Stage set for Serena-Maria showdown

How big an impact did her first-ever, first-round Grand Slam defeat at Roland Garros have on Serena Williams? We are about to find out.

So bouncy and enthusiastic after beating the then-world No. 1 Victoria Azarenka to win the Madrid title in May, Serena has seen all the old questions about Serena’s fitness and motivation have resurfaced in recent weeks — questions she will be keen to answer on court once the 2012 Wimbledon Championships begin on Monday.

The younger Williams has won Wimbledon four times — one less than big-sister Venus — and if mind and body are in good order, there is no reason why she should not do so again. She has the edge in power, athletic ability and sheer talent on just about anyone else in the game, and women’s tennis would like nothing better than for her to blaze her way through a tough half of the draw that includes Azarenka and the defending champion Petra Kvitova to meet the No. 1 seed, Maria Sharapova, in the final.

It is Sharapova, of course, who has stolen the headlines in recent weeks with title-winning performances in Stuttgart, Rome and Roland Garros, where she completed the rare feat of winning all four Grand Slam tournaments. A showdown with Serena in the Wimbledon final would be the perfect test for both women — a surface and a venue that they would both call favorite.

Sharapova has a gentle start against the Australian Anastasia Rodionova, who is ranked 133. Sharapova later could meet Venus Williams in the semifinal. Serena opens against one of the numerous Czechs in the draw, Barbora Strycova and could run into one for the most improved Americans, Varvara Lepchenko, and then Kvitova, who is seeded fourth to Serena’s sixth.

After that strange foot injury, followed by a serious illness in 2011, it is hardly surprising that Serena’s results have been patchy since her return. In Miami, she lost to former world No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki and chided herself for making too many errors.

“No excuses,” she said. “Got to stop doing that. It’s silly.”

After losing to Virginie Razzano in Paris, she was virtually speechless but, once again, mumbled about making too many mistakes. Razzano deserved her victory but, as always, one felt the result hinged largely on how Serena, rather than her opponent, played. Wimbledon should be no different.

There were promising signs for the future of American women’s tennis at the French Open, and it will be interesting to see whether some of the young players can transfer that promise to grass. Vania King and Sloane Stephens both face Czechs in the first round — King playing Petra Cetkovska, and Stephens going against Karolina Pliskova. Both are in Sharapova’s quarter. and they could meet each other in the second round.

Christina McHale, at No. 28, is the only other American to warrant a seeding spot. She starts off against a British newcomer, Johanna Konta, currently ranked 217th.

It looks tougher for Jamie Hampton, who has been drawn against the vastly experienced former Indian Wells winner Daniela Hantuchova. Melanie Oudin, full of confidence after her fine win at Edgbaston last week, will play Hungary’s Timea Babos. If she wins, Oudin could face former top-10 player Nadia Petrova in the second round.

Lepchenko takes on Austria’s Patricia Mayr-Achleitner, but Irina Falconi will really do well to survive her first round — the Atlanta-based American faces Azarenka, the No. 2 seed.

The need for Americans to begin making their mark at the top of the game is paramount. Half of the 32 seeds come from Eastern European countries, including Russia. That is a far cry from the dominance enjoyed by American, Australian and, to a lesser degree, British players in the post-World War II years. Until 1978, only Brazil’s graceful Maria Bueno broke the stranglehold these nations held on the Wimbledon title. Then Martina Navaratilova won for the first time, and Eastern Europe awoke to the possibilities it has now grabbed so comprehensively.