By Hritika Sharma
- While the fortunes of world number one Iga Swiatek and home hope Emma Raducanu are set dominate the early headlines at Wimbledon this year, a quartet of former champions will be eagerly eyeing the wide open women's draw.
French Open champion Swiatek arrives at SW19 in a rich vein of form and riding a 35-match winning streak, but has not played a single match on grass this season after being forced out of the tune-up German Open with a shoulder issue.
With defending champion Ash Barty having retired and 2021 semi-finalist Aryna Sabalenka unable to play due to Wimbledon's ban on Russian and Belarusian players, the stage is set for former champions Simona Halep, Petra Kvitova, Angelique Kerber and Garbine Muguruza to make their mark.
Halep brushed aside opponents with surprising ease to lift the title in 2019 but the Romanian baseliner was unable to defend her title the following year because the tournament was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
A slew of injuries in 2021 caused her to plummet down the rankings as well as miss the grasscourt major but the former world number one, now coached by Serena Williams' former coach Patrick Mouratoglou, is a dark horse at Wimbledon following her deep runs in Birmingham and Bad Homburg.
The WTA 250 event in Birmingham was Halep's first outing on grass in three years and the 30-year-old said after her first-round match that she was still adapting to the surface but was confident of rediscovering her form.
"I cannot say I am already used to it... Three years is a long time to have a break from a surface," Halep said.
"I always played good tennis on grass but 2019 was the best... I'm positive again that I can touch a very good level of play but I have to be patient."
Apart from Williams and her sister Venus, only Kvitova has won Wimbledon more than once in the last two decades.
Since the 32-year-old Czech's last triumph in 2014, she has reached the second week at Wimbledon only once and was dumped out in the first round last year.
However, she arrives at Wimbledon with her confidence boosted by a first semi-final appearance of the season at Eastbourne this week.
Kerber's title run at Bad Homburg in her native Germany last year translated into a semi-final appearance at Wimbledon and the 32-year-old will be aiming for another deep run this time, having reached the quarter-finals of the WTA 250 event.
In contrast, 2017 Wimbledon champion Muguruza has endured a difficult season and struggled for consistency since claiming the WTA Finals title in November, having played 11 tournaments but posted back-to-back match wins only once.
The world number 10 earned her only grasscourt victory of the season at the opening round at Eastbourne - her first triumph on the surface in nearly a year - but fell at the next stage, and arrives in London with only three overall tour wins since February.
Top seed Swiatek's overall grasscourt record of 4-4 will offer hope to the chasing pack and veterans Halep, Kvitova and Kerber will be keen to have their say and build on a solid set of wins in the week leading up to Wimbledon.
(Reporting by Hritika Sharma in Bengaluru, editing by Pritha Sarkar)