Matt Zemek

Elina Svitolina ran into the wrong opponent… again.

Mihaela Buzarnescu is one of four semifinalists at the Birmingham Classic. This comes on the heels of a quarterfinal run in Nottingham, a fourth-round showing at the French Open, and a semifinal result at Strasbourg. Simona Halep won Roland Garros and other players won those various tournaments, but in terms of players who have played each of those events (it isn’t a long list), Buzarnescu has been the most consistent. Given that three of those weeks were on clay and two were on grass, Buzarnescu’s feats are magnified — not necessarily because she is getting work done on two surfaces, but because she didn’t take any meaningful time off. She has promptly gone from one tournament to another over a five-week span and continued to play well.

One detail which is impossible to ignore in the midst of this five-week run: Buzarnescu has now defeated Elina Svitolina twice, once on each surface. That’s what the Romanian achieved when dismissing her highly-ranked Ukrainian opponent once again, this time on lawn.

Will she be able to keep this up at Wimbledon? That’s a reasonable question to ask. Yet, as the Birmingham quarterfinals flow into Saturday’s semifinals, a bigger question is posed to the WTA Tour: Is there any template which definitively marks a player as ready — or unready — for Wimbledon?

It already seems fairly clear that using the grass warm-up season to determine levels of preparedness for The Championships is a risky exercise… and more than that, unwise.

Had Svitolina beaten Buzarnescu in Friday’s Birmingham quarters, would anyone in the larger community of global tennis felt that Svitolina was ready to win Wimbledon? I doubt it. It is true that being able to avenge a loss against an opponent who caused trouble a few weeks ago in Paris would have carried value for Svitolina, but Buzarnescu is not the standard by which Svitolina is being judged… nor should she be. Svitolina has very little to prove in any lead-up event preceding a major. To put a finer point on this topic, she defended her Rome title this year, reaffirming the notion that she was a player to be taken seriously at Roland Garros… where she never played well.

2018 Nature Valley Classic - 22 Jun
Image source – Jimmie 48

Svitolina entered Roland Garros as an in-form player, and it didn’t work out. She enters Wimbledon as an out-of-form player who suffered a blister on her hand in Birmingham. She might predictably fail to do well at Wimbledon, but even if she does play well, it’s not as though the grass warm-up season could possibly be cited as proof that she was ready to make a run. Svitolina exists in a space where performance at lead-up events before majors doesn’t offer any indication into how she will compete at the four biggest tournaments of the year.

Svitolina is struggling. Buzarnescu is rolling. Do these stories matter in reference to expected performance at Wimbledon? Certainly not for Svitolina, quite possibly not for Buzarnescu.

It is little different for another one of the four semifinalists in Birmingham on Saturday, Petra Kvitova.

2018 Nature Valley Classic - 22 Jun
Image source – Jimmie 48

The Czech’s last major title (also her last Wimbledon title, since she hasn’t won any other major tournament) came in 2014. Kvitova won a grass lead-up event last year in Birmingham but could not get out of the first week of Wimbledon. She made the Eastbourne grass final in 2011 and then won Wimbledon. What she does one week cannot easily carry into the next major tournament, which is magnified on non-grass surfaces. Kvitova has won Madrid three times and never gone past the fourth round of the French Open weeks later. Currently, Kvitova is on a trajectory akin to Svitolina in 2017: winning multiple non-major tournaments but then failing to maintain that same standard of play once the Grand Slam spotlight intensifies.

The only member of the four Birmingham semifinalists who offers a clear linkage between warm-up performance and Wimbledon performance on grass is Magdalena Rybarikova.

The woman Rybarikova will face on Saturday in the semis, Barbora Strycova, has been a second-round-level player at the majors for most of her career, though she has posted a number of fourth-round results the past two years, including three straight such results at the Australian Open (2016-2018). Strycova is therefore a player who establishes modest results regardless of surface or circumstance. Strycova has made two grass finals in her career. In one instance (2014), she then made her only major quarterfinal at Wimbledon. In the other instance (2016), she lost in the third round. Strycova’s presence in the semifinals is not a blinking red light which somehow proves that an evolution is taking place. It’s a solid achievement on its own terms, but not something which should be linked to her future prospects.

2018 Nature Valley Classic - 22 Jun
Image source – Jimmie 48

Only Rybarikova has shown that a strong grass season might likely lead to a good Wimbledon. She rolled through grass challenger events and then tour events before racing to the Wimbledon semifinals last year. She is once again putting together coherent, effective grass tennis, repeating in Birmingham her 2017 Wimbledon upset of Karolina Pliskova. The steady stream of grass triumphs being orchestrated by Rybarikova suggests the Slovakian speed-changer is ready to throw more grass opponents off balance…

… and yet, if she loses early at Wimbledon this year, it will be harder to say, in 2019 and beyond, that a strong grass season is an indicator of Wimbledon prosperity.

WTA players are arriving at various intersections in these weeks before Wimbledon. What do these intersections indicate?

Not much.

It’s an unsatisfying answer, but sometimes answers have to be.

Images – Jimmie 48

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