Grass-court season is my favorite time of the year in tennis. To the topological imperfections of a clay court, grass adds its own biological serendipity, demanding that players are quick on their feet and adaptable in both tactics and stroke mechanics. The low bounces off the surface tend to shorten points, rewarding players who take more risks and leading them to use a greater variety of tactics and court positioning.
Many erroneously assume that grass always favors the most powerful players with the biggest serves, but it’s much more complicated than that. Some taller players struggle to deal with the low bounces. Some power players lack the skill with volleys or slices to take advantage of the surface’s unique qualities. Some players are so locked into the technique they’ve practiced for years on perfectly flat hard courts that they can’t adjust when their opponents’ shots bounce in ways they don’t expect. Especially today with new synthetic string technologies, some players have built their games around hitting nearly every ball with heavy topspin, an approach whose effectiveness is largely neutralized by grass.
Some players always seem to play well on grass, no matter how their season has gone on other surfaces. Others can have great seasons derailed when they fail to adapt. Sometimes players who’ve always struggled on grass have a sudden epiphany and blow up the draw. The unique nature of the surface, combined with the extremely brief sequence of grass-court warmup tournaments that precede it, make Wimbledon the hardest of all the slams to predict.
Here are my best estimates of how the women’s tournament will unfold. I discuss the early rounds, one eighth of the draw at a time. For each contender, I list a form score that shows whether her recent results exceed expectations at her level in the rankings (values greater than 5) or have been a disappointment (less than 4). See this post for an explanation of how the scores are calculated.
At the end I make predictions for the later rounds.
Serena Williams is on a 31-match winning streak, and returns to Wimbledon, where her ongoing run of historic dominance began last year. She hasn’t played since Roland Garros, though, and once again the question is less about whether she can beat her top rivals in the later rounds than it is about whether anyone can spring an early upset before she’s fully up to speed. Her first meaningful test is likely to come from Zheng Jie in the second round. The tenacious Zheng will look to use Williams’ power against her, redirecting her shots at sharp angles as she did to take Serena to an extended third set at Wimbledon last year. But Zheng has not quite duplicated that form since.
If Serena passes that test, she should have an easy third round, where by seeding her opponent should be Tamira Paszek. But Paszek has a 1-11 record since the Australian Open, and retired from her first-round match last week in Eastbourne with a hamstring injury—the same injury that took her out of the Nottingham ITF tournament two weeks earlier. Paszek is likely to fall earlier, most likely to Kimiko Date-Krumm in the second round.
Known best for her massive serve, Sam Stosur is a great example of a player who might superficially seem well-suited to grass, but isn’t. The low bounces off the grass rob her most effective serve of its usual high kick. And for a former top-10 doubles player, her volleys and passing shots are remarkably lackluster.
Nevertheless, Stosur should have a comfortable first round against lucky loser Anna Schmiedlova. Schmiedlova is a powerful and promising 18-year-old, but the two matches she won in qualifying were the first she has ever won on grass. (She reached a top-10 ranking in junior competition without ever playing on the surface.)
Stosur’s second round could be a lot more interesting, if she meets Arantxa Rus—the same player Stosur lost to in the second round last year. Rus hasn’t won a tour level match since August, but if she’s going to turn her career around, this is the ideal draw for it. Quick and lanky, Rus does best against aggressive power players, using their power against them, keeping balls in play and profiting from their errors. Like Stosur, Rus’s first-round opponent Olga Puchkova depends heavily on her serve and powerful groundstrokes. Puchkova has only won one tour-level main-draw match on grass—and that was in 2006.
Whoever emerges from that section is most likely to face 2011 semifinalist Sabine Lisicki in the third round. To use her own word, Lisicki is undoubtedly more “passionated” about playing on grass than anyone else in the game today, but she has a tricky early draw. In the first round she faces Francesca Schiavone, who made the quarterfinals in 2009 and the fourth round last year, but whose consistency has deteriorated over the past year. In the second round she’s likely to face Eastbourne champion Elena Vesnina, whose all-court game is showing a whole new level of confidence and consistency.
