Thursday, June 16, 2005

Sharapova Goes For Repeat At Wimbledon

Last summer, 17-year-old Russian Maria Sharapova took Wimbledon by storm, capturing her first career slam by shocking two-time champion American Serena Williams in straight sets. A year older, she will attempt to repeat at the All England Club. The road promises to be tough.

Sharapova enters the tournament ranked second overall and seeded second. If she were to win it again, she would eclipse American Lindsay Davenport as world number one. For now, Davenport holds the distinction and will try to defend that honor.

Last year, they played a competitive three set semifinal, which Sharapova came back and took with some impressive powerful groundstrokes and graceful shotmaking.

While the two highest seeds should be favorites, they'll have their work cut out for them with the first two year's slam winners- Australian Open champ Serena Williams and French Open champ Justine Henin-Hardenne in their collective paths. Williams is seeded fourth while Henin-Hardenne is seeded seventh. Both have won their share of slams and could make runs at taking their second major of the season.

Other contenders could be third seed Frenchwoman Amelie Mauresmo, fifth seed Svetlana Kuznetsova and 15th seed Kim Clijsters.

Mauresmo has never won a slam title. Her story continues to be one of coming close but falling short under pressure.

Kuznetsova, the defending U.S. Open champ has the game to challenge her rivals. However, she is coming off a quarterfinal collapse against Henin-Hardenne at Roland Garros. It should be interesting to see how he she reacts to a similar kind of match on the grass court.

In her return from injury to a slam event, Clijsters won her first three matches at the French but couldn't finish off Davenport in the second set, losing in three. She has as much ability as anyone on the WTA tour. But she has never won a major. If she continues to play well, that could change.

Two players who aren't what they were are Anastasia Myskina and Venus Williams.

Myskina, the '04 French Open champ has struggled since battling inconsistency and deep thoughts of her ailing Mom. The combo was too much for her at Roland Garros, where she became the first women's defending champ to lose the following year in the opening round. She mentioned a complete loss of confidence in her ability to make shots. It's unknown how the ninth seed will perform at Wimbledon.

Venus is a former two-time Wimbledon champion and four-time grand slam winner. The 25-year-old vet hasn't been the same since 2001 when she won her third and fourth slams (Wimbledon and U.S. Open).

After a tough fourth round loss to Aussie Alicia Molik in Melbourne, Venus suffered an upset third round defeat at the hands of 15-year-old Bulgarian Sesil Karatancheva in Roland Garros. The early exits dropped her to a 14th seed at the All England Club. For the first time in forever, Venus is in the same corner as her sister Serena, meaning that if they won their first three rounds, both would meet in a surprising round of 16 match. The question is does big sis have anything left? That remains to be seen.

Other possible contenders could be Russians Elena Dementieva and Nadia Petrova.

The 23-year-old Dementieva is more talented. If she's serving well, she is capable of going far. Her best two appearances at Wimbledon were when she reached the fourth round in '02 and '03. At this year's event, the '04 French and U.S. Open runner-up will attempt to go further as a sixth seed.

Petrova, 23, has appeared in the fourth round twice including last year. At Roland Garros, she lost in the semis to eventual champ Henin-Hardenne in straight sets. She has solid groundstrokes but is very streaky. The eighth seed will try to put it all together on grass.

Bracket Breakdown: Davenport's section isn't bad. She should cruise through the first two rounds and could meet 30th seed Dinara Safina in the third round. Safina, the younger sister of Marat Safin, could push Lindsay. If she gets through that, there could be a round of 16 rematch with Clijsters. At the French, she came back to win in three. Clijsters might face 23rd seed Ai Sugiyama in the third round. She should get through that and advance to play Davenport again for a shot at the quarterfinals.

On the other side of the bracket, Kuznetsova shouldn't have any problems early on but could run into trouble against talented 16-year-old Czech Nicole Vaidisova in round three. In her young career, Vaidisova's best result is the third round at this year's Australian Open. She might not be quite ready for prime time. Look for Kuznetsova to advance to the fourth round and meet 10th seed Patty Schnyder. The unorthodox lefty's baseline game could pose some problems for Kuznetsova.

Mauresmo's top half of her bracket doesn't look too bad. She should advance to the third round easily and could meet up with 25th seed Karolina Sprem. Sprem, a quarterfinalist a year ago could give Mauresmo trouble making this match a toss-up. The winner could play Russian 13 seed Elena Likhovtseva for a chance at the elite eight. The seasoned vet has never really had a lot of success but she recently made the semis at Roland Garros.

