Wimbledon: Challenging times for women’s major champs

Published by Matt Trollope

(L-R) Naomi Osaka, Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka all bowed out in the first week of Wimbledon (Getty Images)
Naomi Osaka, Angelique Kerber, Garbine Muguruza, Victoria Azarenka, Maria Sharapova, Caroline Wozniacki and Jelena Ostapenko were all absent from week two at Wimbledon.

On Manic Monday at Wimbledon, two more women’s Grand Slam champions – reigning French Open champion Ash Barty and two-time Wimbledon winner Petra Kvitova – exited the tournament.

For Barty and Kvitova, there were positives.

The Australian had enjoyed a stellar two months in Europe, winning in Birmingham after her triumph in Paris to ascend to world No.1 and building a 15-match winning streak before Alison Riske ended her campaign. Kvitova was lucky to even play at Wimbledon after a forearm muscle tear had sidelined her for the previous month; she stormed through her first three matches and pushed Johanna Konta to 6-4 in the third set before gallantly bowing out.

The mood was less buoyant for the other major winners they joined on the sidelines.

By the third round, Naomi Osaka, Angelique Kerber, Garbine Muguruza, Victoria Azarenka, Maria Sharapova, Caroline Wozniacki and Jelena Ostapenko had all departed Wimbledon with question marks surrounding their seasons, their futures, and, in some cases, their careers.

NEWS: Serena survives Riske in Centre Court thriller

“We’ve had a number of players come in over the last week that have been pretty disturbed by their losses,” a reporter said when addressing Barty during her fourth-round press conference. “How do you keep positive after a situation like this?”

“It’s incredibly tough right now,” Barty conceded.

“But in saying that, it’s also only a tennis match. I try to do everything I can to win the tennis match. If I don’t, the sun is still going to come up tomorrow.

“There are so many things we wish we had done. The what ifs. That’s not what we try to focus on that. We focus on the positives.”

Her vanquished rivals might benefit from a similar outlook as they ponder their next moves. And some have already taken action.

Garbine Muguruza

On the second day of the tournament, the Spaniard was beaten in straight sets by Brazilian qualifier Beatriz Haddad Maia, who in the second round fell to 182nd-ranked British wildcard Harriet Dart.

The defeat followed Muguruza’s listless fourth-round loss to Sloane Stephens at the French Open; she did not play a grasscourt tournament between Paris and London.

Muguruza had in the past three years won both Roland Garros and Wimbledon, and just 12 months ago she was ranked No.3 in the world. She is currently 27th.

Many had noted Muguruza’s apparently strained coaching partnership with Sam Sumyk, which began in 2015 and persisted despite several public displays of tension during on-court coaching time-outs.

On Tuesday, Muguruza announced they were going their separate ways.

Victoria Azarenka

Barty’s doubles partner Azarenka crashed out of the tournament on Friday after a strong start against Simona Halep on Centre Court in the third round.

Since her comeback to tennis in 2017 following the birth of her son Leo, Azarenka has struggled to build any sort of momentum similar to when she dominated the game for periods in 2012, 2013 and 2016. A child custody battle, which seriously impacted her playing schedule, did not help matters.

She appeared to be trending in the right direction when, after a tearful first-round exit in Australia, she advanced to the second round of the French Open and third round at Wimbledon. Even her second-round loss in Paris to Naomi Osaka, and her second-round loss to Serena Williams at Indian Wells, indicated the former world No.1 was not far off her peak.

She looked in scintillating form as she bulldozed her way to the last 32 at the All England Club, and went up 3-1 against Halep, with points for a 4-2 lead. Then her game fell apart.

“I don’t really know what happened,” said Azarenka, who has gone beyond the third round at a major tournament just once since Australian Open 2016. “Just couldn’t find the court. Missed just way too many easy shots, and those things you can’t afford against top players. When you hit, like, a metre from the net and you miss the ball, you’re not going to win.

“I created all the opportunities. I didn’t give myself a chance. To come out and play like that on Centre Court, very, very disappointed.”

Caroline Wozniacki

On the same day Azarenka lost, Wozniacki followed her out of the tournament. From 4-0 up in the first set, she won just two of the next 14 games to lose to Zhang Shuai.

“I obviously wish I’d gone further,” said the Dane, who has not passed the third round at a major this year. “It’s too bad. I feel like I could have gone further, but she played better than me today. That’s really it. I can’t change it now. Obviously I wish I’d played longer in the tournament.”

Wozniacki was ranked No.1 as recently as last year, and began the season ranked No.3. She is now No.19 and apart from her Charleston final appearance in April, has not reached a single quarterfinal in 2019.

Last year she revealed she was battling rheumatoid arthritis, something which she continues to manage. It is unclear how much this condition affects her on a day-to-day basis, or how much it impacted her during a third-round loss to Zhang.

