Tennis-Injury pall hangs over wide open women's field at Wimbledon

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By Sudipto Ganguly

(Reuters) - With top seed Ash Barty and defending champion Simona Halep both heading into Wimbledon without a single match on grass this season after recent injury concerns, the women's field is wide open.

The French Open this month crowned a first-time women's major winner for the sixth straight year and it could well be Wimbledon's turn to witness a new Grand Slam champion on July 10 for the first time since France's Marion Bartoli lifted the Venus Rosewater Dish in 2013.

Top-ranked Barty, who picks grass as her favourite surface despite winning her maiden major on Parisian clay in 2019, retired from her last two tournaments but more worryingly for the Australian those were due to different physical ailments.

The 25-year-old's Roland Garros campaign was curtailed in the second round when she had to retire due to a hip injury she suffered in training while a muscle strain in her serving arm forced her to quit during the quarter-finals in Rome.

Halep was denied a chance to defend her 2019 title when Wimbledon was cancelled last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic and a pall of injury worry will hang over the second-seeded Romanian when she starts her campaign next week.

Like Barty, Halep also exited the WTA 1000 event in Rome midway after suffering a calf injury during her second-round outing against Angelique Kerber and was subsequently forced to miss the French Open.

With injury worries to the top two seeds and world number two Naomi Osaka also missing in action after skipping Wimbledon following her withdrawal from Roland Garros over mental health issues, a new set of challengers could stake their claim.

FREAK FALL

Petra Kvitova, another proven contender on grass and a two-time Wimbledon Champion, also injured her ankle at Roland Garros in a freak fall while performing her post-match media duties, resulting in a second-round walkover.

The decision of the French Open organisers to delay the claycourt major by a week has also left players with little time to switch their game for grass ahead of Wimbledon.

With no standout favourite in the women's field, it could provide an ideal stage for American Serena Williams to finally end her quest for an elusive 24th Grand Slam title.

Since winning the 2017 Australian Open, Williams has stayed in the hunt by reaching four major finals but has failed to win the title that would see her match Margaret Court's record haul.

"If ever the field was at its most vulnerable, I would think it would be this year with the injuries, with the lack of grass court practice," ESPN tennis analyst Chris Evert, an 18-times Grand Slam singles champion, said.

"This is to me her (Williams) golden opportunity."

Williams has come within one win of a 24th major title the last two times Wimbledon has been held but fell lost both finals - to Angelique Kerber in 2018 and Halep the following year.

The Australian Open and the Wimbledon remain Williams' happiest hunting grounds with seven titles each.

The American's long-time coach Patrick Mouratoglou believes grass amplifies Williams' strong points as a player and the shorter points on the surface also poses a lesser challenge for her physical fitness.

"She will always have more chances to win on the surface that highlights her biggest qualities, which are the serve, the ability to accelerate the ball," Mouratoglou told Reuters.

(Reporting by Sudipto Ganguly in Mumbai; editing by Ed Osmond)