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Steve Flink: Wimbledon Preview

6/18/2013 3:00:00 PM

I will be covering my 37th Wimbledon in a row—and my 46th altogether including my years as a young fan and reporter in training—beginning next week at the All England Club. To me, there is no other tournament even remotely like it. This is a two week festival of grass court tennis, a fortnight when general sports fans invariably sit up and take notice, a singularly celebratory time for followers of the sport from every corner of the globe. I am eagerly awaiting my upcoming journey to the game’s mecca, as I always do.

But this is not an easy year to project who will come away with the highest honor of them all in tennis among the men. This much is certain: one member of the renowned “Big Four” contingent of Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray and Roger Federer will capture the crown. But exactly which member of that sterling cast will hold the trophy in the end? Federer, of course, is in search of a men’s record 8th singles title on the British lawns, and he is the defending champion. Nadal wants to make amends for a freakish loss a year ago in the second round against an almost unconscious Lukas Rosol, and yet the fact remains that the Spaniard has won the title twice (in 2008 and 2010) and has been in the final three other times over the past seven years. Djokovic would love to reclaim the crown he took so convincingly two years ago. Last, but not least, Murray is determined to establish himself as the first British man since Fred Perry secured a third title in a row back in 1936 to rule as the champion on the fabled Centre Court.

Clearly, a strong case can be made for each of these formidable competitors to prevail this time around. Let’s start with the world No. 1 Djokovic. To be sure, grass it not his favorite surface, and he is considerably more comfortable on hard courts. But the fact remains that the Serbian is a multi-faceted, all surface player these days, much better in the forecourt than he once was, unafraid to compete against anyone no matter what the terrain, professional to his core, and more consistent than any other man at the majors since the middle of 2010, when he lost in the penultimate round at Wimbledon. Starting with that tournament, Djokovic has appeared in 12 majors, winning five, reaching the final of three, advancing to the semifinals of four.

That is a very impressive record. Meanwhile, Djokovic will be highly charged across the coming fortnight because he just suffered perhaps the single most bruising defeat of his distinguished career. Djokovic had his heart set on completing a career Grand Slam at Roland Garros, and he very nearly toppled the all-time master on that surface in the person of Nadal. Djokovic fought valiantly from two sets to one down and two points from defeat in the fourth set to build a 4-2 fifth set lead, only to bow out nobly in the end 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 6-7 (3), 9-7. He would almost certainly have succeeded against David Ferrer in the final, but the top seed narrowly missed the chance to be there. To be sure, that loss could have lasting implications, and the sting of the setback won’t evaporate swiftly. Yet Djokovic these days is remarkably stable, and he will give Wimbledon his full and undivided attention. As long as his first serve does not let him down, he must like his chances.

But Murray will also be primed for this occasion, and he has every reason to believe this will be his year. Murray seems more at home on grass courts than Djokovic, and he has performed very reliably over the years at the championships of his country. He reached the quarterfinals for the first time in 2008 before Nadal ushered him out of the tournament, lost in 2009 to Andy Roddick in the penultimate round, was beaten by Nadal again in the semifinals the next two years, and then went to the final a year ago. He took the first set from Federer before the Swiss Maestro struck back boldly to win in four sets, leaving Murray in tears during the presentation ceremony.

The following month, Murray took apart Federer on the same court in straight sets to secure the Olympic gold medal. He then captured his first Grand Slam championship at the U.S. Open with a hard fought, well deserved, five set, final round victory over Djokovic. At the start of the 2013 season, Murray was the runner-up to Djokovic at the Australian Open. So Murray was at least a finalist in three consecutive majors, and he had been victorious at the Olympic Games. A back injury kept Murray out of the French Open a few weeks ago, but he was the Queen’s Club victor (at the AEGON Championships) this past week for the third time in his career. Murray clearly has the versatility of tools and the craftsmanship to win Wimbledon.

But this generation’s most accomplished and natural grass court player is Federer. The Swiss fittingly claimed his first major crown on the Centre Court in 2003, and moved within two points of a sixth consecutive title in 2008 before a resolute Nadal halted him in an almost ineffable five set classic. Federer regained the crown with a hard earned five set triumph over Roddick in 2009, fell in the quarterfinals in 2010 and 2011 against Tomas Berdych and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, and then secured the title again last year with four set victories over Djokovic and Murray.

