Serena Williams Is Still Wimbledon Favorite After Year of Medical Setbacks

Shattered glass severed tendons in her feet and required surgery twice. Blood clots reached her lungs and threatened her life. The only two tennis matches she played in 12 months produced the definition of mediocrity, a 1-1 record.

None of that matters when Serena Williams comes to Wimbledon.

A year after winning the grass-court major for the fourth time and then stepping into 12 months of medical chaos, Williams is the favorite again as the tournament opens today in London. With no one dominating the women’s game, fellow players, former champions and oddsmakers say the 29-year-old American can win her 14th Grand Slam singles title.

“If you try to come back, you have to be strong in your mind,” French Open champion Li Na said in an interview last week. “I always believe that if she wants, she can win.”

Williams starts her title defense tomorrow against France’s Aravane Rezai. In action today, defending Wimbledon champion Rafael Nadal of Spain plays Michael Russell of the U.S., while Andy Murray, the fourth seed from Britain, faces Spain’s Daniel Gimeno-Traver. Venus Williams, Serena’s older sister and a five- time champion at the All England Club, plays her opening round against Akgul Amanmuradova of Uzbekistan.

Serena Williams is the 3-1 favorite at U.K. bookmaker William Hill Plc. That means a successful $1 bet would return $3 plus the original wager. Maria Sharapova, the 2004 Wimbledon champion from Russia, follows at 9-2. Venus Williams and Li, China’s first Grand Slam singles champion, are both at 8-1. Top- seeded Caroline Wozniacki is 10-1.

This Year’s Record

Serena lost last week in the second round at the grass- court warmup event in Eastbourne, England, to third-ranked Vera Zvonareva of Russia, her victim in the Wimbledon final a year ago. The American needed three sets to beat Bulgaria’s Tsvetana Pironkova in the first round.

Venus, 31, missed five months with hip and abdominal injuries before also returning at Eastbourne, where she lost to Daniela Hantuchova of Slovakia in the quarterfinals for the first time in 11 matches.

After dominating the women’s tour through Wimbledon 2010, Serena dropped out of the top 10 last month and is ranked 25th. Because of her success at Wimbledon, she’s seeded No. 7, which means she won’t play any top-eight player before the quarterfinals. Venus, who is ranked 30th on the WTA tour, is seeded 23rd. The sisters can only meet in the finals.

The Williams sisters have won nine of the last 11 Wimbledon singles titles. Wozniacki and Zvonareva haven’t won any. Second- ranked Kim Clijsters, who’s won four majors, is out with an injury.

‘Wide Open’

“The women’s game is so wide open and she has so much experience at Wimbledon, as well as Venus does, that I wouldn’t minimize their chances without having played any matches,” three-time Wimbledon champion John McEnroe said in a conference call organized by World Team Tennis last week. “Although obviously that makes it more difficult.”

It wouldn’t be the first time Serena Williams staged a successful comeback after a long lay-off. She won the 2007 Australian Open ranked 81st in the world after another injury- filled year.

“She’s done it before,” U.S. Fed Cup captain and ESPN broadcaster Mary Joe Fernandez said in an interview. “You’d have to give her a chance.”

After winning Wimbledon in July, Serena said she was in a restaurant in Germany when she walked through broken glass. Two operations to repair tendons led to blood clots in both lungs, a condition she described at a news conference last week as “life-threatening” and “possibly career-ending.” She said the experience changed her outlook on tennis and life.

‘Toughest Moment’

“I think my toughest moment was just mental,” she said in an interview. “I went through so much and I thought, ‘Will I be able to play tennis again? Do I even want to play tennis again, or do I just want to get healthy again?’ That was the first and foremost thing on my mind.”

Williams’s absence has “sent the women’s game into complete and utter uncertainty,” McEnroe said.

“Serena was the totally dominant No. 1 a year ago,” he said. “I would have said that she was going to break all records and become the greatest female player that ever lived.”

Wozniacki has taken over the top spot on the WTA tour. The 20-year-old from Denmark, who has won 17 Tour events, lost in the third round of the French Open. The top seed at Wimbledon made the semifinals at the U.S. Open and the Australian Open, which were both won by Clijsters, who withdrew from Wimbledon last week with an injured right ankle.

Plans

Serena said she has other things to focus on than climbing back to No. 1.

“I just think that I can be there and compete, and that’s all that matters,” she said in Eastbourne. “I’ve never been one to say I’m going to lose, but I’m just happy to be there.”

Chris Evert, an 18-time Grand Slam singles champion, said a win for Williams would be “almost shocking.

“It’s one thing to have knee surgery, but it’s another thing to have a really serious physical medical condition with just the emotional ups and downs that she’s gone through this year,” Evert said on a conference call organized by ESPN last week. “It would be monumental in my mind if Serena pulled off a win. You can never, ever count her out.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Danielle Rossingh at Wimbledon through the London sports desk at drossingh@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Christopher Elser at at celser@bloomberg.net

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