Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - The most prestigious trophy in women's tennis, the Venus Rosewater Dish, will be up for grabs early next month, as The Championships, Wimbledon, will commence Monday at the storied All England Club, where a new champion will be crowned this year.
Just weeks after stunning the tennis world with her first-ever Grand Slam title on the hallowed lawns last year, France's Marion Bartoli decided to call it a career, preferring to go out on top with an August retirement announcement.
Safe to say, however, the sport's greatest tournament will go on, and then some, in the two-time finalist Bartoli's absence, as star power will abound at SW19, led by American legend Serena Williams.
Serena is a five-time Wimbledon champion and has appeared in two other finals at the "Granddaddy of Them All" (wait, that's another sport).
The reigning U.S. Open champ has won three of the last five Wimby titles and certainly will be the favorite to return to the winner's circle in a couple of weeks. With a sparkling 70-9 record at the AEC, who could blame that pick. And I'm sure she's still fightin' mad after losing to Spaniard Garbine Muguruza in only the second round at the French Open just a few weeks ago. And Serena was shocked by eventual runner-up Sabine Lisicki in the fourth round at the AEC last year.
So, look out field.
The only other former champions in this year's Wimbledon draw will be blonde bombers Maria Sharapova and Petra Kvitova and former world No. 1 Venus Williams (who is not expected to fit into the equation this year, so let's stay on Sharapova and Kvitova).
Sharapova, like the 17-time major titlist Serena, is a career Grand Slam champion, but hasn't won it all at Wimbledon since stunning Serena in the final there 10 long years ago. As a matter of fact, the tall Russian hasn't beaten the American great anywhere since 2004.
Maria is fresh off her second career French Open title two weeks ago, having not had to contend with Serena there after the American's shock loss to the aforementioned Muguruza.
In addition to her '04 win, Sharapova was also a Wimbledon runner-up, to Kvitova, in 2011 and will be expected to make another deep run there coming off a stunning second-round defeat a year ago.
Kvitova is the top left-hander in the women's game and her big shots translate well on the Wimbledon grass, where she's appeared in at least the quarterfinals four straight years, including her title run in '11 and a semifinal berth back in 2010.
Venus, like her little sister, is also a five-time Wimbledon queen, but those championship runs are, and have been, a thing of the past over the past half- dozen years. Venus is an eight-time finalist on the sacred lawns, where she and Serena have combined to capture a whopping 10 of the last 14 championships.
How 'bout Lisicki, does she have a chance of reaching another final at the grass-court spectacle? Her recent form would suggest that's a big NO, but she loves playing on the turf.
Can 2012 runner-up Agnieszka Radwanska finally sneak in there with a first- ever Grand Slam title? Her lack of weapons always seems to rear its ugly head at an event where she has to win seven matches against a loaded field (or a major).
Who else can pose a threat at the fortnight? Well, there's two-time Grand Slam winner Li Na, French Open runner-up Simona Halep, and possibly former world No. 1s Jelena Jankovic and Victoria Azarenka.
Li is ranked second in the world, thanks in part to her Australian Open title back in January. The four-time Grand Slam finalist (2-2), however, has never made it past the quarterfinals at the AEC, having reached the round of eight there in 2006, 2010 and last year. Can she take it a step further (or more) this time around?
Halep, who can compete on any surface, has been playing some of the best tennis on the women's tour over the last 12 months, as evidenced by a world No. 3 ranking and steady signs of improvement at the majors. Prior to this year, the quality Romanian had never reached a Grand Slam quarter, but that changed at this year's Aussie Open, where she appeared in the round of eight, and at the recently concluded French Open, where she raced into the final before ultimately falling at the hands of Maria in a tough three-setter.
Jankovic may be ranked seventh in the world, but I don't see her as a serious threat at the Big W, where she's typically played the worst of her Grand Slam tennis. JJ has never reached a Wimbledon quarterfinal and hasn't even gotten past the second round there since '10.
And then there's Azarenka, the two-time Aussie Open champ who appeared in back-to-back Wimbledon semifinals before pulling out of the event with an injury in the second round a year ago.
Vika just returned to WTA duty this week after being sidelined since March with a foot injury. Unfortunately, she returned a loser at the Wimbledon grass-court tune-up in Eastbourne and is probably not quite ready to make a big run at the Big House.
Are there any other contenders, or just pretenders, to the Serenas, Lis and Marias of the world? World No. 11 Ana Ivanovic is a former No. 1 who just came through with her first-ever grass-court title last week in Birmingham, but Wimbledon has never been that kind to the Serbian star, who reached her one and only Wimbledon semifinal seven long years ago.
How 'bout rising Canadian star Eugenie Bouchard, who has saved her best tennis of 2014 for the Slams. The world No. 13 has appeared in the semis at both of this years majors, including the French Open two weeks ago. The determined youngster looks like a possible future Grand Slam champion to me.
I thought a Serena championship run was a foregone conclusion at the French, but that didn't happen.
She is, however, the player to beat once again this time around at SW19 and I see her sixth Wimbledon title on the horizon. The only way Maria wins is if she doesn't have to run into the powerful American.