By Richard Pagliaro
Their respective rankings continue to bring them together; their common quest to collect major championships can't keep them apart. When they come face to face on the court, Justine Henin and Serena Williams create the most compelling rivalry in women's tennis and for the second straight Grand Slam tournament they are on course to meet again in a major quarterfinal.
The Wimbledon draw was released today and the prospect of a quarterfinal clash between the top-seeded Henin and seventh-seeded Williams pops off the page as if that singles duel was a special three-dimensional design of the draw.
Wimbledon is the lone Grand Slam title absent from Henin's championship collection. Williams has not won a grass-court match in two years. Yet they remain the top two favorites to rule the grass-court grounds of the All England Club and while second-seeded Maria Sharapova, third-seeded Jelena Jankovic, defending champion Amélie Mauresmo and three-time champion Venus Williams are all capable contenders, look for the winner of the Henin-Williams quarter to raise the famed Rosewater Dish on the final Saturday of The Championships.
The Championships begin on Monday and neither Henin, who plays 119th-ranked Jorgelina Cravero in the first round, nor Williams, who opens against Lourdes Dominguez Lino, the 57th-ranked Spaniard who is winless at Wimbledon, should be tested too severely in the opening week.
Of all the contenders, Jankovic, who has reached the semifinal stage in two of her last three majors but has never played a Grand Slam final, enjoys the most appealing draw. The expressive Serbian, who plays with the pure joy of a student enjoying the first day of summer vacation, opens against British wild card Anne Keothavong. Jankovic would not face a seed until a possible third-round match against 25th-seeded Lucie Safarova, who upset Mauresmo at the Australian Open, but is winless at Wimbledon.
The 22-year-old Jankovic enters The Championships playing the best tennis of her career. She has won four titles on three different surfaces this year, tying Henin for the Tour lead for most championships this season, and has consistently played her way into the latter stages of events, reaching 11 semifinals in 17 tournament starts this season. Jankovic, who became the fastest woman since Chris Evert in 1974 to win 50 matches in a single season with her victory at the Ordina Open, subdued Sharapova, 4-6, 6-3, 7-5, in the Birmingham final on Sunday. She defeated defending Wimbledon champion Venus Williams at the grass-court Grand Slam last year and appears poised to make a run deep into the draw.
Her quick court coverage, ability to take the ball early and her balance off both forehand and backhand are all assets on grass and even the most vulnerable area of her game — her somewhat pedestrian serve — is aided by the lower bounce and speed of the grass surface. Barring injury, Jankovic is a strong favorite to advance to a semifinal vs. the Henin-Williams winner. If that match comes off is Jankovic, a woman still in search of her first trip to a major final, mentally strong enough to beat Williams or Henin, who have combined to win 14 majors? Jankovic has split four career matches with Williams, but is 0-6 against Henin, who has stopped the Serbian at the semifinal stage at both the 2006 U.S. Open and at the French Open earlier this month.
"I love Jelena Jankovic and I think she's great for the game, she's got a great personality," ESPN analyst Patrick McEnroe said. "But I think she'll learn a lesson that maybe not playing every week is a way to go when you reach her level. I mean she is number three in the world right now and I think [her extensive schedule] might catch up to her a bit at Wimbledon. I just don't think she has the experience on the really big stage yet. I saw her melt down a bit at the U.S. Open last year, and I just don't feel like Wimbledon is the place where she will get it all together."
Both Sharapova and Venus Williams have shown the ability to summon their strongest tennis at Wimbledon. The 13th-seeded Sharapova shoved aside then two-time defending champion Serena, 6-1, 6-4, in the 2004 final to win Wimbledon and become second-youngest women's champion at the age of 17. The next year, 14th-seeded Venus dispatched the defending champion before fighting off a match point to defeat Lindsay Davenport in a gripping two hour, 45-minute final.
Though 13th-seeded Dinara Safina could trouble 23rd-seeded Venus in a potential third-round match if Venus and Sharapova face off in the fourth round if could be the marquee match of the first week or a recall the patchy, hit-and-miss tennis that marked their last meeting in Miami, which Sharapova won 2-6, 6-2, 7-5. The reigning U.S. Open champion has beaten Venus in three of four meetings, with Williams lone win coming in the 2005 Wimbledon semifinals. Both women have a strong sense of self belief on grass based on their past success at The Championships: Sharapova owns a 20-3 career record at Wimbledon and Williams is 44-7 lifetime at the All England Club. Williams, who unleashed the fastest recorded first serve in women's tennis history — a 128.8 mph missile — at last month's French Open possesses a more potent first serve, both women rely on their backhands as their best groundstrokes and both of their second serves can be spotty.
