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Serena Williams battles self-doubt ahead of Wimbledon defence, and Andy Murray seeded second

World No 1 finds herself under siege as defending champion starts bid for seventh Wimbledon title and record-equalling 22nd major crown.
Serena Williams is taking longer than she had hoped to win her her 22nd grand slam singles title. Brandon Malone / Reuters
Serena Williams is taking longer than she had hoped to win her her 22nd grand slam singles title. Brandon Malone / Reuters

LONDON // Serena Williams finds herself under siege from revitalised rivals and an army of doubters as the defending champion starts her bid for a seventh Wimbledon title and a record-equalling 22nd major crown.

Since she walked off Wimbledon’s Centre Court cradling the Venus Rosewater Dish awarded to the women’s champion nearly 12 months ago, Williams has found herself engaged in a losing battle with the history books.

That Wimbledon final victory over Garbine Muguruza meant Williams had won all three of the year’s major titles, putting her within touching distance of becoming the first woman to secure a calendar Grand Slam since Steffi Graf in 1988.

But Williams’s historic bid came to stunning end in the US Open semi-finals when she was beaten by Roberta Vinci.

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In the aftermath of that chastening September day in New York, Williams has appeared a more vulnerable figure.

For so long, Williams’s power game and competitive instincts intimidated opponents into submission, but this year she has won only one of her five tournaments, in Rome in May, while enduring a pair of shock defeats in the Australian and French Open finals.

There is a growing sense the emotional scars from the US Open have not fully healed for Williams and Germany’s Angelique Kerber took advantage to shock her in Melbourne in January, while Spain’s Muguruza avenged her Wimbledon loss by beating Serena in Paris earlier this month.

Falling at the final hurdle twice this year has left Williams still stuck on 21 grand slam titles – one short of Graf’s Open era record of 22 and three behind the all-time record of 24 set by Margaret Court – ahead of Wimbledon, which gets underway on Monday.

Williams, 34, is the oldest woman to be ranked No 1 in the world and, with off-court interests including the fashion industry and a recent appearance in a video for pop-star Beyonce’s Lemonade single, critics have claimed Williams is no longer so focused on her tennis in the twilight of her glittering career.

Given Williams compiled a remarkable 53-3 match record in 2015, even she had to concede 2016 has been a disappointment by her sky-high standards.

“Not as great as I want it to be,” Williams said when asked to assess her year so far. “I could do better. But honestly, that’s how I felt about 2015.”

In the circumstances, Williams will be relieved to feel grass under her feet as she returns to the venue where she won the first of her six Wimbledon titles in 2002.

“I’ve had people put me down because I didn’t look like them,” Williams said in a recent documentary. “I’ve had people look past me because of the colour of my skin. I’ve had people overlook me because I was a woman. I’m still going.”

With Maria Sharapova absent as she appeals against a two-year ban for doping, the main challengers for Williams’s crown should be second-ranked Muguruza, former Wimbledon finalist Agnieszka Radwanska and the likes of Kerber, Simona Halep and Victoria Azarenka, who defeated Williams in the Indian Wells final in March.

Muguruza, who last year became the first Spanish woman to reach the Wimbledon final since 1994, is the pick of the bunch after winning her maiden grand slam title in such composed and combative fashion at Roland Garros.

The Venezuela-born 22-year-old player’s first-round exit in last week’s Mallorca Open was a setback but she is now fully focused on Wimbledon.

“The truth is I’m disappointed, but now I’m just training harder to arrive ready for Wimbledon,” Muguruza said. “It feels like ages since I last stepped on grass, but it brings me great memories, even though it isn’t a surface I’ve always liked.

“I’ve learned to love it more lately and then reaching the final at Wimbledon, that was something so special.”

Murray seeded second at Wimbledon

Andy Murray will be seeded second at Wimbledon as the British number one targets a third grand slam title.

Murray, who ended this country’s 77-year wait for a men’s champion at the All England Club in 2013, will be in a separate half to top seed Novak Djokovic when the draw is made on Friday.

In the women’s tournament, Johanna Konta is the first British female to be seeded at Wimbledon since Jo Durie in 1984. Konta is seeded 17th.

It means Murray cannot face world number one Djokovic, who currently holds all four grand slam titles, until the final.

Murray has lost 13 of his last 15 matches against the Serb, including at the Australian and French Open finals this year, but he has won their last two meetings on grass.

Seventeen-time major champion Roger Federer is seeded third and his Swiss compatriot Stan Wawrinka comes in at four. Canada’s Milos Raonic, who has hired John McEnroe as coach, is sixth.

Serena Williams will be top seed in the women’s draw as the American looks to equal Steffi Graf’s open-era record by sealing a 22nd grand slam triumph.

Williams has failed at the last hurdle in her last two major tournaments, enduring surprise defeats at the Australian and French Open finals this year.

Her conqueror at Roland Garros, Garbine Muguruza of Spain, is seeded second with Poland’s Agnieszka Radwanska, the 2012 finalist, third.

Konta’s placing at 17th come as reward for a remarkable 12 months, in which she has reached the last 16 at the US Open and the semi-finals at the Australian Open. The 25-year-old’s world ranking has shot up from 146th to 18th.

Seedings at Wimbledon are determined using a combination of a player’s ranking points and their results in grass-court matches.

Play at the third grand slam tournament of the year starts on Monday.

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Updated: June 22, 2016 04:00 AM

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