last month and suffered a second round defeat on the Parisian clay, but the two-times Wimbledon champion, who triumphed in 2011 and 2014, clearly loves grasscourt tennis.
Despite playing down her chances and talking only of getting back into the groove, she stormed to the title in a warm-up event at Edgbaston last week, showing the kind of tennis that makes her such an formidable opponent on the quickest surface.
Yet it was typical of the current state of the women’s game that even Kvitova’s re-emergence had a modicum of doubt cast over it when she withdrew from this week’s event at Eastbourne with an abdominal strain.
“I showed myself that I can play five matches in six days, but now I need a bit to relax to be ready. I know how tough it is to win a grand slam, so I’m not really seeing myself as one of the favorites right now,” she said.
Her compatriot Karolina Pliskova has had a strong year and will be expected to make a deep run, the tall, big-hitter filling the role usually occupied by Russia’s Maria Sharapova, whose return from a drugs ban has been stalled by injury.
Pliskova made her grand slam breakthrough with a run to the U.S. Open final last year, beating Serena along the way, and followed up by making the quarter-finals in Australia and claiming two tour titles before going to the French Open.
There she reached the last four and was only a painful semi-final defeat by Simona Halep away from becoming the world number one.
However, Pliskova’s record at the All England Club is poor and she has never advanced past the second round at Wimbledon in five main-draw appearances.
There are also local hopes that Johanna Konta could be the first British winner since Virginia Wade in 1977 after a year in which she has established herself in the top 10 and enjoyed her biggest tournament win at the Miami Open in March.
The 26-year-old has shown improvement in slams, reaching the semi-finals and quarter-finals at the past two Australian Opens and the fourth round at last year’s U.S. Open.
Although her second round exit last year was her best showing at Wimbledon, she has shown decent form in the warm-up events on grass, losing in the final at Nottingham and beating Kerber in the quarter-finals at Eastbourne.
Runner-up in 2015, the tall Spaniard Garbine Muguruza must also be part of the conversation after solid showings in Australia and at Roland Garros.
Kerber certainly cannot be ruled out if she can return to her form of last year, nor can Venus Williams, who despite being 37 has shown solid form throughout the season and thrives on a surface that has seen her win five Wimbledon titles.
Latvian 20-year-old Jelena Ostapenko came from nowhere to win the French Open and the 2014 Wimbledon girls winner certainly can adjust to grass.
The woman she beat in the final at Roland Garros, Romania’s Halep, has yet to win a slam but she has a quarter and a semi under her belt at Wimbledon and is one of the hardest players to beat on the tour.
Victoria Azarenka, returning to the circuit after giving birth to a son in December, has twice reached the semi-finals at Wimbledon but this year may come too soon in her comeback.
Caroline Wozniacki and Svetlana Kuznetsova are both regular WTA Tour winners loaded with the experience to go far, while American Coco Vanderweghe loves the surface and is capable of beating anyone in the field on her day.
(Editing by John O’Brien)