Commentary

Will the Williams sisters be threatened?

Originally Published: June 17, 2009
By Kamakshi Tandon | Special to ESPN.com

Serena WilliamsJacques Demarthon/Getty ImagesFew can be more joyful than Serena Williams now that the calendar has moved to grass.

It might be crowded at the top of women's tennis at the moment, but the Grand Slam club remains as hard to break into as ever. World No. 1 Dinara Safina, still waiting to win her first major after melting down in three finals, will attest to that.

Only six women on tour can boast a major on their résumés. Wimbledon membership is even more exclusive: Only four former winners will be in the draw when The Championships kick off next week, and the Williams sisters have managed to keep the title in the family for seven of the past nine years.

So will it be yet another familiar face lifting the trophy in a fortnight's time, or will one of the new threats finally break through? We handicap the title contenders below.

1. Serena Williams
Ranking: 2

Grand Slams: 10

The 2008 finalist has made her intentions quite clear, saying her goal is "to do better than last year."

A year ago, Serena and older sister Venus played a high-quality final that Venus eventually won in two sets. Twelve months later, the two remain firm favorites for the title, with Serena holding a slight edge because of her greater season-long consistency against the field.

There's no form to judge the sisters on; both had their struggles during the clay season, and both are following their usual practice of not playing any warm-up events. In fact, Serena was photographed shopping for jeans in Los Angeles and attending the NBA Finals in Orlando, Fla., last week. Neither city has an abundance of grass courts, meaning that she will have been practicing on a fast hard court until her arrival in England this week.

But as the record shows, a lack of grass matches has not kept the Williamses from maintaining their near stranglehold on Wimbledon for most of this decade.

The only question surrounding Serena is whether the knee problem that plagued her during the clay season will continue to be a problem. But the extroverted younger sister remains a formidable competitor even when less than fully fit, and if she happens to be healthy, watch out.

2. Venus Williams
Ranking: 3

Grand Slams: 7

The five-time Wimbledon champ is the only player in the women's field going for real history at this year's Championships. A sixth singles title would tie Venus with Suzanne Lenglen and Billie Jean King at fourth on the all-time list, behind only Steffi Graf, Helen Wills Moody and Martina Navratilova. All are legends.

Venus' success at the All England Club during the past few years has been wildly disproportionate to her results elsewhere. A win at the Sony Ericsson season-ending championships last year was her first high-level title outside Wimbledon since 2004, and she has been on the losing end of several tight battles at the other majors in the past couple of seasons.

She might be private and enigmatic, but at least the older Williams' grass prowess is no mystery. The quick, low-bouncing surface suits her particular brand of serving, and a combination of powerful groundstrokes, raw speed and an intimidating wingspan do the rest. She just has to make sure she gets in a good groove before running into a dangerous opponent.

3. Maria Sharapova
Ranking: 59

Grand Slams: 3

Another former champion, Sharapova's prospects are tempered by the fact that she is in the early stages of a comeback from shoulder surgery this past fall.

Her serve has been the primary concern. At Birmingham last week, Sharapova said she was holding back on her delivery but still produced 17 double faults in her last two matches. The Russian lost to China's Na Li in the semifinals, admitting she was drained after four matches in five days.

Having to play only every other day will help Sharapova at Wimbledon, though she must avoid getting bogged down in long matches as she did at the French Open: Exhausted after four straight three-setters, she managed to win just two games in the quarterfinals.

But with so few players who have a proven ability to perform at this event, the cool-headed, competitive Sharapova remains high on the list of favorites. She received a generous seeding of 24 at Wimbledon despite being ranked 59th in the world, and with some good form and a bit of luck from the draw, a championship run isn't too far-fetched.

4. Ana Ivanovic
Ranking: 13

Grand Slams: 1

This is the major when it all started to go wrong for the Serb last year. Still dazed after winning her first Grand Slam and becoming No. 1 at the French Open, Ivanovic fell in the third round of Wimbledon and has struggled since. A thumb injury later in the summer exacerbated the situation, but there have now been months of jittery performances. The latest was a loss to the dangerous but unpredictable Nadia Petrova in the first round of Eastbourne this week, where Ivanovic held a 4-1 lead in the third set before losing the next five games.

In February, Ivanovic hired Craig Kardon as her private coach to try to turn things around. Despite some positive results, that partnership ended last week, and she has returned to the Adidas player development team, which includes former coach Sven Groeneveld and now also Darren Cahill.

Her mental state is uncertain, but the sweet-natured glamour girl has the strokes to challenge for the title and is certainly overdue for a turnaround.

