Wimbledon | Tough draws for both Barty and Osaka
World No 1 Ashleigh Barty has a treacherous path to negotiate through the women’s field at Wimbledon in a draw that has been unkind to her but will not dent her resolution to succeed and enjoy.
First up is the tricky Zheng Saisai from China, who is ranked 43 and provides any player with a challenge, but Barty has got her measure in their past three meetings even if she has dropped sets in the last two.
Her projected second-round opponent is two-time Grand Slam champion and former World No 2 Svetlana Kuznetsova, who opens against Belgian Alison Van Uytvanck.
If the seedings hold, Barty would take on 2017 Wimbledon champion and former World No 1 Garbiñe Muguruza, who is seeded 26th this year.
Should Barty reach the second week, it would be the first time in her career she has done so; her best singles result at SW19 was a third-round finish last year.
A pair of grass-court guns in Belinda Bencic or Donna Vekic, seeded No 13 and No 22 respectively, may await her in the fourth round.
Barty beat Vekic in the opening round in Birmingham last week and, should she move forward, she could take on either defending champion Angelique Kerber or seven-time Wimbledon winner Serena Williams in the quarter-finals.
Kerber and Williams, both multiple major champions, are projected to meet in a blockbuster fourth-round encounter in what would be a re-match of the 2016 and 2018 Wimbledon finals.
The defending champion’s year has been a bit up and down, but it looks like she has managed to settle in on grass, with two excellent tune-up showings, a semi-final in Mallorca and at least a final in Eastbourne, will give her a great deal of confidence.
Kerber’s projected quarter-final opponent is Barty, the odds-on favourite, and then she would possibly have to face Kvitova in the semi-finals.
Coming through three excellent grass-courters in a row might be too much to ask from Kerber but if the draw opens up she will fancy her chances to defend her title.
Last year, on her comeback trail after giving birth and experiencing huge physical issues, Serena suddenly caught form out of nowhere and was only stopped by Kerber in the final.
She made this year’s Australian Open quarter-final but, once again, it was health that stopped her from competing at the highest level since, forcing her to give a walkover or retire in three consecutive tournaments.
Serena, however, can still find a level above the field on any given day when playing well, and on the surface where it won’t be that easy to force her to hit on the run, she might have just enough time to tune up her game and make history again.
If Barty continues her progress, her semi-final opponent could be either No 4 seed Kiki Bertens, an Eastbourne semi-finalist, or two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova, the 6th seed who comes into the tournament under a significant injury cloud.
It is a heavy-loaded top half of the draw, with Bertens, Kvitova joined by 9th seed Sloane Stephens also in the mix.
Bertens faces Mandy Minella from Luxembourg, while Kvitova takes on Tunisian Ons Jabeur and America’s Stephens is up against Timea Bacsinszky from Switzerland.
This year has been good for Czech tennis and Kvitova has been nothing short of excellent, winning titles in Stuttgart and Sydney but forced to withdraw from the French Open with an arm injury.
She comes into Wimbledon without playing a warm-up tournament, but it might be a blessing in disguise.
The last two seasons, Kvitova would often play amazing a week prior to a Grand Slam tournament and then run out of steam when it mattered.
If there is anyone who feels as good on the grass as Serena, it is Kvitova and Wimbledon has been the happiest place in her career with two titles to her name, in 2011 and 2014.
Provided she is back to full health, she will be a huge threat to anyone else in the draw.
British No 1 Johanna Konta is also in section four alongside Kvitova and Stephens and, as the 19th seed, she will face Romanian qualifier Ana Bogdan first up.
Konta displayed some of her best tennis to date at the French Open, where she reached the semi-finals before losing to Markéta Vondroušová.
Her form has since taken a hit, having lost to Jelena Ostapenko at the Birmingham Classic before going down in straight sets to Ons Jabeur at Eastbourne.
With just four grass-court matches under her belt this season, it is hard to say how Konta will fare at SW19.
Bogdan is ranked 138 and the two have met just once before, at Marrakech, with the Briton claiming victory across three sets.
While this is not the easiest of starts for Konta, a former Wimbledon semi-finalist, it is a chance to rediscover her confidence and build up some momentum.
