The other day, we looked at three ATP players who are not in the very top rank of men's pros, but who could each make his career breakthrough at the London Olympic Games, which are just a week out. We noted that the fact that 50 percent of the gold medalists since tennis was re-instituted into the Games in 1988 were men who never won a Grand Slam title, or finished No. 1.
Curiously, the case is a little different among the women, where form holds up much better during the quadrennial games (I'll have more to say about that next week, as we begin our ramp-up to the competition). Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova, Victoria Azarenka—all of them are likely to prove hard to beat in London. But let's look at three relatively unsung WTA women who could get the job done.
The most difficult time I had coming up with this trio was the number of contenders from Germany. We all know that a strong strain of nationalism has always run through the German character, and that can be a powerful incentive and inspiration. Even with Andrea Petkovic out of the Olympics with injury, the Germans have a powerful yet not entirely fulfilled squad composed of four strong players: WTA No. 7 Angelique Kerber, No. 17 Sabine Lisicki, No. 24 Julia Goerges, and Petkovic's replacement on the squad, No. 41 Mona Barthel.
All but Goerges fairly leap off the page as potential medal contenders, and even big-swing Julia's chances aren't half bad. But just doesn't feel right to put two Germans (and I think you know which two are the obvious candidates) on this list of three. So let's take the three under-the-radar contenders in order of ranking:
No. 17 Sabine Lisicki gets the nod slightly ahead of Kerber, even though Kerber won their anything-goes quarterfinal at Wimbledon. I'm going with Lisicki because she has such big weapons, starting with the serve, and because the injury-plagued 22-year old has been such a reliable performer at the All England Club. In the past three years, she's managed to make two quarters and a semi at Wimbledon, and has put up wins over, among others, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Caroline Wozniacki, Li Na, Marion Bartoli, and Maria Sharapova. That's an extremely powerful record.
Lisicki gets into a visible, almost eerie comfort zone at Wimbledon. She loves everything about the tournament, and in her case that has been a source of motivation and inspiration, rather than of pressure. She did get a little shaky in her match with Kerber, a match she could just as easily have won, but Lisicki is a robust, down-to-earth type who's unlikely to get tripped up by that going forward. Granted, the All England Club will look very different when it's all decked out with Olympics signage, but the playing surface will be the same and Lisicki's go-for-broke style ought to pay the same dividends at the place she so loves.
No. 25 Zheng Jie is a dynamo who stands just a shade below 5'5", and is as steady as the day is long. Now 29, Zheng was a pioneer of Chinese tennis, and the first player from her nation to make the singles semifinals of a Grand Slam event (Wimbledon, 2008). She also won the bronze medal in doubles (with Yan Zi) at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Put one and one together (Wimbledon and Olympics experience) and you have a medal contender who probably will be further inspired by the fact that, in all likelihood, this is her last shot at Olympic singles glory.
But sentiment and history aren't her only allies here. Just a few weeks ago, Zheng forced eventual Wimbledon champ Serena Williams to go the distance in their third-round clash before faltering, 9-7 in the third. She was also a semifinalist at Birmingham (losing to Jelena Jankovic), one of the major Wimbledon tune-ups. Short of power and size—think of her as an anti-Lisicki—Zheng is mobile, consistent and crafty.
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No. 62 Tsvetana Pironkova is a bit like Lisicki, in that she's found a way to turn her respect and affection for Wimbledon into an asset that often serves to lift her game to unexpected heights. The 25-year-old, while seeming a journeywoman at most tour events, was a semifinalist and quarterfinalist at Wimbledon in back-to-back years (2010 and 2011). She beat five-time Wimbledon champ Venus Williams on both those occasions, and also counts former Wimbledon finalist Maria Bartoli among her victims at the All-England Club.
Pironkova, the best current player from Bulgaria, took Sharapova to three sets in the second round at Wimbledon this year before the magic wore off. She's a speedy, crafty player who plays on grass as if it were second nature to her, which is a great asset at the All England Club. She also hails from an Olympics-obsessed nation where a single medal probably is considered far more precious than half-a-dozen Grand Slam titles. The incentive is there for Pironkova to do well; so is the game.
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