Women's quarterfinal preview: Sizing up the ladies' candidates
WIMBLEDON, England - Serena Williams is out. She cannot win Wimbledon this year. Don't try to correct me. I looked at the draw late Monday afternoon and I'm 96.9 percent sure I'm reading it right.
The overwhelming favorite's fourth-round loss Monday means it's a free-for-all for the remaining eight women to make the final and lift the Venus Rosewater Dish on Saturday. While the men take the day off Tuesday, 2012 finalist and No. 4 Agnieszka Radwanska, 2011 Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova, 2011 French Open champion Li Na and last-American-standing Sloane Stephens will all play their quarterfinals.
Here's how I rate the chances of the final eight.
1. Petra Kvitova: The 2011 Wimbledon champion is into her first Grand Slam quarterfinal of the year, a triumph in itself given her more down-than-up results this season. Once considered the heiress to the No. 1 ranking in 2012, Kvitova admits she's struggled under the pressure of being expected to win. But there's a reason for that expectation. At her best, which she was for most of the 2011 season, Kvitova is the only player who can render her opponents useless -- and, yes, I'm including Williams here. Part of Serena's success over the last 12 months has been her willingness to beat opponents in the rally, using her shots to open up space for a winner. Kvitova doesn't bother with that nonsense. She sees the ball, she hits the ball and, when she's on, her opponents are pacing the baseline from point to point and doing their best not to snap their neck watching winner after winner fly by.
A wonderful video from two years ago showing Kvitova's 222 winners at 2011 Wimbledon captured her explosive shot-making. That video is no longer up, but here's a glimpse into the 174 winners she hit to win the Dubai Championships in February.
Of all the remaining "favorites," she has arguably the easiest path to the finals. She'll take on No. 20 Kirsten Flipkens in the quarterfinals (second match, Centre Court).
2. Sabine Lisicki: At this point, how can you bet against Lisicki? Her serve, groundstrokes and proficiency at the net make her the perfect player to dominate on grass. She is 17-4 at Wimbledon, including victories against Maria Sharapova, Li, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Marion Bartoli, Caroline Wozniacki and Stephens. That is all punctuated by her resilient three-set win over Williams on Manic Monday. The 23-year-old German has made the quarterfinals or better in four of five appearances, and she could easily have been a finalist last year after holding match points and losing to Angelique Kerber 6-3, 6-7 (9), 7-5 in the quarterfinals.
She'll face a player similar to herself in Kaia Kanepi in the quarterfinals (first match, No. 1 Court). The two have never played, and the winner will play either Radwanska or Li in the semifinals. If Lisicki gets past Kanepi, you have to like her chances against either semifinal opponent. She's 1-1 against Radwanska and 2-1 against Li, including a fantastic win here in 2011, when she saved match points to win 3-6, 6-4, 8-6.
3. Agnieszka Radwanska: I would have scoffed if you had asked me two weeks ago whether Radwanska had any chance of defending her 2012 finalist points this year. But the draw turned out to be soft enough for her to at least make the semifinals, where Williams probably would have stopped her. Now, though, Radwanska has an easier road to the final, and I give her a good chance against anyone in the bottom half of the draw.
She's the only top-five player left, and though her 2013 season hasn't been as strong as last year, she's found her best form at Wimbledon. Her three-set win over Madison Keys in the third round was a trademark display of craftiness, absorbing the American teen's power and consistently making her hit one extra shot. She'll meet Li on Tuesday (first match, Centre Court) in the marquee match of the day. Li has won six of 10 meetings but Radwanska leads 2-1 on grass, with both wins coming in 2009 (one was by retirement). Li can get frustrated very easily, and if Radwanska can get her on a rope and make her run -- Li has famously and repeatedly said she hates long rallies -- she'll earn the errors.
4. Li Na: She's had a few dicey matches in which her focused has waned in the middle, but Li rolled 6-2, 6-0 over No. 11 Roberta Vinci in the fourth round. In fact, she's dropped a bagel set on three consecutive opponents, beating Simona Halep 6-2, 1-6, 6-0 in the second round and No. 32 Klara Zakopalova 4-6, 6-0, 8-6 in the third round. Li had a good explanation for at least the first of those wonky socrelines. "I would like to say, Welcome to the crazy world of women's tennis," she said after defeating Halep.