Wozniacki turned pro 15 years ago and reached the top of the game when she won the Australian Open in 2018 to return to world No.1. It will be a huge task for her to return to those heights.

Angelique Kerber

A day earlier, Angelique Kerber exited the tournament, a result meaning the defending Wimbledon champion has not won a tournament title since lifting the Venus Rosewater Dish 12 months ago.

And she will no doubt be rueing a missed opportunity, given she dominated the opening set of her match against lucky loser Lauren Davis only to succumb in three sets. Perhaps even more gallingly, Davis went out 6-3 6-3 in the next round to Carla Suarez Navarro.

“I was trying to find my game the whole match actually. I was not really feeling good from the beginning. I don’t know why. The energy was not there,” Kerber said. “Of course I’m disappointed. It’s not the way I would like to finish here or to play here. But you have sometimes days like that.”

Kerber was hampered by an ankle injury during the claycourt season, but seemed to quash any doubts surrounding her fitness with her performances during the grasscourt swing. She was dominant in a win over Sharapova en route to the Mallorca semifinals, and brilliant in a straight-sets win over Halep on her way to the Eastbourne final.

But much like in Australia, where she excelled in the build-up to the Australian Open before suffering a head-scratching 6-0 6-2 loss to Danielle Collins in round four, Kerber was again unable to translate her form from the lead-in events to the main stage.

The 31-year-old is expected to fall outside the top 10 when next week’s rankings are released.

Maria Sharapova

It’s little secret that Maria Sharapova’s comeback in 2017 from a 15-month doping ban has not gone as the Russian had either hoped or planned.

But it seemed her wretched run of form, health and results finally seemed to break her resolve at Wimbledon last week when she was forced to retire at 5-0 down in the third set of her first-round match against Pauline Parmentier.

The typically stoic Sharapova, currently ranked 80th with a win-loss record of just 7-5 in 2019, appeared on the brink of tears as she fronted the press to discuss her latest physical setback: a left forearm tendon flare-up.

“I got myself to a good enough place to be part of this event, not be out of the draw. But it was obviously not the way that I wanted to perform here,” said Sharapova, who played just one match in five months after the Australian Open.

“I’m still proud that I’m here. This is not the easy way. I think the easy way would be just for me to maybe do other things because I’ve set up the opportunities for myself. This is far from easy. I’ve never taken the easy route. I’ve always worked, committed, focused. Like I said, these moments are hard, but I love what I do. I still have a lot of passion for it.”

Sharapova gave a wry smile if asked if she would play in San Jose in addition to Toronto and Cincinnati ahead of the US Open. “Wishful thinking probably,” she said. “Would love to, to come out of that and be healthy. Dreams.”

Naomi Osaka

The Japanese star lost to Yulia Putintseva in the second round in Birmingham, and skipped her post-match media duties. Osaka then drew the Kazakh again in the first round of Wimbledon, lost again, and cut her subsequent press conference short.

“Can I leave? I feel like I’m about to cry,” she said to the moderator, who let her escape.

Osaka, the US and Australian Open champion, has struggled since her victory in Melbourne, splitting with coach Sascha Bajin in February, posting a lukewarm record of 13-7 in the six months since that title run, and admitting that the pressure of holding the top ranking – which she no longer does – was at times excruciating.

“Mentally it was way more stress and pressure than I could have imagined. I don’t think there was anything that could have prepared me for that, especially since I’m kind of an over-thinker,” she said, before adding: “(Now) I don’t have to think about defending the ranking or anything.”

Sloane Stephens felt sympathetic towards Osaka in light of the young Japanese star’s struggles. “I think she needs to probably take care of herself a little bit better so she can feel better,” Stephens said.

Jelena Ostapenko

Ostapenko had improved her Wimbledon result each year following a first-round exit in 2016 – it was followed by a quarterfinal in 2017, and a semifinal run in 2018. Yet in 2019, on the opening day of the Championships, she crashed out in the first round with a 6-2 6-2 loss to Su-Wei Hsieh.

Hsieh was seeded 28th and is an extremely tricky opponent, but Ostapenko was ranked in the top five less than 18 months ago only to fall dramatically; with her loss at this tournament, she is expected to plummet to No.79.

The 2017 French Open champion admitted in an interview in Birmingham that she did not feel like the same player who tore through the draw in such thrilling fashion in Paris two years ago. “I’m very different to how I was in 2017 – I used to be so fearless,” she said. “Now I have so many thoughts in my head, and it’s hard to be fearless like that. So I’m trying to get rid of them, push them out of my head.”

Ostapenko seemed to be rediscovering form on the grass this year when she reached the quarters in Birmingham and third round in Eastbourne, but it was in that third-round match against Ekaterina Alexandrova where she retired trailing 6-3 2-1 due to a left hip injury. Late last year, she sustained a wrist injury which wreaked havoc with her off season.

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