LONDON • With Serena Williams preparing for the birth of her first child and Maria Sharapova sidelined by a thigh injury, the race to be crowned the women's Wimbledon champion is the most wide open in a generation.
Having stepped away from the court as she waits to become a mother in September, Williams - who won her sixth and seventh Wimbledon titles in the last two years - has created a power vacuum at the top that Sharapova was expected to fill when the Russian returned from her doping ban.
Instead, Sharapova lasted just three tournaments before a muscle injury in Rome forced the five-time Grand Slam winner to withdraw from the Wimbledon qualifying tournament.
In the absence of American great Williams, who has 23 Grand Slam singles titles, and the headline-grabbing Sharapova, women's tennis has an undeniable lack of star power heading into Wimbledon, which gets under way today.
But the flip side is the opportunity for the sport's less heralded names to seize the spotlight, as Latvia's Jelena Ostapenko showed with her unexpected breakthrough triumph at the French Open last month.
The 20 year-old shot up to 14th in the world from 47th after coming from a set and 0-3 down to defeat world No. 2 Simona Halep in the French Open final.
Now she has to prove that stunning success was more than a flash in the pan.
A junior Wimbledon champion in 2014, Ostapenko's game is well suited for the low-bouncing lawns of the All England Club, now that she has learnt to enjoy a surface she once thought was only "for soccer".
While Ostapenko, who faces Belarus' Aliaksandra Sasnovich in the first round, arrived in London on a wave of post-Paris euphoria, second seed Halep is still struggling to come to terms with her failure to win her first Grand Slam.
The 25-year-old Romanian, who has never been past the semi-finals at Wimbledon, opens her campaign against Kiwi Marina Erakovic.
World No. 1 Angelique Kerber, who starts against Irina Falconi, needs to improve dramatically after failing to claim a single WTA title this year following her defeat by Williams in the Wimbledon final a year ago.
The German suffered a humiliating first-round exit at Roland Garros to 40th-ranked Ekaterina Makarova and became the first top seed to be eliminated from the tournament at the very first hurdle in the professional era.
"I'm not thinking about Paris, about the clay-court season any more. I'm starting from zero here. My mind is just day-by-day here, like last year. I will try to play good tennis again," she said at a press conference on Saturday.
And if Petra Kvitova gets her hands on the Venus Rosewater Dish for a third time, it would complete a fairy-tale comeback for the Czech following the horrific hand injury she suffered while being attacked by a knife-wielding burglar in her home last December.
Kvitova, the Wimbledon champion in 2011 and 2014, was out of action for six months, but she returned at the French Open before winning the Birmingham title on grass last week.
The 27-year-old pulled out of Eastbourne due to an abdominal injury, but hopes to make a strong run at her favourite Grand Slam.
"I've been through a very difficult time in my life. Winning in Birmingham gives me some extra confidence that I am still able to fight," said Kvitova, who meets Johanna Larsson in the first round.
"We still do have great players in the draw, even (though) Serena is not playing.
"It's very open. So who knows who is going to win."
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS
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