That was Federer’s fifth tournament victory of a stellar 2012 season. He won a sixth championship at Cincinnati over the summer, but did not win another tournament until he came from a set down in both the semifinals and final of Halle on the grass last week against Tommy Haas and Mikhail Youzhny. That is why the Halle triumph seemed to give Federer renewed conviction. But the fact remains that Federer—the all-time men’s leader with 17 Grand Slam singles championships—has captured only one of his last thirteen majors. In that span, aside from his spectacular triumph at Wimbledon last year, he has been to only one other major final. But his game is impeccably tailored for the grass, and his best chance to succeed at a major this season will almost surely be at this event that he plainly values above all others.

Meanwhile, Nadal heads out onto the grass with the best results of anyone in the men’s game this year. He returned from a seven month absence from the game in February, and has won an astounding seven of nine events he has played, including his record breaking eighth French Open. To be sure, Nadal took six of those seven tournament titles on his beloved clay, but the fact remains that he was also the victor on hard courts at Indian Wells. Furthermore, Nadal has adjusted to grass over the years even more thoroughly than he has to hard courts. His Wimbledon record—despite his shock defeat against Rosol last year—has been outstanding. Only Federer among this generation has fared better at the game’s showcase event. Much will depend this year on the condition of his knee; as long as Nadal is healthy and moving with customary force and alacrity, he will be awfully hard to stop at Wimbledon.

Since Nadal made his first run to the final on the Centre Court seven years ago, he has beaten all of his chief adversaries on the grass, including Federer, Djokovic and Murray (three times); with the exception of the loss to Rosol a year ago—his last match before the seven month departure—Nadal’s setbacks in this span have been solely against Federer (in the 2006 and 2007 finals), and Djokovic (in the 2011 final). He can compete with anyone in the business on grass, where he uses his sliced backhand skillfully, and exploits the wide slice serve in the ad court with more definition than he does on other surfaces.

To be sure, there will be a couple of immensely capable individuals who could reshape the tournament even if they are unlikely to win it. Berdych—the man who owns some of the flattest, finest, purest ground strokes in tennis, along with an extraordinary first serve—cut down both Federer and Djokovic to reach the 2010 Wimbledon final, which he lost to Nadal. He could halt one of the favorites this year, as is the case with Tsonga, a semifinalist the last two years. Tsonga is one of the game’s premier athletes and his first serve is right up there among the three or four best in tennis. But the Frenchman’s form can fluctuate wildly; at Roland Garros, he stopped Federer in straight sets but then bowed out tamely without winning a set against Ferrer in the penultimate round.

Tsonga’s mood swings can be substantial, but at his best he is a terrific player on the grass. Meanwhile, Canada’s Milos Raonic has a prodigious serve and such explosiveness off the forehand that he could be a factor in the tournament, but lately he has been his own worst enemy. The same could essentially be said for big John Isner of the United States.

As for the women, there is an overwhelming favorite. She has won the tournament five times. She is the defending champion. She has won five consecutive tournaments and 31 matches in a row. She may not be totally invincible, but these days she is practically unstoppable. She is none other than Serena Williams, who is playing far and away the finest tennis of her career at 31. A year ago, Serena came into Wimbledon on the heels of a startling first round loss at Roland Garros against Virginie Razzano. Although she managed to buckle down and win Wimbledon, she had her share of anxious moments along the way. Jie Zheng took her to 9-7 in the final set in the third round. Yaroslava Shvedova pushed Williams to 7-5 in the third a round later. Agnieszka Radwanska managed to take a set off an apprehensive Williams in the final. Finally, despite her numerous battles with inner demons, Williams collected the title.

It would be surprising to see Williams struggle that inordinately again this year. She is playing a much better brand of aggressively oriented percentage tennis, and grass is a surface made for her game. Williams is the best server ever in the women’s game, and that combined with her decidedly improved consistency off the ground and markedly improved match playing prowess will make the American nearly impossible to beat at the All England Club.