Unseeded Maria Sharapova, the 2004 champion and 2011 runner-up, also finds herself in section two and the former Wimbledon champion faces Pauline Parmentier in the first round.
And that is just in the top half.
Barty’s projected opponent in the final is No 2 seed Naomi Osaka, but also lurking in the bottom half are Karolina Pliskova, Simona Halep, Caroline Wozniacki, Venus Williams, Victoria Azarenka, Aryna Sabalanka, Madison Keys and Jelena Ostapenko.
Not unlike Barty, two-time Grand Slam winner Osaka is looking to make the second week of Wimbledon for the first time in her career but, to do so, she will have to find her best form from the get-go.
The 21-year-old opens against Kazakstan’s Yulia Putintseva, who knocked her out of Birmingham just two weeks ago with a 6-2 6-3 win in the Round of 16.
Avenge that loss and Osaka could face 18-year-old Iga Swiatek, the reigning junior champion who made the quarter-finals of Roland Garros, with Sofia Kenin a potential third-round opponent.
The feisty American, who defeated Serena at Roland Garros, is coming off a big win at the Mallorca Open, where she came back to defeat Bencic to secure her second title of the year.
If Osaka can make her first Wimbledon Round of 16, Caroline Wozniacki or Caroline Garcia could be waiting for her.
Garcia is having yet another strong grass season, winning the title in Nottingham and making the quarter-finals in Mallorca.
Halep is the other top seed in the Osaka quarter, along with the always dangerous Keys and Sabalenka.
The 7th seed Simona Halep takes on Aliaksandra Sasnovich from Belarus, with another Belarusian, 10th seed Sabelenka facing Slovakia’s Magdalena Rybarikova in round one, a possible fourth-round opponent.
Unseeded and looming in Halep’s tight section, though, are Victoria Azarenka and Alize Cornet, who face-off in the first round.
Sabelenka could meet 39-year-old Venus Williams or 15-year-old Cori Gauff in the second round as the two Americans will square off in an intriguing first round match.
The 15-year-old ranked No 301 made good on her Wimbledon wildcard into qualifying, defeating Aliona Bolsova, Valentyna Ivakhnenko, and Greet Minnen without losing a set to become the youngest woman in the Open Era to qualify for the main draw at Wimbledon.
The teenage phenomenon is making headlines around the world, born in Georgia but raised in Florida.
She is the latest off the production line in American tennis with the likes of 19-year-old Amanda Anisimova already turning heads.
The teenager has always been ahead of the curve and looked to leave the junior circuit behind after she went on to win the Orange Bowl International girls’ 18s title last December.
She became girls’ No 1 at the age of 14, claimed the French Open junior title last year and, according to Forbes, the 15-year-old is expected to accrue $1million from sponsorship in 2019 alone.
After emerging triumphant from Wimbledon qualifying, Gauff said it would be her dream to play one of the Williams sisters at the All England Club.
Gauff looked like a seasoned grass court player throughout the Wimbledon qualifying and will throw everything she has got at Williams.
She has a hard-hitting game that could well upset Williams and is very competitive, not in the business of simply making up the numbers at Wimbledon.
Amazingly, Williams had already claimed 4 of her 7 career Grand Slam titles by the time Gauff was born in 2004.
Karolina Pliskova, somewhat surprisingly, has never made it past Round 4 at Wimbledon despite being an excellent grass court player.
At the time of writing, Pliskova made the final at Eastbourne and, in the middle of probably her career-best year, including a clay court Premier 5 title in Rome, a final in Miami, and a semi-final at the Australian Open, has earned her the No 3 seeding.
Her improvement might be due to the help of Conchita Martinez, the 1994 Wimbledon champion and Pliskova’s coach.
With Martinez on the bench and a good spot in the draw, avoiding the likes of Kerber, Williams, and Barty up until the finals, the Czech has an excellent shot to finally score big at Wimbledon.
In addition to Konta, British interest lies with wild cards Harriet Dart and Katie Swan, who are in the top half of the draw, and Heather Watson in the bottom half.
Dart meets Christina McHale from the USA, a lucky loser from the qualifying ranks, while Swan takes on German’s Laura Siegemund and Watson plays another American qualifier, Caty McNally.