The 2011 French Open champion is the current game's Kim Clijsters. She has the fluidity of both movement and power, and her backhand motion in particular is freakishly Clijsters-esque. That, of course, means that she can run through her opponents when she's on and also go through patches where she can't find the court. Li, who also made the Wimbledon quarterfinals in 2006 and '10, can win on grass if she just believes it. It's all mental for her. She defeated Radwanska 7-5, 6-3 at the Australian Open, stopping the Pole's season-opening 13-match winning streak. Beat her again here and a potential showdown with Lisicki in the semifinals would be very interesting.
5. Marion Bartoli: Bartoli hasn't dropped a set through four rounds. Then again, she also hasn't faced a seed, coming through a section that was blown open when Sharapova lost in the second round. Bartoli entered Wimbledon having withdrawn from grass-court lead-up tournaments in Birmingham (where she didn't play a match) and Eastbourne (where she played one match) because of a left-foot injury and a viral infection, respectively. But her quick matches have given her confidence and time to recover from any lingering health issues.
The Frenchwoman will get her first test of the tournament Tuesday when she plays Stephens (second match, No. 1 Court). Bartoli won their only meeting, a 6-1, 0-6, 6-3 victory at the New Haven Open last year. This quarterfinal is a toss-up for me, but I'm going to give the nod to Bartoli. She has more experience at this stage than Stephens and, as of right now, she's the better competitor.
6. Sloane Stephens: Stephens has had to fight hard to get here. She's played three straight three-set matches, going the distance to beat unseeded players in Andrea Petkovic, Petra Cetkovska and Monica Puig. She hasn't played her best tennis, though she looked to have turned a corner against Puig, fighting hard in the second set to kick off a comeback that netted her a 4-6, 7-5, 6-1 win. Stephens' personality and profile are ready for prime time. But her game? I still have doubts. Her footwork continues to be sloppy around the ball and her tendency to revert to a defensive style in search for errors won't cut it against the always aggressive and flat-hitting Bartoli.
7. Kaia Kanepi: There's a part of me that thinks Kanepi will absolutely sneak through this draw. Unseeded and ranked No. 46, Kanepi is probably the most accomplished player you've never heard of. The 28-year-old Estonian hit a career-high No. 15 last summer and is into her fifth career Slam quarterfinal. She's beaten top-five players at Slams, and she's won six of her last eight matches against seeded players.
Her fourth-round win over Laura Robson showed her class and ability to focus in the face of a marginally hostile crowd. Kanepi can run hot and cold multiple times during a match, so she's an unreliable pick to win the title. She's coming up against Lisicki in the quarterfinals and then would have to face a top 10-player in either Radwanska or Li. But after what I've seen over the last nine days, I would not blink an eye if Kaia Kanepi became the 2013 Wimbledon champion. She's always had the game to be a regular top-10 player. All she has to do is produce it for seven matches over a two-week span.
8. Kirsten Flipkens: A year ago, Flipkens was ranked No. 175 after battling blood clots in her calf. Now, she's in the midst of a career year after making her first Round of 16 at a Slam (the Australian Open) and her first quarterfinal (Wimbledon). She'll break into the top 20 for the first time after this tournament regardless of how she does against Kvitova in the quarterfinals. Flipkens, a crafty all-court player, is 2-1 against Kvitova, including a 6-0, 4-6, 6-1 victory at the Sony Open in March. She'll try to get Kvitova on the run, and her slice backhand should keep the Czech off balance. Flipkens is definitely capable of pulling off the upset, as her game can match up well against Kvitova, who likes her opponents to hit with pace rather than off-speed junk. That said, Flipkens hasn't faced a real test all tournament while racking up four straight-set victories in a row. She came out of the section of the draw vacated by Victoria Azarenka's withdrawal and has yet to play a seed. Flipkens will need a pretty epic implosion from Kvitova to advance.