Maria Sharapova will be seeded second behind Serena, and deservedly so. She won Wimbledon nine years ago and was back in the final in 2011.  Sharapova needs to find her service rhythm on the grass, and that could carry her deep into the tournament, perhaps back to the final. But, realistically, Sharapova will not secure a second crown on the Centre Court if she confronts Williams in the final round. Serena has ousted Maria 13 consecutive times, including in the recent final of the French Open. Sharapova played a first rate final against Williams in Paris, but still lost 6-4, 6-4 to her nemesis. Nonetheless, Sharapova can and probably will beat anyone else in the field.

Victoria Azarenka has been the worthy victor at the last two Australian Opens. She took a 5-3 final set lead over Williams at the U.S. Open last year in the final, and moved within two points of the title before the American battled back gamely for the triumph. Azarenka has been a semifinalist the last two years at Wimbledon. She has the experience, the mindset and the ground game to again go far into the tournament. If Williams is the prohibitive favorite and Sharapova stands as the distant No. 2, Azarenka is right up there, only slightly behind Maria among the leading candidates. Although she is a better player on hard courts, Azarenka knows what she is doing on grass, returns serve superbly, and competes with quiet ferocity. She is a competitor through and through.

If the men’s event is essentially a four man show, it is hard to envision anyone outside the top three among the women having the skills or the gumption to get the job done. There could be a surprise finalist, like Radwanska a year ago or the dynamic Frenchwoman Marion Bartoli in 2007. But unless Williams gets injured or sinks inexplicably into nervous despair, this is not going to be a year like 2011, when the brilliant yet streaky left-hander Petra Kvitova (the No. 8 seed) won the title. Nor will 2013 look anything like 2004, when Sharapova took her first career major at 17 as the No. 13 seed.

We must return to the subject of the “Big Four” men, and how it all might unfold in 2013 at Wimbledon, the mother of all Grand Slam tournaments. We won’t know about the draw until Friday. It is entirely possible that Nadal will be seeded where he is currently ranked—at No. 5. That would be a shame not only for him but for the tournament. He surely should be placed above the industrious and admirable Ferrer, the No. 4 ranked player. But if Nadal is seeded fifth, he could easily meet one of the other prime players in the quarterfinals. That would mean one of the “Big Four” would depart too soon, unjustifiably.

The draw will be critical in determining the outcome of the tournament. Let’s say that Nadal and Federer meet in the quarters. Then the winner of that contest would conceivably have to take on Murray in the semifinals and Djokovic in the final, or vice versa. That is a tall order to win three matches in a row over the game’s hierarchy. Under those circumstances, Nadal and his quarterfinal opponent would be significantly disadvantaged; the winner of such a duel would have an awful lot more work to do.

Perhaps Nadal will be elevated to a No. 4 seeding. If so, that would be a good thing for the event. The view here is that Murray would rather meet Djokovic or Federer than Nadal. The Spaniard holds a commanding 13-5 career head to head lead over Murray, including a 3-0 record at Wimbledon, although they have not collided since 2011. But Murray is 11-9 against Federer (including a five set semifinal win over the Swiss at the Australian Open), and he has held his own with Djokovic (the Serbian leads that series 11-7, taking their last three head-to-head matches in close encounters). Nadal probably prefers dealing with Federer and Murray rather than Djokovic, although he is intimidated by no one. Federer might have a preference for taking on Djokovic rather than Nadal (who owns a 20-10 career lead over the Swiss) or Murray, who ousted him in a five set semifinal at the Aen this year.

I return to my original theme. This tournament is agonizingly challenging to forecast. I make Nadal the ever so slight favorite, with Murray my No. 2 choice, Djokovic No. 3, and Federer No. 4. It would be easy to change that order in an instant depending on the draw. That is what makes this year so much fun. Remember: Federer, Nadal and Djokovic are the only men to win the singles title at Wimbledon across the last ten years. Murray is more than capable of joining them as a champion on July 7. But if anyone else manages to rise to the occasion and garner the game’s most prestigious prize, I, for one, would be surprised. Very surprised.

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Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for tennischannel.com since 2007. You can purchase Steve's latest book "The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time" here.