Between them, these three have only played 23 matches this year. But they have also collectively won nine Grand Slam singles titles. Each is powerful, at her best, as forceful and oppressive as any WTA player.
The three at hand are Petra Kvitova, Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova. While the vast majority of their peers are by now quite worn out from an arduous 2017, these three are still scratching to find their best form, with hopes of a grand finish at the US Open.
Kvitova last December was brutally attacked by a robber, suffering injuries to all five fingers on her left hand that were so bad she required surgery. It was uncertain if she’d ever play tennis again. But Kvitova returned to tennis at Roland Garros – an emotional return that was unquestionably one of the great feel-good stories of recent times. Invariably rusty, she lost there in the second round. But immediately after, Kvitova won a grass-court tournament in Birmingham, giving hopes that she could even embark on a significant run at Wimbledon. It didn’t happen, Kvitova upset in the second round by American Madison Brengle. Kvitova looked weary in that match. Was it the hand? Lack of match play? The historic problems she’d had in the heat? Though she’s never made it past the quarters at the US Open – perhaps the result of the difficulty she’s often had in hot weather – certainly Kvitova has the ball-striking skills to go further.
Azarenka has spent much of the last year on maternity leave. Back in action for the grass court season, Azarenka looked fit and eager, excited to be with a new coach, Michael Joyce (Sharapova’s coach from ’04-’11). A fine mover, deceptively versatile when she wants to be (a good volleyer), Azarenka was clearly rusty during Wimbledon but was still able to reach the round of 16, losing to Simona Halep. The thinking here is that all Azarenka needs is two or three good tournament runs to regain the form that took her to two Australian Open titles (’12-’13) and the world number one ranking. Having twice reached the US Open final (’12-’13), losing both times to Serena Williams in three sets, Azarenka must surely fancy her chances in New York.
Sharapova returned to tennis this spring following a 15-month drug-related suspension. Her comeback has been shrouded in controversy. Should she have been granted wild cards? My belief is this simple: As many as she wants. Do the crime, do the time. End of story. Sharapova had planned to play the qualifying at both Roland Garros and Wimbledon, but a hitch came when she suffered a thigh injury shortly in Rome, her third tournament back. So now, Sharapova returns next week, at the Bank of the West Classic in Stanford. Sharapova too has had her share of fine summers, most notably back in 2006 when she won the US Open. One wonders: While away from the game for so long – and injury-free – was Sharapova able to add more dimensions to her game? She’s altered her serve slightly, lowering her toss. Will this continue? How has she improved her movement? Or added new tactics?
Mental, tactical, emotional, physical – all will come into play as these three compete this summer. But make no mistake: Each is a bona fide heavyweight contender, experienced and in possession of significant artillery. Hopefully, each will stay healthy enough to bring all of that into play throughout the summer and beyond.