Returning to Singles, Serena Williams Will Face An Unseeded Player

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

As an unseeded wild card at Wimbledon, Williams could have been drawn to play no. 1 Iga Swiatek, who has won six tournaments in a row. Or Coco Gauff, the 18-year-old American who is on the verge of breaking into the top 10 and just lost to Swiatek in the French Open final.

But when Friday’s draw was done, Williams was spared an established threat in the first round. Instead, she will play Harmony Tan, an unseeded French 24-year-old who is ranked 113th and will be making her main-draw debut at Wimbledon.

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

But though Tan will be stepping on that famous patch of grass for the first time, Williams will also be in the new language. At age 40, she is arguably the biggest star in women’s tennis (Naomi Osaka makes it a debate), but Williams has played very little tennis in the last three years and played no one at all for almost a year until returning to Eastbourne this Week for two doubles matches with Ons Jabeur.

They won both of them before with Jabeur with a right knee injury as a precautionary move before Wimbledon, where unlike Williams, Jabeur is one of the leading favorites for the title, never reaching a Grand Slam final.

That is a reflection of Jabeur’s shotmaking talent and recent victory at the grass court tournament in Berlin, but it is also a reminder that the women’s game is in transition. The reigning Wimbledon women’s champion, Ashleigh Barty, sent shock waves through the sport retiring in March at age 25, weary of traveling the far away home in Australia and locking in the drive to push the biggest prize.

Swiatek, a 21-year-old from Poland, has stepped convincingly into the gap, winning 35 straight matches, and she could make it 36 ​​by beating a Croatian qualifier, Jana Fett, in the first round of Wimbledon. But Swiatek has played little on the grass at this early stage in her career and below her, the hierarchy on the tour is constantly shifting.

In winning her six straight titles, Swiatek beat six different players in the finals. Anett Kontaveit, seeded no. 2 at Wimbledon behind Swiatek, he lost in the first round of three of his last four tournaments and has not played a match on grass this season, attributing his recent struggles to his continued recovery from Covid-19.

This year’s Wimbledon, which begins Monday, will not offer a full-strength field for women or men. Wimbledon barred from competing with Russian and Belarusian players, in part because of pressure from the British government after the invasion of Ukraine.

The tours responded by striking Wimbledon for the first time, and despite extensive discussions, both sides held firm to their positions.

Wimbledon has maintained its prize money at normal levels, and though there was speculation that players might skip the tournament because of the lack of points, it has not materialized. Of the highest ranked players, the only ones who will be absent are either injured, like Alexander Zverev, Leylah Fernandez and Osaka or Barred, like Daniil Medvedev and Aryna Sabalenka.

Wimbledon is the only major tennis tournament to feature the Russians and Belarusians, and the ban has excluded four of the top 40 men, including 1 Medvedev and No. 8 Andrey Rublev, both of Russia. But Novak Djokovic, who has won the last three editions of Wimbledon, and his longtime rival Rafael Nadal are both in the men’s field. So is Andy Murray, now unseeded and trying to recover from an abdominal injury after an encouraging run to the final on grass 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 boys title in 1998 before playing in the main draw in 1999).

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

Wimbledon’s ban has excluded six of the top 40 women, including no. 6 Sabalenka, a Belarusian who was a Wimbledon semifinalist last year; No. 20 Victoria Azarenka, a former no. 1; and No. 34 Aliaksandra Sasnovich, who was Serena Williams’ most recent opponent at Wimbledon.

Sasnovich advanced last year when Williams retired in the opening set of their first-round match after rejoining his right hamstring in a slip on fresh grass on Center Court. Partly in response, Wimbledon, for the first time, allowed players to train on the court before Center Court in the grass and improve the footing during the early rounds.

Williams, who has played more at Wimbledon than anyone in the women’s field, already knows her way around the grass, but she has been consistently prone to injuries and will now have to try to find a hurry.

Tan, despite her world ranking, has the tools to create some doubt and trouble. She is an effective counterpuncher who likes to change pace with slices and drop shots and could force Williams to dig lower and move more than she possibly can at the beginning of her comeback.

Williams, with her first-strike power and deep experience, certainly looks like the favorite, but if she gets past Tan, she’ll quickly run into clearer threats. She could face No. 32 seed Sara Sorribes Tormo, a tenacious Spaniard, in the second round and could then face 6 Karolina Pliskova, who lost to Barty in last year’s Wimbledon final. Williams has never played Tan or Sorribes, and he has split his four previous matches with Pliskova, losing to the semifinals of the 2016 US Open and quarterfinals of the 2019 Australian Open.

Advance past the third round and Williams could face Gauff for the first time, in a match that would certainly generate major interest. But it seems most premature to start talking about the fourth round when Williams has played no singles at all in a year.

This is the second longest break of her remarkable career, ranking only behind 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 off the mark in the early stages of her doubles matches with Jabeur in Eastbourne, but she soon found her timing and came up with some trademark first serve under duress in both victories. Her ball striking when in position was often solid, but the trick would be to put herself in the prime position, where there is so much more to cover the court and the potential for extended rallies if Williams can’t serve her and full-cut returns. General Chat Chat Lounge

The new wave of women players, led by Swiatek, have adapted to the power and generate plenty of it themselves. A deep Williams would have run quite an achievement, but if there was any Grand Slam where he could achieve it with so little preparation, it would have been Wimbledon.

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