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Steve Flink: Wimbledon Preview

6/19/2012 1:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

Here we are again, less than a week away from another Wimbledon, anticipating a fortnight unlike any other in the game. There is no time like it in tennis. Sports fans who are merely casual observers of tennis become thoroughly immersed in this grass court festival on the hallowed lawns of the All England Club. The media seems invariably to bring out their best prose over the course of the two most significant weeks of the season. The players place a greater value on what happens in London than they do for any other event all year long. Winning Wimbledon is the most coveted honor of them all, the prize they want the most, the title that stands alone at the top of their priority list.

The 2012 Lawn Tennis Championships should be particularly intriguing in both the men’s and women’s divisions. The way I see it, one of the game’s “Big Three” among the men—Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal or Roger Federer—is destined to secure the crown this time around, with world No. 4 Andy Murray having an outside chance to claim the title. Among the women, two players stand out above and beyond the crowd of able contenders, and they are, unmistakably, Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova. World No. 2 Victoria Azarenka will surely be in the mix, as will defending champion Petra Kvitova. World No. 6 Sam Stosur—the U.S. Open champion—is long overdue to release her best brand of tennis on the grass, and she has a remote chance to walk away with the title. But the feeling persists that either Williams will win Wimbledon for the fifth time, or Sharapova will be victorious on the grass a second time. Yet this much is nearly certain: Sharapova will need to avoid a head-to-head meeting with Williams if she wants to capture a second straight Grand Slam title, while Williams can beat anyone in the field, including, unfortunately, herself.

Let’s examine the top contenders among the men more carefully. World No. 1 Djokovic has been a pillar of consistency at the majors. In his last eight appearances in Grand Slam events, Djokovic has not once failed to reach the semifinals. He was one match away from becoming the first man in 43 years to collect four major singles titles in succession when he advanced to the final of Roland Garros. Djokovic demonstrated in coming through for the first time last year at the premier tournament in tennis that he can perform just about as prodigiously on grass as he can on any other surface. He will surely battle ferociously and unrelentingly to hold onto his crown, and he will be even more determined to prevail at Wimbledon after losing his first French Open final to Nadal in Paris.

To be sure, Djokovic has become an increasingly stalwart competitor across the last couple of years. A simple examination of his record reveals how resilient and unshakable he is these days under extreme duress. At the 2010 U. S. Open, he erased two match points against him and toppled Federer in a stirring five set semifinal. Last year, on the same Arthur Ashe Stadium court, Djokovic replicated that extraordinary feat, saving two match points again after Federer served for the match at 5-3, 40-15 in the fifth set. Once more, Djokovic rescued himself with temerity, taking four games in a row to stop a confounded Federer. At the Australian Open this year, Djokovic was locked at 5-5 in the fifth set against Andy Murray when he saved three break points, escaping to narrowly win that bruising skirmish. He then ousted Nadal in an epic, final round, encounter. Nadal was ahead 4-2, 30-15 in the fifth set before Djokovic retaliated boldly to take five of the last six games to win his third Australian Open title.

His heroics at Roland Garros earlier this month were almost as remarkable. In the round of 16, on an afternoon when his game was malfunctioning flagrantly, Djokovic struck back tenaciously from two sets to love down to defeat Italy’s Andres Seppi. On the heels of that triumph, he saved four match points against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga to win another riveting five set showdown. He then took apart Federer in straight sets before falling in a respectable four set meeting with Nadal in the championship match. Over and over again, against considerable odds, with his back to the wall, Djokovic has not been found wanting at crucial moments in important Grand Slam tournament contests.

And yet, his standards in 2012 have not yet measured up consistently to the quality of his game a year ago. Remember that in 2011 he won seven consecutive tournaments and 41 matches in a row before Federer upended him in the semifinals of Roland Garros, but then he swiftly reestablished his superiority to win Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. He was unassailably the best tennis player in the world, and by a considerable margin. In 2011, he took four of five head-to-head contests with Federer, and was 6-0 over Nadal. Moreover, he cast aside most of his adversaries with ruthless efficiency and precision.

This season, Djokovic has remained atop the rankings, but his record is nowhere near as impressive. He has captured only two of eight tournaments, although three of his six defeats were at the capable hands of Nadal in finals on the recent European clay court swing. His level of play has still been superb, but his aura of invincibility is gone. The prime question now is whether or not Djokovic can recover the same discipline and supreme determination he displayed so frequently a year ago. He will need to rediscover that single-mindedness and inscrutable manner that marked his play so frequently in 2012. Otherwise, he will be hard pressed to defend his Wimbledon crown.