Though she is not nearly as quick as Williams and does not hit as well on the run, Sharapova, who was sidelined for two months with a strained serving shoulder, is a more consistent player from the baseline. If Williams is unable to take the first strike off her first serve then Sharapova would have the edge based on her superior recent results (she reached the French Open semifinals playing on her worst surface and the Birmingham final) and head-to-head history with Williams.
The Williams-Sharapova winner could face a formidable foe in the form of fifth-seeded Svetlana Kuznetsova in the quarters. Kuznetsova has beaten Williams in three of five meetings and has split six matches with Sharapova, including a three-set victory over the Siberian-born Sharapova in the 2003 Wimbledon round of 16. Kuznetsova's tendency to run around her backhand to crack her favored forehand would leave her vulnerable against either woman as both Sharapova and Williams can hit the the backhand down the line to exploit any open expanse of court Kuznetsova offers.
"I haven't held up that trophy in three years so I definitely want to put my name back on the board and update it," Sharapova said. "If my shoulder holds up then I'm definitely really confident."
Mauresmo may well be the most overlooked defending champion in recent years. The fourth-seeded Frenchwoman faces American Jamea Jackson in the first round. Mauresmo should be at full strength after completing recovery from emergency appendectomy surgery and due to her absence from the Tour for much of the spring she may actually enter Wimbledon with less pressure and attention than any recent champion.
The two-time Grand Slam champion will be empowered by her results in Eastbourne this week where she reached the final and will face Henin in a rematch of the 2006 Wimbledon final, which Mauresmo won 2-6, 6-3, 6-4.
Mauresmo does not hit as big from the baseline as most women in the top 10, however her net game is rivaled only by Henin and if she can maintain that aggressive mind set she showed in winning Wimbledon last year Mauresmo is capable of going deep in the draw again, but successfully defending her title is another question.
The final answer figures to come from the quarterfinal winner between Williams and Henin.
The grandest grass-court stage in the world rewards both improvisational and imposing players and Henin and Serena Williams fill those roles better than anyone. Henin masters spins as skillfully as a singer with five octave range hits high notes, while Williams' screaming shots can punctuate a point with pure power.
Defeating Williams on grass can be a difficult task when she's playing well; deciphering her state of mind prior to a major can be even more challenging.
Two-time Wimbledon winner Williams has won six of 10 meetings with Henin, but the six-time Grand Slam champion completely outclassed Williams on clay in scoring a 6-4, 6-3, quarterfinal conquest en route to her third consecutive French Open crown. Their lone grass-court meeting came at the 2003 Wimbledon when Williams overwhelmed Henin, 6-3, 6-2, in the semifinals before defeating sister Venus to capture her second consecutive Wimbledon crown.
Grass-court tennis magnifies Williams' strengths: her serve, which is arguably the best in the history of the women's game, her willingness to rip returns regardless of the score or situation and her sheer ruthlessness in playing offensive, attacking tennis from the baseline. Furthermore, Serena and Venus have accepted a wild card into the women's doubles draw which should provide more match play.
To gauge Williams' confidence level and timing, spend a few games focusing on her feet during her early-round matches next week. In her prime, she was one of the fastest players in women's tennis and Williams' footwork and court positioning often provide a direct correlation to her confidence level. When she's playing on or slightly behind the baseline seeking to step in and take decisive cracks at the ball, Williams is most dangerous. If she is flat-footed and floating behind the baseline — a move that prompted mother Oracene Price to yell "Get out of Melbourne" when Serena strayed behind the baseline onto the Melbourne logo during the Australian Open — then she is vulnerable, particularly to a player like Henin, who is so adept at altering spins and speeds.
While Williams' feet will play a part in determining her fate, Henin's head is crucial to her title hopes.
Pancho Gonzalez's primary rule for match play decrees you "never change a winning game plan." Tennis is all about adjustments and interestingly, should Henin and Williams face off in a rematch the Roland Garros champion must deviate from the game plan she executed so efficiently in thoroughly dissecting Williams' game on the red clay where she defended brilliantly and effectively blunted Williams' power.
Continuing her quest to complete a career Grand Slam, two-time Wimbledon finalist Henin owns the all-court skills to win Wimbledon. But recent history dictates it will be a difficult double to attain. Only two women in the past 20 years — Steffi Graf (in 1988, 1993, 1995 and 1996) and Serena (2002) — have captured back-to-back French Open and Wimbledon crowns. While the slow red clay permits Henin to play reactive tennis at times, the speed of grass demands a proactive approach.
"It’s very difficult, not many players are able to do that," Henin said of the Roland Garros-Wimbledon single-season sweep. "In Wimbledon, it’s another story for me. I’m not as familiar with the surface as here. I'll see what I can do. I'm dreaming of winning Wimbledon one day. It would be the cherry on the cake."
Simply Stunning, Simply Serena
57 Consecutive Weeks as World #1
Olympic Gold Medalist ('00 Doubles w/ Venus)