By Martyn Herman
When a 17-year-old Maria Sharapova lit up Wimbledon 10 years ago to win the title it was the launch pad to her becoming the world’s wealthiest sportswoman and an international tennis brand.
Yet despite the millions of dollars earned in prize money, endorsements and now a confectionary brand, the 27-year-old Russian’s hunger for victory remains insatiable.
After winning the French Open for a second time earlier this month, taking her grand slam haul to five, she is chasing a rare “Channel Double” last achieved by a woman in 2002 when Serena Williams proved unbeatable on clay and grass.
Sharapova stunned Serena Williams on Wimbledon’s Centre Court in 2004 to take the title, and the fact that they are the favourites at this Wimbledon speaks volumes for the enduring quality and determination of both players.
American Williams, who has bagged 17 grand slam titles, has struggled to live up to the sensational heights she scaled last year when she claimed the French and US Opens and won 78 of the 82 matches she contested.
It seemed certain that she would go on to move in front of fellow Americans Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova (both 18) on the all-time list of major singles triumphs but, as her 33rd birthday looms, time is maybe running out.
She has already lost as many matches this year as she did in the whole of 2013 and suffered a surprise second-round defeat at the French Open, although that could have been a blessing as the world No.1 will arrive at Wimbledon refreshed.
As a five-times champion she is most likely to open proceedings on Centre Court on Tuesday in the absence of last year’s winner Marion Bartoli, who will be watching from the commentary box having retired last year.
Another former champion, Chris Evert, believes that Williams will begin the tournament under pressure, after disappointing runs in the first two grand slams of the year, but providing she survives the early rounds will take some stopping.
“If she can get through the first week, that’s going to be the big thing,” Evert, who will be working for broadcaster ESPN during the tournament, said in a conference call.
“Once she gets the ball rolling, gets more comfortable on the grass, she’ll be unbeatable.”
Sharapova, seeded five, will hope to avoid a potential quarter-final with Williams because, despite her fearless persona on court against every other player in the world, the Russian has a timid record against the American, losing her last 15 matches against her, a sequence dating back 10 years.
“If she can do a double, the French and Wimbledon, that would be the greatest year she’ll ever have in her life,” Evert said, when assessing Sharapova’s chances.
For a player who once despised clay courts, Sharapova now looks completely at home on the dirt and a little awkward on grass, as was the case last year when she was bundled out in the second round by Portuguese qualifier Michelle Larcher de Brito.
“Remember all the slipping and sliding, the problems she had last year,” Evert said. “Footing is a big problem with her.”
While most money will be on Williams and Sharapova, the women’s draw has plenty of depth this year with the likes of world number two and three-times quarter-finalist Li Na, French Open runner-up Simona Halep, Serbian duo Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic and young guns such as Canada’s Eugenie Bouchard beginning to make inroads.
“She likes grass. She likes to step in and take the ball early. She has power. I think she’s one to watch,” Evert said of the attack-minded Bouchard, whose style has many similarities to Sharapova’s when she broke through in 2004.
Halep, seeded three at Wimbledon, retired hurt in the second round of the Den Bosch Open on Wednesday with an upper back problem but said she expected to be fit for Wimbledon.
Ivanovic won her first grasscourt title in Birmingham last week, further proof that she is close to returning to the levels she reached when winning the French Open in 2008.
After struggling with the pressures of the Tour when she was younger, she is now savouring every match.
“I’m a happier person. I don’t judge myself by the results. I judge myself as a person and also the values and things that I have,” said the 26-year-old world No.11.
Jankovic, 29, has never made it past the fourth round in singles at Wimbledon, though she won the mixed doubles title in 2007 with Jamie Murray and she admits it is a surface that puzzles her.
“It’s just a couple of weeks a year that we get to play on it so like I said I’m trying to make the best out of it and hopefully this year will be better than the previous years,” she said at Eastbourne this week where she lost to big-hitting American Madison Keys.
Twice Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka may find Wimbledon a little too early in her comeback from a foot injury, while former Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova suffered an injury scare at Eastbourne, pulling out with a hamstring problem.