The bottom half should be smooth sailing for Dementieva. A third round match against American vet Amy Frazier could take place. But she shouldn't have any problems making the round of 16. If her compatriot Myskina plays well, they could face off for a shot at the quarters.

The third section is interesting. At the bottom of the draw, if the two Williams sisters win their first three matches, they would square off in a fourth round showdown. That could pit two two-time Wimbledon champions against each other in an intense match-up. There is no one to threaten Serena. If she plays to her capability, Venus should win her first two rounds but could run into some competition against 20th seeded Daniela Hantuchova. The 22-year-old Slovakian does possess some talent but has never taken it to that next level. She did make the quarters on grass three years ago. So it could be an interesting match.

The top portion of the draw shouldn't be as difficult for French Open champ Henin-Hardenne. She should cruise through the early rounds but might play a rising opponent in the round of 16. Serbia and Montenegro's Ana Ivanovic turned pro this year. Just 17, she hasn't fared too badly at her first two majors. A third round showing at her debut in Melbourne and a quarterfinal appearance at Roland Garros might give Ivanovic some added confidence heading into Wimbledon. If that's the case, she should advance to the third round to play French Open runner-up 12th seed Mary Pierce. The winner of that match should meet Henin-Hardenne for a chance at the round of eight.

Defending champ Sharapova should have an easy time with most of her bracket. However, an intriguing second round match-up could pit her against 15-year-old French Open semifinalist Karatancheva. Expect Sharapova to get through. Once she does, there won't be many roadblocks to the quarterfinals.

The top half of the bracket also should not be too challenging for Petrova. If she plays well, Petrova could wind up meeting 11th seed Vera Zvonareva in the fourth round for a trip to the quarters. The 20-year-old Moscow native has lost in that round at Wimbledon the past two years. This could be the year she breaks through.

Picking The Final Four: Davenport should meet Clijsters in an appealing fourth round rematch. A firm striker of the ball, she should have a slight advantage on the baseline. Clijsters should be quicker though. At Roland Garros, Clijsters beat herself with a ton of unforced errors and double faults. Barring that kind of collapse, I like Clijsters to advance in a three-set battle against Davenport. Clijsters should face the winner of Kuznetsova-Schnyder. Look for Kuznetsova to move on and meet Kim in a strong quarter. I'll take Clijsters in three to reach the semifinals.

A semifinalist last year, Mauresmo should play Sprem in a competitive third round match-up. I'll take Sprem in an upset to advance to the round of 16. It's uncertain who she will play. There aren't many great grass court players in her section. If form holds, it would be Likhovtseva. I'll pick Sprem to advance and meet Dementieva in the round of eight. Unless Myskina snaps out of her funk, it should be smooth sailing for Dementieva. Against Sprem, I like Dementieva to advance to the semis against Clijsters.

The third bracket points to a sibling showdown between the Williams sisters in round four. Would it really shock anyone if it didn't come down due to inconsistent play by Venus? I hope she shows up ready to play inspired tennis. If so, then she could give Serena a tough match. But look for Serena to triumph and cruise into the quarters. Henin-Hardenne shouldn't run into trouble until she faces Ivanovic. But she should have too much experience for her and play Serena in a classic quarter. This match could go either way. Both match-up well. They're both extremely talented, can rip the ball and are mentally tough. It definitely should be a two-plus hour marathon with no tiebreak in the third. As much as I like Henin-Hardenne, I just can't see her getting by Serena on this surface. I'll pick Serena in a three-set epic, winning the final set 8-6 to get to the final four.

Sharapova's bracket is much easier and that might be a factor when she reaches a rematch of last year's final against Serena. Her bracket is a joke. If she doesn't win it, that would be a huge upset. I like Zvonareva to upset Petrova in the fourth round and meet Sharapova in the quarters. But Sharapova just has too much game.

Clijsters against Dementieva in one semi should be a competitive match between two women who can strike the ball with authority from the baseline. But Clijsters' experience should win out and get her to the final. The other semi should be the championship. But it isn't. Serena already avenged her Wimbledon final defeat in a classic three-set semi win down under against Sharapova. But if she plays Venus in the fourth round and Henin-Hardenne in the quarters, that could take a lot out of her. Meanwhile, the younger Sharapova should be well rested, which is a huge advantage. With that probably a factor, I'll pick her to advance past Serena in straight sets.

Final Prediction: It's hard to pick against Sharapova here. She hits the ball with so much power and moves opponents around the court like a championship boxer. Clijsters has great foot speed and can run down a lot of shots. But against the taller Russian, the Belgium native will be up against it. I think it will go the distance but I like Sharapova to win her second consecutive Wimbledon and become the number one player in the world.


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