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Wimbledon: Defending champion Elena Rybakina facing fitness race

The last five ladies' singles competitions at Wimbledon have all ended with a different champion, and the news current title holder Elena Rybakina is struggling with illness raises the prospect of that trend continuing in 2023.

The Moscow-born Kazakh champion stunned SW19 when winning her maiden Grand Slam title 12 months ago and is currently priced up as the 4/1 co-favourite to retain her prize. 

But the news the 24-year-old had withdrawn from her final warm-up event at Eastbourne this week due to the lingering effects of a virus has cast doubt on her ability to put up a strong defence against a capable collection of rivals.

What2023 Wimbledon
WhereAll England Tennis Club, London
WhenMonday 3rd July - Sunday 16th July
How to watchBBC
Wimbledon women's oddsIga Swiatek 4/1, Aryna Sabalenka 4/1, Elena Rybakina 4/1, Ons Jabeur 10/1, Karolina Muchova 14/1, Petra Kvitova 14/1

Rybakina's recovery a cause for concern

Rybakina has been struggling with her health since the French Open, where she was forced to withdraw from the Paris major before her third-round match due to feeling unwell. 

She has since revealed that the upper respiratory illness confined her to her hotel room for a couple of days, delaying the start of her grass court preparations.

The world number three eventually got on the grass in Berlin last week but clearly wasn't herself, going out in the round of 16 stage to Donna Veckic in three sets. 

It had looked like Rybakina would try to get some more time in on the grass at Eastbourne this week, and the tournament's top seed was present for Sunday's press day. 

However, still feeling the effects of the illness, the decision was taken to skip the event and spend this week recovering ahead of Wimbledon, which starts on Monday. 

Kazakh a contender if fit

Rybakina will be bidding to become the first woman to win back-to-back Wimbledon titles since Serena Williams' final two SW19 wins in 2015 and 2016. 

She came out of the blue to claim the Rosewater Dish last year, having never previously gone beyond the last eight at a Grand Slam and was the second-lowest ranked Wimbledon champion since WTA computer rankings began 47 years ago.

That victory really sparked her career into life, and she came close to her second Slam title at the start of this year when reaching the Australian Open final, only to lose in three sets to Aryna Sabalenka

She got her revenge on Sabalenka, though, when beating the Belarusian in the Indian Wells final, and Rybakina nearly completed the Sunshine Double when losing to Petra Kvitova in the Miami Open decider.

Progression on clay, her weakest surface, was to follow as she won in Rome. 

Having more than doubled the number of career titles to five in the space of a year and given the lack of experienced grass campaigners in the ladies' field, Rybakina's Wimbledon credentials have improved vastly from 12 months ago. 

Who could benefit from under-the-weather Rybakina?

With a game well suited to grass, given her booming serve, a confident Rybakina would be tough to stop if fully fit, as proven last year when she dropped only two sets when clinching the title. 

But if the effects of this illness continue to linger, then she could be vulnerable, with Sabalenka perhaps best placed of her rivals to capitalise. 

The world number two is enjoying an excellent season, winning her maiden slam at the Australian Open, while she's also triumphed in Adelaide and Madrid. 

The 25-year-old's game suits grass well, as demonstrated when reaching the Wimbledon semi-finals in 2021, and she's a 4/1 chance to go all the way after missing last year's event.

World number one Iga Swiatek is also a 4/1 chance, fresh from a third French Open title and having now won a fast-court crown with victory at last year's US Open.

However, the Pole is yet to progress beyond the fourth round at Wimbledon, and the grass courts don't seem to suit her style, making her an untrustworthy co-favourite.

Last year's runner-up Ons Jabeur, a 10/1 chance, and the in-form Petra Kvitova could be two other names that could profit from any issues for Rybakina. 

Kvitova is an interesting 14/1 shot, given she's a two-time Wimbledon champion that's been posting some impressive results this year. 

She's won twice this year, picking up her 31st career title in Berlin just last week and has dismissed fears over her own withdrawal from Eastbourne, putting it down to fatigue.

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