Two days, two shock second-round exits — the two leading title contenders in the women’s draw went tumbling out.
On Wednesday, two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova was shown the door by 95th-ranked American Madison Brengle 3-6, 6-1, 2-6, while third seed Karolina Pliskova was knocked out on Thursday by World No 87 Magdalena Rybarikova 6-3, 5-7, 2-6.
Both Kvitova and Pliskova were the bookies’ favourites to win the women’s singles title, and most pundits and journalists had predicted that one of them would go on to lift the Venus Rosewater Dish on the second Saturday of Wimbledon.
Pliskova had cemented her credentials as one of the strongest contenders by winning the title at Eastbourne in the week right before Wimbledon. She came into this tournament with a shot at taking over as the World No 1, and her big-serving game was expected to help her serve well on grass.
However, she ran into a player who loves playing on grass and has a game that particularly excels on the slick, fast surface. Rybarikova was once ranked as high as 31 in 2013 but a surgery on her left wrist and right knee had forced her out of action for seven months in 2016. Once she returned to the tour, she was forced to play on the lower-tier ITF circuit as she had plummeted down the rankings.
Just four months ago in March, the Slovakian was ranked 453. She had an impressive victory over 20th-ranked CoCo Vandeweghe in the first round of French Open, before bowing out in the second round. Rybarikova followed that up with an even more remarkable run, winning 14 of her 15 matches on grass with titles at Surbiton and Ilkley, and a semi-final appearance at Nottingham.
Pliskova led by a set and a break in their second-round clash, but Rybarikova’s all-court variety helped her win the second set 7-5. The third set showcased some of her best tennis – her crafty shot selection, her soft hands at the net and her ability to keep the ball low that forced Pliskova into an uncomfortable position.
Two points from the decider particularly stood out — a running forehand winner hit by Rybarikova from well outside the doubles alley that curled around the net pole and landed in, and an 18-shot rally that the 28-year-old Slovak won at the net with a deft volley.
"It’s obviously an amazing feeling for me, and I’m so happy," Rybarikova said in her post-match press conference. "It’s tough to describe. I beat someone who is No 3 in the world right now, who's playing amazing tennis, on the Centre Court at Wimbledon. Nothing could be better. I’m very pleased and very happy."
While Pliskova was outplayed by a better opponent on the day, Kvitova succumbed physically and faded away in the third set after winning the second set 6-1. Her movement was hampered and she had trouble staying competitive in the last few games of the match against Brengle. Perhaps, her lack of match conditioning and the months of action spent on the sidelines due to a horrific knife attack had caught up with her.
“My body just didn't really do the best, unfortunately,” Kvitova said after the match. “But I was really trying. I fought, and I'm not sure what happened, actually. I could not just breathe, and I was feeling a bit sick, as well. When the match get (sic) longer and longer, I felt a little bit sick and tired. So I couldn't really move. I was so slow. I felt like, I don't know, like an animal. But a very slow animal.”
With these two high-profile exits, an open draw has been pushed even further wide apart, and the unpredictability and intrigue attached with the women’s section has gone up a notch. One of Rybarikova, Lesia Tsurenko, Petra Martic and Zarina Diyas will reach the quarter-finals of Wimbledon 2017. The biggest benefactor of Pliskova’s exit has to be 5th seed Caroline Wozniacki, who was in the Czech’s quarter of the draw.
Home favourite and sixth seed Johanna Konta, who was in the third quarter with Kvitova, has now become the British bookmakers’ favourite to win the tournament. There is also opportunity for Brengle, who had also beaten Serena Williams in January; 21st seed Caroline Garcia or Konta’s next opponent Greek young gun Maria Sakkari.
There is just one player left in the women’s draw who has won the Wimbledon title before – 37-year-old Venus Williams, who has five Wimbledon titles to her name.
Venus reached the Australian Open final earlier this year, and lost in the semi-finals at Wimbledon in 2016. She has been knocking on the door of an eighth Grand Slam title for a while now, and this could be her best chance.
Venus’ game is extremely well-suited for grass and the courts at SW19 have been a special place for her. However, there are plenty of other contenders who could stop her – top seed Angelique Kerber was a finalist last year and is beginning to rediscover some of the form that helped her achieve that; French Open finalist Simona Halep has clinching the World No 1 ranking as an added incentive; French Open winner Jelena Ostapenko continues to play fearless tennis and is riding a massive wave of confidence.
Then there is 2015 finalist Garbine Muguruza, who certainly knows what it takes to win a Grand Slam. Two-time Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka has returned from pregnancy and is looking fitter than ever; fourth seed Elina Svitolina is quietly proving her detractors wrong and has won two tough opening rounds; and there are half a dozen other players who could all have a realistic shot at lifting their maiden Wimbledon trophy.
Regardless of what happens over the next five rounds, there is plenty of drama and uncertainty on the cards, which makes the women’s section that much more interesting to watch. And just to add an extra twist – there is still a chance that Pliskova walks away as the new World No 1 despite her early exit.
Updated Date: Jul 07, 2017 16:50 PM