Predicted fourth round: S. Williams d. Lisicki
Third most likely to reach the fourth round: Vesnina
Not to be counted out: Stosur, Zheng
Angelique Kerber has a difficult opening match against Bethanie Mattek-Sands, who had a brilliant run to the fourth round at Roland Garros. Mattek-Sands has an aggressive, all-court game that’s well-suited to grass—but after struggling with food allergies and a series of injuries, she has won only one main-draw match on the surface since Wimbledon in 2008, when she upset 2007 finalist Marion Bartoli in the third round. Mattek-Sands’ health is questionable again this week, as she hasn’t played since retiring from her third-round doubles match at Roland Garros with a groin injury. Some have highlighted Mattek-Sands’ 2-0 record against Kerber, but both of those victories came before Kerber became a top-40 player. Angie has had her own struggles this year, but has shown signs recently of more positive play and may benefit from lightening her schedule over the last two months. It won’t be easy, but 2012 semifinalist Kerber is the more consistent player and should prevail.
Angie’s next match should be at least a bit easier. She’s likely to face the powerful Kaia Kanepi, who took advantage of favorable draws to reach the quarterfinals of Wimbledon and Birmingham in 2010—and hasn’t won a match on grass since.
Kerber’s next opponent will be the survivor of an interesting section containing Urszula Radwanska, the unpredictable and unconventional Romina Oprandi, grass-court specialist Alison Riske, and the powerful former college star Mallory Burdette. Radwanska fell to the hot hands of Donna Vekic and Kristen Flipkens in this year’s smaller grass-court tournaments, but the 2012 ’s-Hertogenbosch finalist has played some good tennis this year and could be dangerous. Radwanska shouldn’t have too much trouble in the first round with Burdette, who just played her very first match on grass last week, losing to #140 Nina Bratchikova.
Oprandi showed the potential of her drop-shot-heavy game on grass by upsetting Kim Clijsters on her way to the ’s-Hertogenbosch semifinals in 2011, but withdrew from the same tournament last week with a shoulder injury. There’s a good chance she will fall in the first round to Alison Riske, who rose from obscurity two weeks ago to reach the Birmingham semifinals as a qualifier—just as she did in 2010. Riske used her strong serve and all-court game to upset Lisicki in Birmingham, and shouldn’t be taken lightly by any opponent at Wimbledon.
Olympic semifinalist Maria Kirilenko could face a serious threat in the first round from Laura Robson, who at 19 has already established herself as a giant-killer, and lives within walking distance of Wimbledon. She has consistently had tough draws there since turning pro, but has still managed to win matches, upsetting Kerber (when Angie was ranked #77) and Lucie Safarova (during the Olympic Games). Still, Robson will have to play exceptionally well to overcome Kirilenko’s consistency and grit.
The winner of that match will most likely face the inconsistent Julia Goerges, whose powerful serve and forehand have brought her some victories on grass, but whose tall frame and long swings are not well-suited to the surface. Goerges has never won a set from either Kirilenko (in three meetings) or Robson (one).
The winner of that match most likely faces Peng Shuai, who is a serviceable grass-court player but is unlikely to get past the third round. Peng has struggled off and on this year with a shoulder injury, hasn’t beaten Kirilenko since 2006, and lost her only match against Robson last year in Guangzhou. Peng could also be seriously tested by Marina Erakovic in the second round.
Predicted fourth round: Kerber d. Kirilenko
Third most likely to reach the fourth round: Robson
Not to be counted out: Mattek-Sands, U. Radwanska
Agnieszka Radwanska’s chronic shoulder injury has robbed her of some of the power she had added to her serve and forehand over the last two years, and her loss to Jamie Hampton in the first round of Eastbourne has many doubting her chances at a deep run. But Radwanska lost in the first round of Eastbourne last year too (to Tsvetana Pironkova) and went on to reach her first slam final at Wimbledon. Aga has done a good job saving her strength for the big tournaments this year, and the grass courts will help her deceptive slices and mastery of court space confound her opponents. An easy early draw will help her ease into the tournament—journeywoman clay-court specialist Yvonne Meusburger should be no threat in the first round, and neither should the erratic Timea Babos or the less versatile Mathilde Johansson in the second.
By seeding, Aga’s third-round opponent should be Mona Barthel, whose aggressive game should work on grass if she learns to adjust to the surface. But she has a 1-7 record in tour-level main-draw matches on grass, her one victory coming in three sets this year in Birmingham over #98 Vesna Dolonc. More likely Aga will meet the winner of the intriguing first-round match between Madison Keys, who has the weapons to succeed on grass but little experience on the surface, and Heather Watson, who has the experience but fewer weapons. Either player will make Radwanska earn her way to the fourth round, but neither is likely to pose a major threat.
