Scream if you want the trophy! The battle for the women's title has never been so open
21:30 GMT, 24 June 2012
Twenty years after she nervously sat with her future husband Andre Agassi at the Wimbledon’s Champions Dinner, celebrating their respective singles titles of 1992, Steffi Graf will be back at the All England Club this year.
Steffi – or Stefanie as she now likes to be known – will be an official guest of honour and as she serenely looks down from her vantage point in the Royal Box she might be excused a slight sense of bemusement.
She will hardly be surprised by the rat-a-tat-tat from the baseline, which has taken its cue from the days when she used to slug it out with Monica Seles, but the sheer unpredictably of who will emerge from it all as the winner, is so different to her era.
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Just as men’s tennis is starting to look like a two-horse race, the women’s game resembles more the Grand National.
It is not because Graf these days focuses more on bringing up her family and overseeing her charity than following tennis that she can have little idea of who will win. Even the most assiduous follower of the women’s game cannot predict with confidence the holder of the Venus Rosewater Dish a week on Saturday.
How times change. When Graf and Seles were duelling at their peak between 1988 and 1993 they shared 22 out of 25 Grand Slam titles between them. When Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova ruled the world they monopolised 18 out of 19 majors in that period of the early to mid-eighties.
As we enter Wimbledon, eight different players have claimed the last nine Grand Slams and the upcoming generation continue to struggle to fully establish themselves, an example being Eastbourne last week, where all three of the top seeds lost in the first round.
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This, combined with elements such as the deeply unattractive grunt/yelping of a few high-profile players, has led to various mutterings, usually under the breath, about whether equal prize money can be justified.
The arguments grow louder when standing comparison with Nadal, Djokovic and Co, although there is a counter-argument that the lottery element has made the women’s game more interesting.
And now, at least the WTA Tour has an authentic No 1. Maria Sharapova is every inch the superstar, confirmed by Forbes last week to be by far the highest-earning female athlete in the world and the only one of her sex to be inside the top 50.
Water performance: Victoria Azarenka was triumphant at the Australian Open in January
Most importantly, unlike many of the No 1s who have gone before her in the past few years, she holds a major title, having bagged the French Open title. She has also overcome long-term shoulder problems and improved the weakest parts of her game, her serve and her movement around the court.
Sharapova’s elevation also seems to have rekindled one of the more traditionally intriguing aspects of women’s tennis, the fractious relationships between the leading players.
The Russian does not get on with world No 2 and Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka, and neither are relations warm with No 3 Agnieszka Radwanska.
When the Pole, having made an early exit at the Australian Open, had the temerity to question the world No 1’s grunting, the Russian came out with the delicious putdown: ‘She’s back in Poland, right’
Interestingly, when the genial Caroline Wozniacki was enjoying her long spell at No 1, the women’s locker room seemed to be a more harmonious place. In terms of finding the champion, there are two categories to pick from.
One is that of the established champions comprising of Sharapova, Serena Williams and, more distantly, Kim Clijsters, whose body now seems unwilling to go the distance.
Then there are those trying to add to, or start, their Grand Slam collections. Defending champion Petra Kvitova leads this group after bursting from the ranks a year ago to fulfil the potential that only the cognoscenti had seen in her previously.
The easygoing Czech, whose father is Mayor of her 6,000- population hometown Fulnek, has not quite backed it up since and admits that she could find it tough on her return to SW19.
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‘It’s going to be tougher to defend it. I expected to win my first match last year but nobody else was looking,’ she says. ‘This year everyone will be looking at me, expecting me to win. It’s a lot tougher, but at least I know from last year that I can win seven matches in a row.’
Kvitova’s hopes are certainly not helped by being in the tougher half of the draw, with a possible quarter final against Serena Williams and a semi against Azarenka.
Sharapova will be pleased to be tucked away from them, although she does face an awkward second round against 2010 semi-finalist Tsvetana Pironkova. We can also dare to anticipate some British success in the women’s event, as most of the home players have winnable matches.
French Open champion of 2010 Francesca Schiavone faces 18-year-old Laura Robson in a fascinating first round — could this be the year we get some decisive evidence of her exciting potential