Ball in Serena Williams’ court at Wimbledon with rivals' fitness doubts
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LONDON - Serena Williams turns 40 on September 26 and the arrival of that landmark birthday will be all the sweeter if she has at last equalled Margaret Court's all-time record of 24 Grand Slam singles titles.
The tennis legend could even hold the record outright if she wins both Wimbledon and the US Open but despite holding her own in the top 10, there is a fear that age is impacting on her powers.
A fourth round loss at the French Open to Kazakh 21st seed Elena Rybakina reflected this although clay would be her least preferred surface despite three Roland Garros titles.
However, her chances of an eighth Wimbledon crown have improved with the withdrawal of world number two Naomi Osaka, who is taking time out of the game after revealing she has been battling anxiety and depression.
There are also fitness doubts over Australia's world number one Ashleigh Barty and third-ranked Simona Halep, who denied Williams the record-equalling Slam at Wimbledon two years ago.
That was one of four Grand Slam finals Williams has played since she drew within one title of the controversial Court's record at the 2017 Australian Open.
Fellow American tennis legend Chris Evert believes Williams is still capable of winning at Wimbledon where she has been the losing finalist on her last two visits.
"Like Roger Federer I would give Serena a better chance at Wimbledon because the grass is perfect for her game," Evert told Eurosport prior to the French Open.
"On the grass, if Serena is fit and that serve is working then that's half of the match right there.
"She has that experience and flexibility."
Evert, though, concedes that like any great champion who appears vulnerable all her opponents suddenly entertain hopes of beating her.
"The players are better now than they were two years ago and they are not intimidated," said the 66-year-old, 18-time Grand Slam singles champion.
"They all feel they have a chance against Serena."
Barty will go into Wimbledon without a warm-up tournament on grass after pulling out due to a hip injury in the middle of the second set of her second round match at the French Open.
The 25-year-old Australian has been practising on grass at Wimbledon labelling them "baby steps" as the 2019 French Open champion bids to be fighting fit.
Halep too will open her defence of the title -- Wimbledon having been cancelled last year due to the coronavirus pandemic -- without a match on grass under her belt.
The 29-year-old Romanian's calf injury forced her to miss the French Open and although she turned up for this week's Bad Homburg tournament she felt she was not fit enough to compete.
"My calf is not ready for a competition," she said.
"I will keep practising as I really want to be able to play at Wimbledon but for now I have to take care of my body and to see how the recovery is going."
Barbora Krejcikova is the form player after her surprise triumph in the French Open.
The 25-year-old Czech paid a moving tribute to her late compatriot and former coach Jana Novotna when she won at Roland Garros.
She might have to repeat it should she win at the All England Club, the venue where Novotna won her only singles Grand Slam crown in 1998.
One player who will remind spectators of what fun it was to watch tennis before coronavirus will be American teenager Coco Gauff.
As a 15-year-old she lit up the 2019 tournament both on and off the court after reaching the last 16 having come through the qualifiers.
Unlike Halep and Barty she is getting match practice in at the Eastbourne tournament this week.
Gauff, ranked 23 in the world, says the limelight might shine on her again at Wimbledon.
"People might expect me to feel pressure going into it, but I don't really feel any pressure," she said.
"I'm just going to have fun and enjoy it. I don't really want to push myself to compare my result this year with last time."