Serena Williams has won Wimbledon four times.
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By Matt Cronin, special to USTA.com
With the Big 3 of men's tennis having dominated Grand Slam competition for the past three years and with Russian Maria Sharapova having reestablished herself as the world No. 1 by winning Roland Garros, it will be a difficult but not impossible task for an American to win Wimbledon this year.
The United States has greater hope on the women’s side than it does the men's, as after a shocking first-round loss in Paris, four-time Wimbledon champion Serena Williams will be raring to go on the grass. She'll be joined by her sister, five-time Wimbledon champion Venus, who has serious health issues but who has been the most consistently impressive player on the lawns since she won her first title in London in 2000.
The formidable sisters will have more than able backup this year, as 20-year-old Christina McHale is seeded at a major for the first time at No. 28, 2009 US Open quarterfinalist Melanie Oudin has revived and just won her first title on grass at Birmingham, and teenager Sloane Stephens and left-hander Varvara Lepchenko showed how much they have improved by reaching the second week in Paris.
Unfortunately for the U.S., the men’s Big 3 all hail from Europe, and Serbian Novak Djokovic, Spaniard Rafael Nadal and Swiss Roger Federer have combined to win 33 out of the last 36 Grand Slams.
However, that doesn’t mean the United States won't be heard from during the tournament, as three-time finalist Andy Roddick seems to have revived by reaching the Eastbourne final on grass, 10th-seed Mardy Fish will play his first tournament since early April and loves the surface, and No. 11 John Isner is looking to be known for more than just the guy who, with Nicolas Mahut, helped set a record for the longest match by time and games, at 11 hours, 5 minutes and 183 games.
Interestingly, Serena's last Grand Slam title of her 13 total came at 2010 Wimbledon. After she thrashed Vera Zvonareva for the title, the now 30-year-old cut her feet up stepping on glass at a restaurant, which caused her to miss nearly a year of play. In 2011, she returned to the site after having only been back for a week and couldn't find her top level in a loss to Marion Bartoli.
But while she has not won a major since her return, for the most part, Serena has played consistently well and had brought her ranking up to No. 6. She is on No. 2 Victoria Azarenka's side of the draw and has a tough road to the final, which could include matchups against former semifinalist Zheng Jie, No. 19 Lucie Safarova and defending champion Petra Kvitova in the quarters.
"In my book, Serena is a clear favorite," said ESPN analyst Cliff Drysdale. "I think she was the best player in women’s tennis going into the French. So she loses a match on clay. It’s not her best surface by any means. You can name anybody, including Sharapova, and you put them head-to-head -- Serena is the clear favorite. I still think she’s the best player in the business. The confidence level for her, I think, will be just fine, having lost the first round. I don’t think that’s a big issue for her. I’d be very surprised if she doesn’t win."
Like with her younger sibling, Venus' last major title came at Wimbledon in 2008, when she bested Serena for the crown. In the past two years, tricky Bulgarian Tsvetana Pironkova upset her, and now she returns to the All England club while contending with a tiring autoimmune disease. Venus has scored some terrific wins this year, but the 31-year-old has also taken some surprising defeats, possibly because she does not know how she will feel when she gets on court. She'll have a tough opener against Russian Elena Vesnina and then may get a rematch of her Roland Garros defeat against No. 4 Agnieszka Radwanska in the second round.
McHale, surely proud to be seeded, opens against British wild card Johanna Konta and is in rising German Angelique Kerber's segment. McHale, who is coached by USTA Player Development in New York, recently had the pleasure of hitting with the legendary John McEnroe, and he was impressed.
"She’s someone that listens well," McEnroe said. "She’s been well coached. She’s gotten herself in better and better shape. She seems to have learned from her time on the tour. She’s got a bigger game, like her forehand is bigger than people realize. If she can do more with her serve, that would be quite helpful, and develop more her own sense of identity."
Oudin's rebound has been remarkable. She fell out of the top 300 in late March after losing in the first round for the fifth straight time in 2012 and, in just over two months, has clawed back to No. 122. After impressing Wimbledon officials in Birmingham, she was awarded a wild card.
Drysdale points out that there is a "keeping up with the Joneses factor" with the younger U.S. players. Not only are McHale, Lepchenko, Stephens and Oudin in the main draw, but so are Vania King, Irina Falconi and Jamie Hampton, and CoCo Vandeweghe qualified.
All have chances to make waves, including Oudin, who upset Jelena Jankovic at 2009 Wimbledon and reached the fourth round.
"One thing about Melanie is she never lost that look in her eyes, even when she was losing first round in $50,000 tournaments," said 18-time Grand Slam champion Chris Evert. "She was in that gym for hours, on the practice court for hours, and I’d watch her play matches, and she was losing to a lot of girls in practice that she should have been beating. But she just had that determination, and I think we’re all so happy for her because the work has paid off."
None of the top American men have impossible draws to the quarters, with Fish looking at a potential third-round meeting with young Aussie Bernard Tomic and a fourth-round meeting against No. 5 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who has been hurt. Roddick opens against Britain's Jaime Baker, will possibly play No. 7 David Ferrer, who is no grass-court lover, in the third round, and No. 9 Juan Martin del Potro in the round of 16, who also is no great fan of turf. Then he could certainly get a Centre Court assignment against No. 4 Andy Murray of Britain in the quarters, whom he has beaten in London before.
Isner does have a tough draw, as he'll open against Colombia's Alejandro Falla (who nearly upset Federer two years ago) and then could have his third straight Wimbledon match-up against Mahut, whom, by the way, he beat in 2012 and 2011.
There are a slew of other American men in the tournament, including Sam Querrey, James Blake, Ryan Harrison, Donald Young and lucky loser Wayne Odesnik. Four more U.S. men qualified, which is always a sign that they are in good form: Jesse Levine, Michael Russell, Brian Baker and Ryan Sweeting. All of those men know how to attack, as does Isner, who didn’t do so nearly enough in his loss to Gilles Simon in Paris.
McEnroe, who won the Wimbledon title three times, would like to see Big John consistently be on offense.
"I find that as much as I’ve seen John advance, and he’s a legit 10 in the world, and [Canadian Milos] Raonic is certainly headed in the right direction, if they’re going to beat [the top 3], they’ve got to play more of a Pete Sampras-style, where they unsettle the guys that are playing and don’t get stuck in the type of rallies that these guys seem to be getting stuck in. Grass would seem to be tailor-made for that type of big-shot tennis -- going for broke, holding serve. They don’t come in much. I’m looking at these guys -- Isner is 6-foot-9, and Raonic is like 6-foot-5 -- and these guys are on the baseline. It’s incredible. I never thought in my wildest dreams I’d see guys serving big and staying back. So it’s a bit crazy. But I think they could be even more dangerous if they altered the game a little."