Sabine Lisicki made her first Grand Slam final at Wimbledon this year. (Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
Marion Bartoli became the fifth first-time Grand Slam winner in the last 10 majors when she won Wimbledon, joining Li Na (2011 French Open), Petra Kvitova (2011 Wimbledon), Samantha Stosur (2011 U.S. Open) and Victoria Azarenka (2012 Australian Open).
Weapons, composure and luck are among the ingredients needed to win a Slam. All five of those players are powerful off the ground. (Azarenka, who is also a top-notch counterpuncher, is the only one of the quintet to win a second major, the 2013 Australian Open.) It's no coincidence that three of them -- Bartoli, Li and Stosur -- had already contested a major final before their breakthroughs. And good fortune smiled on Bartoli in particular, as she won Wimbledon without facing a player ranked higher than 17th.
Which players have the best chance of becoming the next first-time Slam winner? Here are my top-three candidates, and two others who were considered.
Sabine Lisicki: The 23-year-old German's nervous, tear-filled performance against Bartoli in the Wimbledon championship match took the shine off an impressive tournament in which she upset Serena Williams in the fourth round and outlasted No. 4 Agnieszka Radwanska in the semifinals to reach her first Slam final. The victory over Williams, a five-time champion who had won 34 matches in a row, has to make the big-serving, big-hitting Lisicki feel good about one day holding the Venus Rosewater Dish. This year's run doesn't feel like a one-off, but a logical progression in her career at Wimbledon, where she has made the quarterfinals or better in four of five appearances and beaten Williams, Maria Sharapova and Li.
The final was disconcerting, but Lisicki isn't the first player overcome by the moment.
“I think I was just overwhelmed by this whole situation,” Lisicki said after the Wimbledon final. “Credit to Marion. She’s been in that situation before and she handled it so well. I hope I’ll get the chance one more time as well."
Lisicki, who is ranked 18th, will always have a shot to win Wimbledon regardless of the draw. But with her power, there's no reason she can't challenge at the other three Slams, either. She's won WTA titles on hard courts and green clay in addition to grass, but she's never been past the third round of the French Open or the fourth round at the Australian Open or U.S. Open.
Agnieszka Radwanska: Unlike Lisicki and the first-time Slam winners mentioned above, the fourth-ranked Radwanska doesn't possess the firepower to blast her way through any draw. Instead, the Pole, who wins with variety and smarts and is a combined 5-25 against the top three of Williams, Azarenka and Sharapova, will need a favorable draw and a few key upsets to pave the way to a title.
That scenario nearly played out at Wimbledon last year, when Lisicki did the heavy lifting by knocking out Sharapova to open up Radwanska's half. Radwanska, to her credit, took advantage, defeating Maria Kirilenko in the quarterfinals and No. 8 Angelique Kerber in the semifinals before losing a three-set final to Williams. The same thing almost happened this year, too. Radwanska was drawn into the same half as Williams, who lost to Lisicki. Radwanska edged Li in the quarterfinals but lost 9-7 in the third set of a thrilling semifinal against Lisicki.
Wimbledon looks to be the best chance for Radwanska, who has advanced to the Australian Open quarterfinals four times and gotten as far as the fourth round at the French Open and U.S. Open. She's only 24, meaning that she'll see more than a handful of Wimbledons that don't feature Williams, who turns 32 next month. In the meantime, she's been working to add power to both her serve and forehand. Though she's never going to hit with jaw-dropping pace, her willingness to be selectively aggressive will be important in her pursuit of a major title.
Sloane Stephens: There are two ways to read the Sloane Stephens Slam Story. On the one hand, the 20-year-old American with limited Slam experience has gotten to the second week of majors on all three surfaces, including the semifinals at this year's Australian Open and the quarterfinals at Wimbledon last month. As the youngest player in the top 20, it's nothing but upside for her game, which has the potential to marry power and athleticism perfectly. The fact that she's already advanced to a Slam semifinal despite a lack of polish forces you to sit up and take notice.
On the other hand, her 12-3 record at Slams this year looks relatively weak on closer inspection. Aside from her victory over an ailing Serena at the Australian Open, she hasn't beaten a top-20 player; the other 11 victories came against players ranked 45th, 98th, 53rd, 56th, 111th, 128th, 92nd, 25th, 76th, 196th and 65th. She's also only 13-13 at non-majors this year, and she's yet to appear in a WTA final.
So to bet on Stephens is to bet on her raw ability, a dicey proposition as she enters a key phase in her career when she'll need the right coaching and guidance to keep her focused and hungry. She has to learn to tap into her ruthless streak and eliminate the mindlessness that can creep into her matches and cause her to lose her way for games at a time. But, again, she's only 20, and when the older guard starts declining or retiring, Stephens will be in prime position to pounce at the opportunities if she keeps developing.
Quick hits on two other players considered:
Sara Errani: The 26-year-old Errani may not have much of a chance to win a major on hard courts or grass, but she's a solid candidate on clay. She made the French Open final two years ago and the semifinals this year. The problem for the undersized Errani is that the WTA top three will continue to serve as major roadblocks on clay. She's never taken a set off Williams in three matches on the surface, including a 6-0, 6-1 rout in the 2013 French Open semifinals; Azarenka is 4-0, with three consecutive straight-set victories, in their clay meetings; and Sharapova steamrolled Errani 6-3, 6-2 in the 2012 French Open final. But if the draw ever opens up at Roland Garros the way it did for Bartoli at Wimbledon, Errani is a good bet to capitalize.
Caroline Wozniacki: I'm still not willing to give up on the 23-year-old Wozniacki, even if she seems stuck in a protracted tailspin. The Dane, a finalist at the 2009 U.S. Open, hasn't made it past the quarterfinals of a Slam since the 2011 U.S. Open, when she was still ranked No. 1. Her lack of aggression is well documented, but she's too good of a defender and competitor to not at least threaten for major titles.
This post has been updated to correct Radwanska's results at Wimbledon in 2012.
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