June 15, 2011


The women's field is stacked in Eastbourne this year, with several of the sport's top players -- and a few more former #1s -- all in action just a week before Wimbledon. Somewhat surprisingly, though, there is only one among the remaining field who's won a Major before. But three others have played in a Slam final and the rest have proven they're true contenders for a title.

And that means any of them could get take a real step here towards becoming tennis royalty.

Venus Williams is clearly the most experienced of the bunch, with five of her seven big trophies coming at the All England Club. She made a successful post-injury return in Eastbourne by exacting revenge on Andrea Petkovic, who'd benefitted from her retirement back in Melbourne, and backed it up with a straight-set win over Birmingham semifinalist Ana Ivanovic. Her opponent in the quarters will be Daniela Hantuchova, who's belied her reputation for spotty play the last few weeks. The Slovak took top-seeded Caroline Wozniacki out of the French Open and made a solid run past Ivanovic last week. Dani and Venus put on one of my favorite matches of 2010, and though Williams is clearly the on-paper favorite, something tells me Hantuchova is slightly more sure-footed these days. And I'd love for her to pull off the "upset".

Last year's surprise runner-up at Wimbledon had her own shot at revenge this morning. Vera Zvonareva got a first-class drubbing at the hands of Serena Williams in the 2010 final, but turned the tables this time around. In a three-plus hour slugfest, the world #3 fired off an impressive six aces, found the mark on more than seventy-percent of her first serves, and came back from a set down to get the win. Hopefully she won't be too tired when she meets one-time French finalist Sam Stosur on Thursday. The Australian has dominated their meetings in the last four years, but if Vera's in form, this could be one of the best matches tomorrow.

Victoria Azarenka has been one of my favorites for a Major breakthrough for quite some time, but it wasn't until Paris this year when she finally showed the consistent spark I've been waiting for. She's played well so far in Eastbourne, but bigger challenges clearly lie ahead. Next she'll face 2007 Wimbledon finalist Marion Bartoli, who's also been raising her game this year. The Frenchwoman survived a tough first round against Copenhagen runner-up Lucie Safarova, but then glided to a relatively easy win on Wednesday. Vika hasn't lost to Bartoli in their previous six meetings, so she should go into this match with momentum and confidence on her side -- but the two should be able to put on a show.

In the least experienced quarter of the Eastbourne draw, we find two relative sleepers ready to make their move. Aggie Radwanska has been a consistent performer at Wimbledon, but has never had a real breakthrough at a Major. Unseeded this week, she stormed past a tough Jarmila Gajdosova and then defeated last year's Roland Garros champion Francesca Schiavone in her second round. Her next opponent, Petra Kvitova, made the semis in London last year while ranked #62 in the world -- now in the top ten, she's making a mission out of beating the sport's top players. The Czech has won her only other match against Radwanska, and is the favorite this time, too. But bigger surprises have been known to happen.

Of course, there's always a risk playing deep into a tournament just before the start of a Slam, but if any of these ladies carry their momentum with them to the All England Club, they could make a real play for that title too. And with the possibility of that maiden crown growing so much clearer, they have the incentive to bring their best.

After all, it sure looks like the throne is up for grabs!

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