Iga Swiatek aiming to serve up storm at Wimbledon amid wide-open field

<span>Iga Swiatek winds up for a serve that she is confident is improved for Wimbledon this year.</span><span>Photograph: Javier García/REX/Shutterstock</span>

In the past seven years, the women’s title at Wimbledon has been won by six first-time champions, the post-Serena Williams era offering opportunities for many to shine. While this year’s event includes three former champions, last year’s winner, Marketa Vondrousova, the 2022 champion, Elena Rybakina and 2018 champion Angelique Kerber, the overriding sense is that a seventh could be on the cards. Just who that will be is a trickier question than it might seem, with doubts surrounding many of the leading contenders.

Related: ‘I want them to see I’m happy’: Emma Raducanu relishes Wimbledon return

That list is topped, however, by Iga Swiatek, the 23-year-old Pole who has taken control of the women’s Tour since the shock retirement of Ash Barty in early 2022. Swiatek won her fourth Roland Garros title last month – her fifth Grand Slam title – but her best effort in four previous visits to Wimbledon was reaching the quarter-finals last year.

Totally at home on clay, where she has more time to wind up her punishing groundstrokes, grass puts Swiatek outside of her comfort zone and even though there is no doubt she is the best player in the world, until she conquers the surface, there will always be fears things could go wrong. She is still the favourite, but is trying to lower expectations.

“It’s hard for me to be considered as an underdog anywhere now, but I really need to focus on just the process of being a better player here and learning how to play the best kind of tennis and not really on the rankings or the expectations that come with my ranking,” she said.

After the intense effort of the clay-court season, when she won in Madrid and Rome, as well as at Roland Garros, Swiatek took a much-needed break, rather than play a warm-up event. That rest included a trip to Liverpool to see Taylor Swift in concert but such was the intensity, she decided against going to see her again at Wembley. “Three days after [the concert] I was so excited I couldn’t sleep,” she said. “We decided it’s better to focus on the tournament.”

That focus has included more work on her serve, already a threat but she hopes it will give her more free points than in the past, always a bonus on grass. “That was one of the goals, to sometimes win by serving and making pressure with that,” she said.

“I managed to do that on other surfaces. Hopefully on this surface, it’s going to be also similar. Here it’s even more important to serve well the first serve. It seemed fine in practice, so I’m going to try it out in matches with some stress coming in and everything. Hopefully this progress that I’ve made is going to pay off.”

What might help Swiatek is that her two biggest rivals over the past year, Aryna Sabalenka and Rybakina, have serious doubts regarding their health and fitness. Sabalenka, the Australian Open champion, pulled out of the warm-up event in Berlin with a “teres major” shoulder injury that she says is causing her pain when serving. “I’m not 100% fit now,” said the Belarusian, who admitted there is a chance she might not play at all. “We’re doing everything we can with my team to make sure I’ll be able to play my first match here.

“It’s a very frustrating one. The most annoying thing is that I can do anything. I can practice, I can hit my groundstrokes. I’m struggling with serving. That’s really annoying. You don’t feel like you’re injured. If you give me some weights, I’m going to go lift some weights. But if you tell me to serve, I’m going to go through pain.”

Rybakina has pulled out of several events in the past few months because of illness and goes into the event cold, having withdrawn from Eastbourne last week due to a “change in schedule”. Coco Gauff, having climbed to world No 2 after reaching the semi-finals at the French Open, could be a real threat and the fact there have been six new champions in the past seven years has not been lost on the American.

“It gives you confidence obviously when you see that the field isn’t stacked, in the way where there’s one player dominating or three players dominating,” she said. “I think everybody has an equal shot and it’s just about who can perform better that week.”

The sentimental favourite, however, is sure to be Ons Jabeur, who has lost in the final two years in a row. In a recent documentary, she revealed she had planned to have a baby had she achieved her dream of winning a grand slam title. The scar tissue of being so close is still there but the Tunisian, who has battled a knee injury in the past year, believes she can get over the line.

“I am just going one match at a time, trying to enjoy it,” she said. “It’s been a bit tough. But if I make it a third year in a row to the final, that would be like a dream. And I know I have the capacity of doing it. I’m working on myself a lot. But I can see myself winning this beautiful tournament, hopefully.”

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