Women Of Wimbledon 2014: Li Na, Simona Halep, & Other Incredible Frontrunners

Don't be fooled by the world's laser-like focus on soccer this week, because it's far from the only epic sporting event on offer — it's also time for tennis! This week marks the start of Wimbledon, where several elite women will contend to hoist the Venus Rosewater Dish, the championship trophy awarded to the finest female raqueteer in the business.

One of the wonderful things about Wimbledon is that the women and men compete at the same time, unlike the way the World Cup handles it, keeping things divided by sex. There are some curious, lasting inequalities at Wimbledon, though — as The Nation sportswriter Dave Zirin explains, the reason women only play three sets dates back to the tournament's early years, when they were forced to wear corsets on the court. This made prolonged play grueling, leading women to pass out on the court. Casual.

These days, the corset rules are long gone, but the set number remains the same, which is a pretty awkward and dismal throwback, if you ask us.

While you may know some of the names in the field all too well — Serena Williams has been a revolutionary, dominant force in women's tennis for about a dozen years — this year's group on the women's side figures to be more competitive than usual. Here are four women who could be standing centre court when the dust finally settles...

1. Serena Williams

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Williams, now 32 years old, is in year 19 of her illustrious professional career, having started as a hard-charging teen prodigy all the way back in 1995. Throughout that time, she's won a staggering 17 Grand Slam singles titles, and paired with her equally virtuoso sister Venus, has notched 13 Grand Slam doubles titles, with the pair undefeated whilst playing together. Did we mention she's still ranked as the number one player in the world?

The younger of the sibling duo, Serena currently holds four career Wimbledon titles against Venus' five, but at this stage in their careers (Venus is 34), Serena is viewed as the major favorite to take home the top prize. Serena will be taking on fellow American Anna Tatishvili in her opening round match.

2. Li Na

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Much as the Williams sisters are a trailblazing and inspirational duo, as black women who rose to the very peak of their sport, so does Li Na represent the very finest of Chinese women's tennis. There really hasn't been a native of China who's forged as successful a career as she has, already boasting two Grand Slam singles titles, the first of which in 2011 made her the first player from an Asian country to do so.

She's the number two rated player in the world, right behind Williams, and while her career achievements may look meager in comparison, this is likely her greatest chance to win Wimbledon — like Williams, Na is 32, meaning she's departing from her prime playing years. She also got what observers considered a pretty favorable draw for the tournament, and figures to be one of the big stars to watch. Na already won her opening round match, defeating Poland's Paula Kania on Monday, and will face Austria's Yvonne Meusburger next.

3. Maria Sharapova

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The fifth-rated player in the world, and a former Wimbledon champion in 2004, Sharapova is no stranger to this particular stage. That memorable 2004 tournament saw the 17-year-old Russian sensation dethrone Serena Williams, then a two-time defending champion at just 22.

The victory put Sharapova's career on the map, and she's been one of the most successful and widely regarded women's tennis players since then, achieving the world's number one ranking a number of times, hauling in four more Grand Slam singles titles, and becoming the object of a lot of sexist derision over her on-court grunting. Sharapova is already into the second round, having bested Briton Samantha Murray, and will face Switzerland's Timea Bacsinsky.

4. Simona Halep

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The youngest of this field of four contenders, and the third-rated player in the world, Halep has been something of a revelation since bursting onto the scene near the end of 2012, when she cracked the top-50. Hailing from Romania, Halep is also the least decorated of the four by far, never having won a Grand Slam singles title in the four such events she's played. The closest she's come was earlier this year at the French Open, when she played her way into the final match, only to lose to Sharapova in a full three sets.

While she may seem outclassed in terms of experience, her age advantage can't be overstated — in tennis terms, age 30 is a pretty big deal. While Williams and Na are well over that, Halep at 22 is just entering what should be the prime years of her athletic career. Even Sharapova, just 27, is a ten-year veteran with plenty of wear and tear, so don't be shocked if the powerful young Halep makes a charge. She'll be playing her first round match against Brazil's Teliana Pereira.