It has been 16 months since Maria Sharapova stood on a fairly ugly carpet in a Los Angeles hotel lobby and disclosed the failed drug test that turned the world of women’s tennis on its head. In the time since, unpredictability has reigned: Sharapova, one of the most recognizable faces in women’s tennis, was given a two-year suspension. (Though it was reduced to 15 months, she withdrew from the upcoming Wimbledon because of a thigh injury.) Victoria Azarenka, a past no. 1 on the brink of winning another slam, revealed her pregnancy just after last year’s Wimbledon and gave birth to her son, Leo, in December 2016. Petra Kvitova, after a dominant final few months of the 2016 season, was attacked by an intruder at her home in the Czech Republic; it would take over five months to rehabilitate from the damage to her playing hand. Not long after her 2017 Australian Open win, Serena Williams, the sport’s greatest player, announced her own pregnancy and her absence from the game until 2018. By March of this year, four of the five greatest active players in the world had all simultaneously clocked out of the sport. Their absence left a vacancy at the top of women’s tennis, with little immediate indication of who, exactly, would or could fill it.
The logical response was to look to the world no. 1, but that view this year has been a landscape of despair and disappointment. 2016 was a career peak for Angelique Kerber: She defeated Serena Williams to win the Australian Open, played the Wimbledon final, and took home an Olympic silver medal, and ended the Grand Slam season with a victory at the U.S. Open. In 2017, her game has crumbled to dust. The German finished 2016 with a 63–18 win-loss record, while in 2017 she is 19–13. She has reached one final this year, and at the French Open she won only four games in her first-round loss.
Based on 2017 performance (as opposed to the WTA ranking, which accounts for the most recent 52 weeks of play, regardless of calendar), Kerber is the 15th-best player this year, while year-end no. 3 and perennial top-10 player Agnieszka Radwanska ranks 40th. But in the absence of Serena Williams and any other credible threats, Kerber will only lose the top spot if she performs poorly at this week’s Wimbledon. The seven top performers on the 2017 circuit, meanwhile — all born in the 1990s — are Karolina Pliskova, Jeļena Ostapenko, Simona Halep, Elina Svitolina, a resurgent Caroline Wozniacki, Kristina Mladenovic, and Johanna Konta. The anomaly in the top 10 is 37-year-old Venus Williams, who reached the Australian Open final and followed with consistency all year; the elder Williams arrives at Wimbledon with her best opportunity to win a slam in years.
It is, to put it mildly, a chaotic time in the sport — but chaos, in this particular case, is no pejorative. Change has long been part of the appeal of the WTA, a factor that distinguishes the sport entirely from the men’s tour. While the Big Four — Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, and current no. 1 Andy Murray — has been a rigid and dominant force on the ATP tour for the better part of a decade, the variety of the WTA is what many other sports strive for. The pool of possible victors in any given women’s tournament is large and continues to rise; before the French Open, Simona Halep suggested that there were 15 female players who had a chance at the title. It was a seemingly hyperbolic declaration, but in the end, the pool expanded by one, as 20-year-old unseeded Jelena Ostapenko defeated the Romanian to win her first slam.
At Roland-Garros, the benefits of chaos were laid bare. Nadal’s run to the men’s title was historic and faultless, but almost a given, at this point in his career. The tournament’s compelling story lines were driven by the women: The semifinals featured four slamless players — Ostapenko, Halep, Pliskova, and Timea Bacsinszky — reacting to the pressure of rare opportunity (and a giant audience). Those circumstances produced three quality, gripping three-set matches to close the tournament. After an unexpected and occasionally messy six months in women’s tennis, the French Open was an affirmation that opportunity bred from anarchy in women’s tennis is a spectacle in itself. The question now, as Wimbledon looms, is whether that spectacle can accommodate some of its former champions.
The two biggest story lines at Wimbledon this year are both, in a way, about restoring some predictability — though not too much, and certainly not the boring kind — to the game. Petra Kvitova was sidelined in December 2016 after a home invader sliced through the tendons in every finger and thumb on her left, playing hand with a knife. It was a tragic and potentially devastating event: Kvitova’s doctor described her injuries as horrific and estimated that her chances of returning to tennis were “very low.” But the small possibility of a return served as motivation for Kvitova, who spent the next five months rehabilitating her hand every day from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Kvitova returned to the sport in May, a full month before her doctors’ earliest predictions. Her decision to play at Roland Garros was left to the last minute — she confirmed her participation only a few hours before the draw was made. It seemed fair to expect, with minimal preparation and two fingers she couldn’t feel, that the first match would make for uncomfortable viewing; the real victory was simply that Kvitova was back on a tennis court. But instead, she snapped three winners in her opening service game and it has set the tone since. Kvitova herself was surprised by how quickly her game returned. “The first point was amazing. I surprised myself like with the forehand winner straightaway,” she recalled in her post-match press conference. ”I was like, ‘Oh!’ It felt weird but great.” She won her first match, against American Julia Boserup, easily.
