LONDON – In 11 of the past 13 years, Serena or Venus Williams – and sometimes both – reached the Wimbledon final. The sisters collected five championships each in that span.
This time around, Serena lost in the fourth round. Venus didn’t show up at all, sidelined by a bad lower back.
So the 2013 semifinals at the All England Club on Thursday will be populated by a far less famous, and far less accomplished, bunch. Still, No. 4-seeded Agnieszka Radwanska of Poland, No. 15 Marion Bartoli of France, No. 20 Kirsten Flipkens of Belgium and No. 23 Sabine Lisicki of Germany provide a fitting foursome for a Wimbledon unlike any other.
Not only have none of the four women left won a Wimbledon title, none has won any Grand Slam title.
Petra Kvitova, the tournament’s 2011 champion, probably put it best after losing in the quarterfinals: “Very weird Grand Slam over here.”
Indeed. Never before in the 45-year Open era had no previous major champion reached the Wimbledon women’s semifinals.
There were eight owners of Grand Slam trophies in the field when play began last week. One by one, they left, with Lisicki accounting for three: She beat Francesca Schiavone in the first round and Sam Stosur in the third, before stopping Serena Williams’ 34-match winning streak.
Maria Sharapova and Ana Ivanovic lost in the second round, the same day Victoria Azarenka pulled out because of a knee injury. The last major winners were sent home Tuesday, when Flipkens beat Kvitova, and Radwanska eliminated Li Na.
“Very unexpected,” Bartoli said, describing the semifinal lineup, along with the whole tournament. “But that’s also the magic of it.”
On Thursday, she will play Flipkens, and Radwanska will face Lisicki.
The men’s semifinals Friday are No. 1 Novak Djokovic against No. 8 Juan Martin del Potro, and No. 2 Andy Murray against No. 24 Jerzy Janowicz. Djokovic owns six major titles, while Murray and del Potro have one apiece.
The women’s quartet, meanwhile, has participated in a total of two Grand Slam finals, both at Wimbledon: Bartoli lost to Venus Williams in 2007, and Radwanska lost to Serena Williams last year.
This is Lisicki’s second Grand Slam semifinal; she lost one at Wimbledon two years ago. Flipkens, meanwhile, only once even made it as far as the fourth round at a major tournament until this week, so she’ll be making her semifinal debut.
She sure has come a long way from a year ago at this time, when she was winning the title at a low-level, $25,000 tournament on clay. Blood clots in her leg had forced her off the WTA tour for two months, and her ranking slid outside the top 250, so she couldn’t even get into the draw for qualifying at Wimbledon.
“I think I’m the most surprising name in the last four,” Flipkens said. “But I don’t really care, to be honest, at this moment.”
And why should she?
What matters is that she is one of only four women who still have a chance to earn the championship Saturday.
“It’s a dream – more than a dream – coming true,” Flipkens said. “There’s no words.”
The 27-year-old Flipkens and 28-year-old Bartoli have never played a match.
Perhaps not surprisingly, they don’t know much about each other, either.
“I only know she has a two-handed forehand and backhand,” said Flipkens, who wears eyeglasses on court. “That’s about it.”
Bartoli does hit off both wings with her palms wrapped around her racket handle, the same as her idol, Monica Seles. That’s only one of Bartoli’s quirks. She explained six years ago that she was able to win her Wimbledon semifinal because James Bond actor Pierce Brosnan was sitting in the stands.
Her father, a doctor by trade, coaches Bartoli and devised all sorts of original training methods, including taping tennis balls to the heels of her shoes so she’d be forced to stay on her toes. Between points, she hops in place and takes practice swings. She doesn’t bounce the ball before hitting serves, instead crossing her wrists before the toss.
“You do what you have to do to win,” said American Sloane Stephens, the woman Bartoli beat in the quarterfinals. “And if that helps her, then she’s got it down pat.”
The 23-year-old Lisicki and 24-year-old Radwanska have met twice before, each winning once – but never on grass, never this deep into a tournament and never at a Grand Slam.
Their matchup represents an intriguing contrast in styles. Lisicki pounds the ball, hitting serves faster than 120 mph, often resulting in aces (she ranks second to Serena Williams on tour this season). She will, on occasion, turn to drop shots, including six for winners in her quarterfinal victory over 46th-ranked Kaia Kanepi.
While Lisicki averaged 109 mph on first serves in the fourth round, Radwanska averaged 90 mph in the quarterfinals.
Radwanska is all about patience and subtlety, mixing speeds and spins and often letting her opponent make the first mistake. In her three-set victory over Li on Tuesday, Radwanska finished with 18 unforced errors and 32 winners. Li had 40 unforced errors, 58 winners.
Thinking back to her run to last year’s title match at Wimbledon, Radwanska said: “I know how it is, what I have to do to be in the final again. But it helps, for sure, it’s not the first time.”
Sometime Saturday, someone will be holding a Grand Slam champion’s trophy for the first time.