The dangerous but inconsistent Nadia Petrova has had a poor season so far and is on a four-match losing streak, but is capable of good results on grass, as she proved most recently by winning ’s-Hertogenbosch last year. On the other hand, if she plays poorly she could lose to big-serving Karolina Pliskova in the first round. Her likely second-round opponent, Petra Martic, could pose a significant threat as well. Martic has struggled to return to form after a series of injuries, and had little track record on grass before this year. But she won the Nottingham ITF $75k title on the surface three weeks ago. That, combined with her competitive performance pushing Ana Ivanovic into a third set at Roland Garros may help her build confidence.
By seeding, Petrova’s third-round opponent should be Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. But Pavlyuchenkova isn’t much of a grass-court player, and could well fall in the first round to Tsvetana Pironkova, whose combination of a strong serve and strange mixture of flat and sliced groundstrokes work very well on the surface. Whoever wins that match could also face a challenge in the second round from versatile 2009 Birmingham champion Magdalena Rybarikova, who has made several giant-slaying runs in smaller grass-court tournaments, but oddly has never won a main-draw match at Wimbledon. Her first-round opponent, qualifier Barbora Zahlavova Strycova, has a tricky all-court game and is no slouch on grass either.
Petrova will hope Pavlyuchenkova survives that dangerous section. She’s never lost a set to her Russian compatriot in three meetings, one of which was at Wimbledon in 2011. In her current form she could struggle badly against the grass-court skills of Pironkova or Rybarikova.
Predicted fourth round: A. Radwanska d. Pironkova
Third most likely to reach the fourth round: Petrova
Not to be counted out: Rybarikova, Keys
Li Na should have little trouble in the first round against Michaella Krajicek. Krajicek won ’s-Hertogenbosch in 2006 and has a powerful game, but has suffered a series of injuries and illnesses and has rarely been competitive at the tour level in recent years. This is just the second week of her latest comeback.
However, Li is likely to face a very serious threat in the second round from Simona Halep, who seems to have suddenly found improved timing on her groundstrokes and the right balance between her talents for aggression and defense. She won the first and second titles of her career over the past two weeks, on clay in Nürnberg and on grass in ’s-Hertogenbosch, and has not lost to an opponent outside the top 20 since the beginning of May. She also won her only previous match against Li in straight sets, at the 2011 US Open. Li has the power and grass-court skills to beat Halep, but will have to be at her very best to do it if Simona’s newfound form holds.
By seeding, the winner of that match should face Klara Zakopalova. But Zakopalova has lost her last 6 matches, since attributing her withdrawal from Fed Cup in April and retirement from Madrid in May to asthma. I expect her to fall to Birmingham champion Daniela Hantuchova in the first round. Hantuchova should also prevail in the second round, against either counterpuncher Annika Beck, who has little experience on grass, or the powerful but erratic Bratchikova.
Interestingly, Hantuchova has a 4-2 record against Li, and won the last two matches, both of which were on grass—the most recent being at last year’s Olympic Games. Every match was close, with five of them decided by a third set.
Then again, Hantuchova has an 0-2 record against Halep. They’ve never played on grass.
Roberta Vinci is often perceived as a clay-court specialist, but with the aggressiveness she has added to her game over the last couple years and her extreme slice backhand, she is a competent player on grass. She should outclass Chanelle Scheepers in the first round. She could have somewhat more trouble in the second round against the winner of a match between powerful young players Kristyna Pliskova (the left-hander of the twins and the one who won the Wimbledon junior tournament in 2010) and Jana Cepelova (who upset Kristina Mladenovic and Anabel Medina Garrigues on her way to the third round at Wimbledon last year). But as the more experienced and versatile player, Vinci should prevail.
Vinci is likely to have a much more difficult third round against Dominika Cibulkova, who should advance easily to the third round through a section of players—Maria Elena Camerin, Irina-Camelia Begu, and Maria-Teresa Torro-Flor—who are all more at home on clay. But Vinci has a 4-2 record against Cibulkova and has won 8 of the last 9 sets they’ve played, including a straight-sets victory in their only meeting on grass.
Predicted fourth round: Halep d. Vinci
Third most likely to reach the fourth round: Hantuchova
Not to be counted out: Li, Cibulkova
Errani’s (now Wozniacki’s) Eighth
|Errani (already out)||5||5||7.1|
|Lepchenko (already out)||26||29||4.9|
It may be a good thing I didn’t start analyzing the bottom half until after Monday’s first round matches, as the early exits of Sara Errani and Varvara Lepchenko and the injury to Victoria Azarenka’s knee significantly alter my predictions. Errani’s loss to Monica Puig is not a big surprise, as Puig’s fearless and aggressive game is much better-suited to grass than Errani’s. Like Errani, Lepchenko depends too much on heavy topspin to make a major impact on grass, but I didn’t expect her to lose to #152 Eva Birnerova, who had a fairly easy draw in qualifying and hadn’t won a main-draw match—even at the ITF level—all year.