5. Dinara Safina
Ranking: 1

Grand Slams: 0

She handled her new No. 1 status with ease through the clay season but came unglued in the French Open final, putting up little resistance and even calling herself "a chicken" during the match.

Just like her brother, Safina is frank, funny and a real character. Although less jaded than Marat and a harder worker, she shares his aversion to Wimbledon's lawns. "I don't understand grass; it makes me so angry," she admits.

After the pressure of trying to reach No. 1 and the scrutiny of being a Slamless No. 1, Safina finally enters a tournament with few expectations surrounding her and can just swing away. As with Marat, expect the unexpected.

6. Victoria Azarenka
Ranking: 8

Grand Slams: 0

With a win in Miami in March, Azarenka showed she is a bit readier for the big time than the rest of the teen brigade. Her powerful game and stony competitiveness were also on full display at the French Open, where she battled back against clay-court expert Carla Suarez Navarro, defeated defending champ Ivanovic and went toe-to-toe with world No. 1 Safina.

The X factor is a hip injury that forced her to pull out of Eastbourne, just a latest in a series of physical ailments the Belarusian has had during her young career.

Even if she were to come into Wimbledon fully recovered, it's a little much to expect the 19-year-old to walk off with a Slam right now. But a run to the semifinals is possible if she falls in the right section of the draw -- and after that, anything can happen.

[+] EnlargeSvetlana Kuznetsova
Jacques Demarthon/Getty ImagesWinning back-to-back majors appears unlikely for the grass-averse Svetlana Kuznetsova.

7. Svetlana Kuznetsova
Ranking: 5
Grand Slams: 2

The surprise French Open champion forgot to enter Eastbourne and had to take a wild card into the event this week. Then she kinda forgot to play in her first-round match, winning just three games.

The big question, figuratively speaking, is will she show up at the All England Club?

It's unlikely that the friendly but flaky Kuzy can win back-to-back Slams, especially because she doesn't have the same kind of affinity for grass (or Wimbledon) that she does for European clay. But she did show in Paris that she is sometimes capable of keeping her head while those around her are losing theirs.

8. Elena Dementieva
Ranking: 4

Grand Slams: 0

Armed with a steadier delivery and always stellar groundstrokes, Dementieva proved that she can be effective on grass by reaching the Wimbledon semifinals last year. But her form this season has been patchy, and it will take a surge in motivation during the next two weeks for her to repeat or exceed last year's run.

One thing's for sure: It'll be a historic day if a serve like that can win the Wimbledon title.

9. Jelena Jankovic
Ranking: 6

Grand Slams: 0

Jankovic revealed this week that she had suffered "strong pain" from an abdominal injury during the French Open and complained of leg problems in a first-round loss at Eastbourne.

Always ready to detail how she's feeling, the outgoing Serb is at least reporting that she's happier with her slimmer frame after some counterproductive bulking up during the offseason.

But Wimbledon is Jankovic's weakest Slam by far -- she has never gone beyond the fourth round, and it will take some pretty exceptional play and circumstances for her to break her Grand Slam duck at SW19.

10. Amelie Mauresmo
Ranking: 17
Grand Slams: 2

The fourth former Wimbledon champion in the draw, Mauresmo is the furthest removed from her glory days and is coming off a heartbreaking first-round loss in front of her home crowds in Paris. But after mulling retirement last year, the thoughtful 29-year-old decided to rededicate herself to her career and has showed flashes of her best form this season.

Mauresmo's varied game is made for grass with its one-handed backhand and net-rushing potential. Given the right openings, she could create some noise once again.

11. Sam Stosur
Ranking: 18

Grand Slams: 0

A stirring run to the French Open semifinals has made the Aussie an instant dark-horse candidate for Wimbledon. She admits she doesn't love the surface, but grass suits Stosur's big-serving, attack-oriented game far more than clay.

The doubles standout is slowly succeeding in translating her net game to singles and, most importantly, finally looks to be back at full strength after a debilitating bout of Lyme disease two years ago.

Stosur showed no signs of a post-Paris letdown in her season debut on grass, powering past the talented Sabine Lisicki in Eastbourne. None of the top seeds will want to run into her early on.

12. Caroline Wozniacki
Ranking: 9

Grand Slams: 0

The other teen to crack the top 10 this season, Wozniacki is a former Wimbledon junior champion who has been rising steadily during the past year and made the final of Madrid last month. She doesn't have the firepower to blast through the draw, but a solid game and improved fitness should allow her to take advantage of any opportunities she gets.

Kamakshi Tandon is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.