Despite a collected demeanor in public, Kvitova says she is still working through her experience. “I think the worst was in Paris when I really couldn’t put these bad thoughts away,” she said. But Kvitova’s comeback thus far has been a supreme exhibition of strength. After mentioning that she still can’t feel two fingers, she shrugged. “Sometimes you have a good card, sometimes you don’t have a good card and you just have to play with what you have,” she said. After losing at Roland-Garros in the second round, Kvitova headed to the grass of Birmingham and won the title with the loss of a mere set. She played so well that she arrives in Wimbledon as the tournament favorite.
The irony of tennis looking to Kvitova for order is that, under normal circumstances, she is the ultimate agent of chaos. One of the biggest hitters in the world, Kvitova wrestles the racket from her opponents’ hands and relegates them to seething spectators. Her lefty serve is her talisman; her nuclear, flat groundstrokes whistle low over the net. But her career has also been defined by what happens when she isn’t “on” — when she fails to move her feet and unforced errors engulf her. As ever, the question of consistency will define her fortnight at Wimbledon. In the draw, her main threat is the home favorite, sixth seed Johanna Konta, who looms in the fourth round. If Kvitova remains calm, liberated by the fact that this is only her third tournament back and she has little to lose, she will be a dangerous contender.
As Kvitova won in Birmingham, Victoria Azarenka plotted the first step of her comeback in Mallorca. Azarenka gave birth on December 19, 2016 — one day before Kvitova was attacked. Despite the obvious difficulties of an athlete returning from pregnancy, Azarenka used the physical hiatus as an opportunity to make improvements that are impossible to achieve during the endless tennis season. The two-time Australian Open champion has returned leaner than before her pregnancy; she has embraced biomechanics — particularly changing her service motion — in an attempt to ensure her technique is more efficient.
Unlike Kvitova’s near-miraculous immediate return to form, Azarenka’s first forays have been a struggle. In her first match back in Mallorca, forehands flew long, and she quickly lost confidence in her new serve. Her new coach, Michael Joyce, instructed her to attack and then cursed when she seemed afraid to do so. Down triple match point, Azarenka finally found her forehand and saved each one, eventually emerging with the hard-fought win. She would go on to lose her second match in Mallorca; the tournament was an indication that her mentality is sharp, but her game may take time.
A former semifinalist at Wimbledon, Azarenka has performed well on grass throughout her career but she doesn’t share Kvitova’s love story with the surface. Azarenka’s game is based entirely on rhythm. She needs it in order to read her opponents’ serves and utilize her return — at her best, the best in the world — and to build points with depth and constant changes of direction. The low skidding grass rewards her aggression, but its speed also offers solace to the server. Irregular bounces are an enemy to that essential rhythm.
With such little preparation, Azarenka’s prospects are difficult to gauge. Her progress at Wimbledon will rest on whether she can remain in the draw long enough to gain match fitness Her opening rounds, though moderately challenging, suggest it’s possible. She faces the next American hope, CiCi Bellis, in the first round, then possibly 15th seed Elena Vesnina in the second. Neither possess enough weaponry to expose her inconsistent relationship with the surface, and she could potentially play herself into the form that would take her deeper into the draw.
Nothing provokes chaos like the transition from clay to grass, the most abrupt juxtaposition in sports. Last week, Novak Djokovic joked that his main lesson after years on grass was to simply not fall, while Chilean Nicolas Jarry deadpanned his own view on the difference between clay and grass: “Sometimes you win the point by not doing anything, really,” he said during Wimbledon qualifying. “Just slice it, and the court does the rest.”
When Kvitova was asked for her opinion on the surface, her answer was much simpler and more direct. “I’m really looking forward for my lefty serve wide from the left,” she said. To her, the surface is about the shot synonymous with control. It was fitting. When Kvitova and Azarenka step on the grass of Wimbledon once again, we’ll learn if they can finally bring some control to the chaos of women’s tennis — or if the chaos will envelope them, too.