Those results leave Puig with a gold-and-purple opportunity to reach the fourth round in her professional grass-court main-draw debut. Her next opponent is clay-court specialist Silvia Soler-Espinosa, who is a solid player but is likely to have even more trouble imposing herself on the match than Errani did. In the third round, ’s-Hertogenbosch quarterfinalist Lesia Tsurenko should be more of a challenge. Tsurenko is fundamentally a counterpuncher, but her backhand can be a significant weapon. At age 19, match-to-match consistency is not a strength for Puig, but if she keeps playing like she did in the first round, she should reach the second week of a slam for the first time.
Caroline Wozniacki has a potentially difficult second-round match against Petra Cetkovska. Cetkovska’s ranking tumbled after she missed most the past year with foot and ankle injuries, but she has a powerful and versatile all-court game that helped her upset Ana Ivanovic and Aga Radwanska at Wimbledon two years ago. On the other hand, Cetkovska doesn’t seem to know the best way to apply her many tools against some opponents, and although they’ve never played on grass, Wozniacki has won all four sets she’s played against Cetkovska. It could be tough, but I expect Caro to win.
The winner of that match will face the winner of another likely close contest between Sloane Stephens and former top-10 player Andrea Petkovic, who is playing well again after suffering a long series of injuries. Both are powerful players who prefer to construct points patiently rather than going for quick, spontaneous winners. Stephens is likely to rely more heavily on the pace and depth of her shots, while Petkovic will try to hit sharper angles and move forward in the court. The winner will be determined by who executes her shots better on the day, but as the player with the stronger season and arguably more impressive victories on grass, Stephens should have the edge.
Wozniacki and Stephens haven’t played since 2011, when Stephens was ranked outside the top 150. Wozniacki has never been very comfortable on grass, and Stephens is playing well, so I expect her to win.
Stephens beat Cetkovska in three sets in their only previous meeting, last year at Wimbledon. Wozniacki has a 2-1 record against Petkovic, achieving her two victories in straight sets while Petkovic’s came in three. They’ve never played on grass. Petkovic and Cetkovska haven’t played since 2007, when both were ranked outside the top 150.
Predicted fourth round: Stephens d. Puig
Third most likely to reach the fourth round: Wozniacki
Not to be counted out: Petkovic, Cetkovska, Tsurenko
Maria Sharapova should have an easy second round against qualifier Michelle Larcher de Brito. She’ll face more of a challenge in the third round from Lucie Safarova, a skilled left-hander who, at her best, has the shotmaking ability to beat nearly anyone. More often, however, Safarova helps her opponents by making copious errors. Sharapova leads the head-to-head 2-1, with Safarova’s only victory coming in 2010 when Maria was still rebuilding her serve after shoulder surgery.
Marion Bartoli faces a potentially dramatic second round match against Christina McHale, who first entered many fans’ consciousness when she upset Bartoli in straight sets in their first meeting at the 2011 US Open. Since then Bartoli has won all three of their matches. They’ve never played on grass, a surface that should favor Bartoli’s greater power and more aggressive style.
Sorana Cirstea faces a possible threat in the second round from Camila Giorgi, who unleashed an uninhibited display of shotmaking to upset Petrova and Flavia Pennetta on her way to the fourth round at Wimbledon last year. However, Giorgi has done little to back up that performance since. Cirstea is more likely to find herself in the unusual position of facing an opponent whose game is more reckless and erratic than her own.
Bartoli has a 2-1 record against Cirstea, and won their only meeting on grass. On the other hand, Cirstea is having the better season while Bartoli struggles with her serve. Sorana could pull off a surprise.
Predicted fourth round: Sharapova d. Bartoli
Third most likely to reach the fourth round: Cirstea
Not to be counted out: McHale
The entire Azarenka-Kvitova quarter is difficult to predict, filled with weakened seeds, dangerous floaters, and odd matchups.
Petra Kvitova’s first-round victory over Coco Vandeweghe went much like her last two seasons—shaky, but ultimately adequate. She could face an even more difficult test in the second round from Yaroslava Shvedova, who used her aggressive groundstrokes and volleying skills to push Serena Williams to a close third set at Wimbledon last year. However, Shvedova’s only good results this year came in a 4-2 clay-court stretch in Stuttgart and Madrid, after which an arm injury derailed her game. Most likely Kvitova will once again find a way to pull through, though it might be complicated.