Let’s turn next to Federer, the man who swept the Wimbledon title five years in a row from 2003-2007, the fellow who has been the victor on those lawns no fewer than six times in all. The Swiss Maestro took his 16th Grand Slam singles championship early in 2010, winning the Australian Open to open that campaign. Since that moment, he has appeared in nine major events, and has not won any of them. Furthermore, he has been to only one final in those last nine Grand Slam tournament appearances. Federer has won seven tournaments since the U.S. Open last September, including four in the 2012 season. He has been a semifinalist at the last three majors.

Yet he suffered a surprising defeat Sunday against Tommy Haas in the final of Halle, a tournament the Swiss has secured five times across his career. Federer had survived a stern appointment with Milos Raonic, defeating the burly Canadian for the third time this year after trailing by a set, stopping his big serving rival for the second straight time in a final set tie-break. But clearly Federer was caught off guard in the final by the 34-year-old Haas, who had not beaten the Swiss since 2002. Haas has been resurgent this year after barely competing in 2010 and 2011 when he endured hip and shoulder surgeries. But he rallied gamely from 1-3 and break point down in the opening set to oust Federer 7-6 (5), 6-4. That was a stunning grass court result, and surely a blow to Federer’s pride.

Be that as it may, it was not the kind of loss that will necessarily linger that long in Federer’s highly professional mind. Of larger concern for the Swiss will be his disappointing quarterfinal showings at the last two Wimbledon events. In 2010, Tomas Berdych blasted him off the court in four sets, and then a year ago he was knocked out in five sets by an unswerving Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, squandering a two set lead. That had not happened to Federer before in 179 Grand Slam tournament matches over the course of his sterling career. Still, to be sure, he is the most natural grass court player in today’s world of tennis, and Wimbledon will present Federer with his best chance to add another major trophy to his luminous collection. But even with the inherent advantages he has on grass, Federer will be hard pressed indeed to curtail Djokovic and Nadal back to back at the end of the tournament.

That brings us to Nadal, the man who is currently riding higher and brimming with more conviction than anyone else. Nadal was typically magnificent on the clay this spring, winning four of the five tournaments he played, collecting Masters 1000 crowns in both Monte Carlo and Rome, claiming a men’s record at Roland Garros with his seventh triumph on the red clay of Paris. He has answered a morale damaging seven consecutive losses to Djokovic by beating the Serbian three times in a row. Nadal did lose to Philipp Kohlschreiber last week in the quarterfinals of Halle, but he was surely descending from the emotional high of another victory at Roland Garros only four days earlier. He did not seem jarred in the least by the setback.

The view here is that Nadal is going to win Wimbledon. His record at the All England Club in his last five appearances starting in 2006 has been stellar. In that span, he reached three finals in a row, claimed the title the next two times he competed (in 2008 and 2010), and returned to the final a year ago. Outside of clay, grass is arguably Nadal’s best surface. He seems more comfortable on the lawns than he is on hard courts. Grass places a premium on superb footwork and extraordinary mobility, and Nadal has demonstrated repeatedly over the years how excellent he is in both departments. The view here is that he should have the confidence to win Wimbledon for the third time. The effectiveness and variation of his first serve will be the key to his chances.

Murray, of course, has been formidable at his country’s Grand Slam event for the past three years, reaching the penultimate round every time, falling against Andy Roddick in 2009 unexpectedly and then losing unsurprisingly to Nadal the last two years. Murray’s movement is a primary reason why he is such a good grass court player, but his temperament remains a liability at times. His self-defeating conduct during his quarterfinal loss to David Ferrer in the quarterfinals of Roland Garros was distressing to his biggest boosters, who wish he would stop the incessant cursing at himself and cease with all of the negative body language.

Nevertheless, Murray knows that he could turn his 2012 season and his career around with a breakthrough victory at the All England Club. Perhaps he will find the form he exhibited against Djokovic at the Australian Open, and the British crowds just might provide the necessary inspiration to drive Murray into the winner’s circle, to make him the first British man to prevail at Wimbledon since Fred Perry took his third title in a row 76 years ago. I envision Murray travelling back to the semifinals on the Centre Court. But I doubt he will move beyond that point.

