LONDON, Great Britain - Six players will break new ground when Wimbledon begins next week by making their debut in the main draw of a Grand Slam. Get to know more about them here at wtatennis.com.
Harriet Dart (GBR)
The 21-year-old is one of a young cohort of five British players whose significant improvements, almost in tandem, this year have seen them rewarded with Wimbledon wildcards. Prior to 2018, the London-born World No.181 was perhaps best known for her annual heartbreak in Wimbledon qualifying, losing 2-6, 7-5, 13-11 to Ekaterina Alexandrova in the final round in 2016 and 4-6, 6-3, 9-7 to Cagla Buyukakcay in the first round a year later. Her progress has been low-key relative to some of her compatriots, as she has focused on grinding in ITFs around the world: a first $25,000 title in Altenkirchen, Germany in February was followed by a final in Yokohama, Japan in March and a $60,000 semifinal in Luan, China in May. Notably, too, Dart has been unbeaten against fellow Britons this year, with her 6-0 record against countrywomen including wins over fellow wildcards Katie Boulter and Gabriella Taylor, as well as former World No.27 Laura Robson.
Having raised her ranking into the Top 200 from her 2017 year-end position of No.315, Dart's grass homecoming would be a test of how much her improvement could translate to larger ITFs and WTA events - and the Briton has passed with flying colors. In the Manchester ITF $100,000 event she scored her first Top 100 win over Luksika Kumkhum en route to the quarterfinals - and two weeks later followed it up with her second to notch up her debut WTA main draw win in Eastbourne, defeating Kristyna Pliskova 7-5, 3-6, 6-3 and showcasing an intelligent, neat game and clear-headed shot selection in the process.
Katy Dunne (GBR)
When a 19-year-old Dunne defeated Mirjana Lucic-Baroni and Timea Babos in the 2014 grass season, the highlights of a year in which she rocketed from No.735 to No.307, she was considered the brightest hope of British tennis. But it was only in the past eight months in which the Hemel Hempstead native began to put enough consistent results together to crack the Top 250.
Two ITF $25,000 finals, in Pune in December and Perth in February, sparked a ranking leap up to a career high of No.212 in May - and, like Dart, the 23-year-old has confirmed her improvement at home this month to seal her first main draw wildcard. Bouncing back from a heartbreaking 3-6, 7-5, 7-5 loss to Nicole Gibbs in the Manchester ITF $100,000 event, Dunne immediately went on to score her second and third Top 100 wins in her next two qualifying tournaments - a 0-6, 6-2, 6-2 defeat of Natalia Vikhlyantseva in Birmingham and a 6-2, 6-2 rout of Lara Arruabarrena in Eastbourne.
Vera Lapko (BLR)
The 2016 Australian Open girls' champion and former junior World No.1 has enjoyed a steady progression up the WTA rankings since graduating to the pros. In 2017, Lapko rose from No.320 to No.131, with her year culminating in a maiden WTA quarterfinal run in Moscow - where she held a match point before narrowly losing to Irina-Camelia Begu. The Belarusian began 2018 with seven losses in WTA qualifying before her breakthrough in Lugano in April, where she defeated Anett Kontaveit - her career-best completed victory - en route to the semifinals, a run that showcased Lapko's smooth hitting and easy power.
That performance would put the 19-year-old on the verge of the Top 100, and a 10-match winning streak across strong ITF titles in Khimki and Saint-Gaudens enabled Lapko to break the barrier in May - too late for direct entry to Roland Garros, where she lost in qualifying, but easily within the Wimbledon main draw cut. A junior Wimbledon semifinalist in 2015, the World No.84 has enjoyed some solid grass wins this month over Jana Fett in Nottingham and Stefanie Voegele in Southsea.
Elena-Gabriela Ruse (ROU)
For the first time, Romania will field eight competitors in the Wimbledon main draw. The youngest of them is 20-year-old Ruse, a hard hitter from Bucharest who, playing her first ever Grand Slam qualifying rounds this week, successfully navigated them at the first attempt. A former junior World No.7 who made the Wimbledon girls' semifinals in 2014, Ruse's journey through the three rounds was a dramatic one: a comeback 3-6, 6-4, 6-1 win over compatriot Alexandra Cadantu was followed by a 5-7, 6-4, 6-4 defeat of Arina Rodionova in which the World No.197 had to retrieve a 0-4 final set deficit. By those standards, a 6-0, 7-5 victory over Barbara Haas in the final round was straightforward.
Ruse, who won her maiden WTA match as a local wildcard in Bucharest last year, also impressed in Prague this year, where her run from qualifying to the second round included a 2-6, 7-5, 6-3 upset of Marta Kostyuk and her first Top 100 win over Bernarda Pera. All six of her ITF titles have also been on clay - but the Romanian has long said that grass is her favorite surface, lamenting the lack of ITF tournaments on it in 2016. This week, she's proven why she prefers the green surface.
Barbora Stefkova (CZE)
At the start of 2017, Stefkova appeared poised for a WTA breakthrough. The Czech had risen over 100 places in the previous year to a career high of No.154, scoring her maiden Top 50 win along the way over Annika Beck in Québec City, her very first WTA main draw; and she had just qualified for her second WTA event in Auckland. But in March that year, disaster struck in the form of a pain in both wrists that could not be diagnosed.
The mystery ailment kept Stefkova out of action for eight months, and Wimbledon is just her tenth tournament since her return last November. In that time, she managed only one match win above ITF $15,000 level. However, the 23-year-old's doubles game has been looking up this month as she has notched up back-to-back finals at the Bol 125K (alongside Sílvia Soler-Espinosa) and in Mallorca (with Lucie Safarova) - and once she set foot in Roehampton her singles game clicked as well. One of only two players to make the main draw with three-set wins in every round - the other is Viktoriya Tomova - the Olomouc native first overcame promising 15-year-old home wildcard Emma Raducanu 6-4, 5-7, 6-2; then came from behind to overcome 's-Hertogenbosch quarterfinalist Veronika Kudermetova 2-6, 6-4, 6-1; and finally, in a battle between two would-be debutantes, eked out Conny Perrin 4-6, 6-4, 6-4. Ranked No.715, Stefkova will be the lowest-ranked player in the Wimbledon main draw. Last year, though, saw three players who needed a protected ranking to enter The Championships make the second week (Magdalena Rybarikova, Victoria Azarenka and Petra Martic): could Stefkova repeat the feat in 2018?
Gabriella Taylor (GBR)
World No.182 Taylor served notice of her potential in just her third professional match when, as a 16-year-old wildcard into the 2014 Wimbledon qualifying draw, she stunned former World No.29 Sofia Arvidsson 6-1, 6-3. Although the Briton's progress was slowed by injuries and illness, it was nonetheless steady - until the end of 2017, when it became meteoric. Ranked No.332 in December, Taylor embarked on a 25-2 win-loss record over the next four months, sweeping up four titles across India and Australia and gatecrashing the Top 200 in style.
The 20-year-old is the second-youngest wildcard this year (after 19-year-old former junior World No.2 Katie Swan), and like her compatriots has demonstrated that her ITF form can hold its own against established WTA players this month. In the first round of the Surbiton ITF $100,000 event, Taylor scored her first ever Top 100 win over compatriot Heather Watson, a result that lifted her to a career high of No.168; and a week later in her main draw debut in Nottingham, she stretched defending champion Donna Vekic to a marathon 7-5, 5-7, 7-6(3) scoreline.