In the third round Kvitova will face the winner of an interesting shootout between 2010 Eastbourne champion Ekaterina Makarova and powerful 19-year-old Garbiñe Muguruza. At her best, the left-handed Makarova should have advantages in her movement and ability to hit sharper angles. Yet Muguruza is already starting to look like the more consistent player from week-to-week, and won their only previous meeting in three sets, this year in Indian Wells.
Kvitova has a 1-1 record in completed matches against Makarova, with both matches played on grass at Eastbourne, and Kvitova’s victory coming in 2011, two weeks before she won Wimbledon. Kvitova has never played Muguruza.
Although Ana Ivanovic has had some decent results on grass, it’s the surface she’s least comfortable on. She faces a test in the second round from reigning Wimbledon junior champion Eugenie Bouchard, a similarly tall and powerful player who is having a star-making season. However, Bouchard’s best professional victory on grass so far was over #199 Madison Brengle early this month. Ivanovic’s experience is likely to carry her through to the third round, where Carla Suarez Navarro is her most likely opponent.
Known largely as a clay-court player for most of her career, Suarez Navarro has added more aggression to her solid baseline game this year and has more easily taken advantage of chances to finish points at the net. She’s at the highest ranking of her career, and dispatched grass-court force Pironkova to reach the semifinals of ’s-Hertogenbosch last week. If Ivanovic plays her best, she can overpower Suarez Navarro, but more often Ana’s confidence crumbles against defenders as patient and versatile as the Spaniard.
Predicted fourth round: Kvitova d. Suarez Navarro
Third most likely to reach the fourth round: Makarova
Not to be counted out: Ivanovic, Shvedova
Azarenka slipped and fell awkwardly early in the second set of her first-round match against Maria Joao Koehler, sustaining a knee injury that gave her and her fans quite a scare. With her knee heavily taped, she winced and hobbled badly at first, but the joint loosened up after a couple games and in the end she finished the victory with little trouble. According to her team, an MRI exam revealed no structural damage, but there is still some swelling. After canceling a morning practice, Azarenka reportedly practiced “tentatively” on Tuesday afternoon.
Under other circumstances, Azarenka would be a heavy favorite to beat her second-round opponent, Flavia Pennetta. But Pennetta is playing well again after coming back in February from wrist surgery, and will make Azarenka run from corner to corner. Movement is one of the most important components of Vika’s game, and if it’s lacking she could find herself promptly out of the tournament, especially if Flavia serves well.
The winner of that match faces the winner of an interesting match between counterpunchers Alizé Cornet and Hsieh Su-Wei. Cornet is the more powerful of the two and is having the better season, but has a poor track record on grass. Hsieh’s better touch and greater emotional stability could carry her to victory. Either of these players will find herself at a disadvantage in both power and consistency to Azarenka or Pennetta.
Jelena Jankovic should have little trouble in the second round against the talented but erratic Vesna Dolonc (who has been known in the past under her maiden name Manasieva and alternate spelling Dolonts). Jankovic is likely to face a much more serious threat in the third round from Kirsten Flipkens. Jankovic has never lost a set to Flipkens in three previous meetings, but they’ve never played on grass, a surface on which Flipkens, with her all-court game and at her career-high ranking, is the better player.
Flipkens could also cause trouble in the fourth round, if she gets there. This year she took Azarenka to a third set at Indian Wells, and beat Pennetta in a 6-0 third set at Roland Garros.
Predicted fourth round: Flipkens d. Azarenka
Third most likely to reach the fourth round: Jankovic
Not to be counted out: Pennetta
S. Williams d. Kerber
A. Radwanska d. Halep
Sharapova d. Stephens
Kvitova d. Flipkens
S. Williams d. A. Radwanska
Sharapova d. Kvitova
For the third slam in a row, I have picked Maria Sharapova to meet Serena Williams in the final. (So far I was right once.) Much as I hope Sharapova finds a way to build on her improved performance in the Roland Garros final and shake up their matchup (perhaps motivated by Williams’ loose-lipped comments on her lovelife), I can’t overlook Williams’ 13 straight head-to-head victories. Therefore, I expect Serena Williams to defeat Maria Sharapova for the 2013 Wimbledon championship.
Roster of the Missing
Svetlana Kuznetsova withdrew with an abdominal injury.
Venus Williams withdrew due to the lower back injury that has been bothering her since Miami.