Shifting to the women, my feeling is that Serena Williams is clearly the best grass court player in the world. She was the champion in 2002 and 2003, a finalist in 2004 and 2008, and then the tournament victor again in 2009 and 2010. She had been gone from the game for nearly a year when she returned a year ago, and was not yet ready to contend. This time around, despite a dismal loss at Roland Garros to Virginie Razzano in the opening round at Roland Garros (her first career opening round defeat in 47 majors), Serena ought to be ready to make amends. She was in an oddly uneven state of mind during her loss to Razzano, uptight from the outset, way out of sorts. Yet Williams won the first set and was ahead 5-1 in the second set tie-break before victory eluded her in three sets.

Her history at Roland Garros has been littered with losses, and she has only won that tournament once in eleven tries. Wimbledon is another story altogether. Williams in my estimation has the finest serve ever developed by a woman, and the quicker courts are much more to her liking. Twice over the last year, Serena has faltered after seemingly being ready to win majors. She captured two tournaments last summer on the way to Flushing Meadows, blitzed through the draw at the Open, but played uninspired tennis in losing to Stosur in the final. En route to Roland Garros a few weeks ago, she had been in sparkling form, winning Charleston and Rome on the clay. But then she inexplicably lost her competitive equilibrium against Razzano.

I fully expect her to regain her stability on the lawns, and take the title. But Sharapova will be hard to beat herself. Having just deservedly recorded a career Grand Slam by virtue of her Roland Garros championship run, Sharapova is playing the finest tennis of her illustrious career. She has missed only one final in the last four majors, she is striking the ball beautifully off both sides, and her serve is back close to where it once was. It is a weapon restored, and she will need to earn a lot of free points with it on the grass. Sharapova can topple anyone in the field save Williams.

While we all constantly refer to the renowned “Big Three” of men’s tennis, women’s tennis is perhaps headed in the same direction with Sharapova, Williams and Victoria Azarenka. Azarenka opened 2012 in style by destroying Sharapova 6-3, 6-0 in the Australian Open final, collecting a first major in the process. She won her first four tournaments of 2012 and has since slumped, but not that badly. Azarenka’s season match record is, after all, 38-4. Along with Sharapova, Azarenka is the best returner in the women’s game. She can play on the grass, a fact affirmed by her semifinal showing at Wimbledon a year ago. This is a deeply prideful woman. Expect her to be among the last survivors at the upcoming Wimbledon, even if she does not win the tournament.

Three more men could play crucial roles at the All England Club this year: John Isner, Milos Raonic, and Tsonga. Tsonga, of course, reached his first semifinal on the lawns last year with his big win over Federer, losing to Djokovic in a well-played semifinal. If he is fully healthy at Wimbledon, Tsonga could do considerable damage again, toppling one of the big names. But I don’t believe he is ready to win the world’s most important tennis tournament.

Isner’s devastatingly potent game was fully on display earlier this year as he cut down Federer and Tsonga in Davis Cup matches abroad, and he also accounted for Djokovic in a final set tie-break at Indian Wells. He can beat any of the “Big Three”, as well as Murray. But the central problem for Isner will be avoiding a loss to a lesser player in the earlier rounds at Wimbledon. If he earns the right to face one of the superstars from the fourth round on, he will be ready for that confrontation. Isner was humbled by a disappointing clay court campaign. And yet, with his overwhelming first and second serves and his crackling flat forehand, Isner could easily regroup on the lawns and make himself the center of attention.

Raonic’s first serve is right up there with Isner’s among the game’s most prodigious deliveries. He could scare the daylights out of the top players as well. In his favor, Raonic moves much better than the American.  Raonic had a good win over Murray on clay this season, and has lost three agonizingly close matches to Federer on three different surfaces, including a third set tie-breaker defeat in Halle last week. One of these days, he is surely going to bring down one of the game’s towering competitors.

In the final analysis, I am picking Nadal and Williams to step forth and capture the Kentucky Derby of tennis. Nadal is a remarkably good “even year” player. In 2008, he won the French Open, Wimbledon and the Olympic Games; two years later, he took three of the four majors. Both years, Nadal finished unequivocally at the best player in the world. He just might be on his way to another banner year after his critical triumph at Roland Garros. Williams has not won a Grand Slam event since Wimbledon in 2010. The view here is that she will put Roland Garros well out of her range of thought, and turn her attention to the major that suits her game more than any other. She will tie her sister Venus this year with a fifth Centre Court crown, while Nadal will get on the big board of the sport for the third time.