All eyes will be on Serena Williams when Wimbledon gets underway on Monday as the seven-time champion bids to win her first Grand Slam crown since becoming a mother.
Williams’ two-year reign as Wimbledon champion ended 12 months ago when she missed the grass-court Grand Slam while she prepared for the September birth of her first child.
In the American’s absence, Spain’s Garbine Muguruza won Wimbledon for the first time with a final victory over Serena’s sister Venus.
Winning Wimbledon for the eighth time on the event’s 150th anniversary would be another memorable moment for Serena on the Centre Court she regards as a second home.
But Williams has made only a tentative return to action following complications during daughter Alexis Olympia’s birth.
The 36-year-old lost to Venus at Indian Wells in March and suffered a dismal first round exit against Naomi Osaka in Miami.
Williams played her first Grand Slam for over a year at the French Open last month, reaching the fourth round before a shoulder injury forced her to quit ahead of her clash with old rival Maria Sharapova.
French Open chiefs decided against seeding Williams, but Wimbledon officials placed her 25th despite a low ranking of 181 after her maternity absence.
That move sparked mixed feelings from the former world number one’s fellow players, with some supporting the decision and other grumbling about unfair treatment.
“I feel like if they seeded her, there are going to be critics. If they don’t, there are going to be critics. Every next scenario, there is going to be something,” Muguruza told a press conference on Sunday.
“It is what it is. She’s seeded. The tournament can do that if it wants to. Of course, she’s many times champion here, so I think it’s understandable.”
– ‘One of the greatest’ –
Regardless of her current reduced status in the rankings, given her wealth of experience and a lethal serve that is especially potent on grass, Williams should go deep into the tournament.
“She’s one of the greatest. It’s good to have her in the draw. You always want to face the best opponents,” Muguruza said.
“I don’t think there’s something different. She’s back, and it’s good.
Muguruza has the power and poise to trouble Williams, but the 24-year-old’s form comes in fits and starts.
“I mean, honestly on grass, especially in this tournament, I feel whoever has two great weeks can be a threat,” she said.
“I feel always under pressure in every tournament. Here it adds some extra. This is something you just eliminate in your mind.”
Muguruza, who also reached the Wimbledon final in 2015, dropped just one set in seven matches at the All England Club en route to her second Grand Slam title last year.
“It’s a special situation to come back to the Grand Slam that you won last year. You’re very emotional and happy,” Muguruza said of her return.
“But it just doesn’t really matter what happened in 2017. It’s just about this year.
“That’s what I had to learn in French Open. This year it’s different. Different mentality.”
World number one Simona Halep finally won her maiden Grand Slam in Paris earlier this month and though her game is better suited to clay, she has reached two successive Wimbledon quarter-finals.
Sloane Stephens’ record at Wimbledon is mediocre, but she has been inspired since returning from an 11-month lay-off with a foot injury.
The 25-year-old American won the 2017 US Open and reached this year’s French Open final to climb to fourth in the rankings.
Petra Kvitova, a two-time Wimbledon champion, would be a popular winner after battling back into the top 10 following the horrific stabbing that derailed her career in 2016.
As for Sharapova, who famously inflicted one of Serena’s most painful defeats in the 2004 Wimbledon final, the Russian has not played a match on grass since 2015 following her doping ban and injury last year.