Defending Wimbledon Champ Venus Williams Faces Tough Road

While the French Open is normally a crap shoot, where seedings mean less on clay, it's a different story at Wimbledon. The No. 1 seed at the All England Club has reached the final in each of the previous four years.

Not surprisingly, Amelie Mauresmo is the No. 1 overall seed for the first time in her Wimbledon career. She has reached the semifinals in her last three appearances, but has failed to go any further. Mauresmo opens up her campaign this year versus Croatian qualifier Ivana Abramovic. The Frenchwoman, coming off her first Grand Slam title earlier this year in Australia, has a potential fourth-round matchup versus talented Russian and No. 14 seed Dinara Safina. She could then encounter defending champion Venus Williams in the quarterfinals.

Like Mauresmo, Williams plays her first-round match against a qualifier. Her opponent will be fellow American Bethanie Mattek, who has an 0-6 career Grand Slam record. Williams, a three-time champion at Wimbledon, conceivably could play 2004 French Open champion and No. 9 seeded Anastasia Myskina in the fourth round.

Williams Seeks Back-to-Back Titles

Williams, who last year defeated Lindsay Davenport in a dramatic three-set final, is looking to capture back-to-back titles at the grounds of Wimbledon for the second time in her career. Her impeccable 42-6 overall record at the All England Club includes five finals appearances along with her three titles. She was bumped up to the No.6 seed, several rungs higher than her current No. 12 world ranking.

2004 champion Maria Sharapova, whose lone Grand Slam title came at Wimbledon, faces veteran Anna Smashnova in her opening-round match. They have faced each other just once in their careers, with the Russian Sharapova winning in Miami two years ago. Smashnova has played at the season's third Grand Slam event 11 times in her career, but has advanced past the first round just twice.

Sharapova, 19, has a 15-2 career record at the All England Club. Last year, she reached the semifinals before being upset by Venus Williams, ending her 22-match win streak on grass. This season, she lost in a Wimbledon tune-up to Jamea Jackson in the fourth round at Birmingham.

On paper, it appears Sharapova has the easiest section of the draw. She could potentially meet No. 32 seed Mara Santangelo in the third round and 16th-seeded Flavia Pennetta in the fourth round. It's then plausible that seventh-seeded Elena Dementieva, a first-round loser at Wimbledon last year, would stand in her way in the quarterfinals.

Martina Hingis, a Wimbledon champion in 1997, is seeded 12th, three spots higher than her No. 15 WTA ranking. She last played here in 2001, a match in which she was stunned by Virginia Ruano Pasquel, the 83rd-ranked player in the world at the time. Hingis, coming off an impressive quarterfinal run at the French Open, could meet Japan's Ai Sugiyama, seeded 18th, in the third round. Also looming in her way is southpaw and No. 8 Patty Schnyder. If she is fortunate enough to get that far, it's probable that Justine Henin-Hardenne, the reigning champion at Roland Garros, would be standing in her way.

Henin-Hardenne, seeded third, opens up against Yuan Meng of China. The Belgian is looking for the only major title that eludes her. In 2001 she advanced to the Wimbledon final, her first career slam final, before being upended by Venus Williams. Standing in the way of Henin-Hardenne's title hopes is Daniela Hantuchova, the 15th seed out of Slovakia. They could go head-to-head in the fourth round.

Competition for Clijsters

No. 2 seed Kim Clijsters' section of the draw appears to be the most competitive. Clijsters, who has never reached the Wimbledon final (the only Grand Slam event in which she has failed to do so), plays her first-round match against emotional Russian Vera Zvonareva. Ranked No. 47 on tour, Zvonareva is fresh off her first title of the season on the grass courts of Birmingham. However, her on-the-court breakdowns have been well-documented.

They have met just once in their careers, but that was four years ago at the U.S. Open, a match Clijsters won in three sets.

Last season, she fell in the fourth round to Lindsay Davenport. Of Clijsters' 31 career titles -- fourth most among active players -- only two have come on grass.

Clijsters' section of the draw is also sparked by three teenage seeds: No. 10 Nicole Vaidisova, No. 13 Anna-Lena Groenefeld and No. 17 Maria Kirilenko. However, the most daunting player -- aside from Clijsters -- is rejuvenated Svetlana Kuznetsova. The Russian, who is seeded fifth, is entering Wimbledon having just reached the French Open final three weeks ago.

Kuznetsova is without question playing her best tennis since her lone U.S. Open championship two years ago. Aside from her impressive run at Roland Garros, she won the Nasdaq-100 Open earlier this season in Key Biscayne.

While there are unquestionably intriguing matches down the line, don't expect many early upsets. In 40 matches the last two years involving top-20 players, only four of them lost.