This time of year is a whirlwind of activity for tennis, as the Orwellian odyssey in Paris and London yields two Grand Slam champions in a month’s time. It was just a few short weeks ago that we wrapped up the clay-court season at Roland Garros, and already we’re just a day away from the start of lawn tennis’ pinnacle tournament.
The All-England Lawn Tennis Club is set to host the 125th edition of The Championships, Wimbledon, beginning with Monday’s opening day action. As we sit here sipping some tea in solidarity (albeit iced tea laced with rum), gearing up for the start of tournament play (and praying that the next installment of the John Isner-Nicolas Mahut duel that defined last year’s opening week), let’s discuss some of the biggest stories in the tournament…
- Will Nadal keep his winning streak alive at the AELTC? The defending champion could win his fifth Grand Slam of the past half-dozen with a second straight French/Wimbledon double. Rafael Nadal hasn’t lost at the All-England Club since his instant-classic 2007 final against Roger Federer that went nearly four hours before Federer prevailed 7-6(7) 4-6 7-6(3) 2-6 6-2. Since then Nadal has won the 2008 and 2010 editions, sitting out 2009 with tendinitis in both knees, and comes to London as the undisputed favorite. And despite losing to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the quarters of the Queen’s Club warm-up tournament, it is telling that he was the only one of the top three feeling good enough to get in match play on grass ahead of Wimbledon.
- How will Djokovic respond to first loss of 2011? After winning 43 straight matches to begin his season, Novak Djokovic’s aura of invincibility wore off just a bit as he lost to Federer in the semifinals in Paris. With a shot at #1 in the world on the line and a spot in the championship of the French Open — with the chance to rewrite the record books — Djokovic failed to pull the trigger and realize his dreams. But he’s still got the best record this season to date, and while grass is not his greatest surface he has proven capable of success on lawns before. Djokovic showed immense gains in his game with his winning streak to start the season, but we’ll learn something more substantive with how he rebounds from the letdown.
- Did Federer quiet his skeptics in Paris? Of course, Djokovic didn’t become #1. Rafael Nadal stayed there, and he did so by dismantling Roger Federer in a final that wasn’t nearly as close as the 7-5 7-6(3) 5-7 6-1 scoreline would indicate. Once Federer dropped the first set after leading 5-2, it was obvious that while the Swiss legend still has a few tricks in his game to neutralize Novak he still finds himself depreciating in comparison to Nadal’s surging game. A six-time winner at Wimbledon, Federer will hope that magic can turn once more as he tries to replicate Pete Sampras’ Open-era record of seven Wimbledon championships. But these days it is more a matter of hope than certainty.
- Can Murray finally realize his potential and win a Slam? The winner of his second Queen’s Club title in the past three seasons, Andy Murray holds the heavy hopes of British tennis fans on his Scottish shoulders once again coming into Wimbledon. The 24-year-old Glaswegian has proven capable of competing against and beating the likes of the top-three players. He has the ability to play successful tennis on grass, as his two Queen’s Club championships attest. But can he put seven together? He’s never done it before, and time is ticking on his prime years.
- Who will be the spoiler in this year’s draw? Which player has the best chance in each part of the draw of felling one of these four favorites? In Nadal’s quarter, defending finalist and #6 seed Tomas Berdych is the chalk pick… but seeing how he played last year against Rafa in the final, I’m going a different direction and looking out for how the Spaniard handles potential back-to-back matches against #31 Milos Raonic in the 3rd round and #24 Juan Martin del Potro in the 4th. In the second quarter of the draw, Andy Murray will have to look out for a likely 4th-round matchup with #17 Richard Gasquet. The Frenchman, a former semifinalist in 2007, is playing with renewed confidence at the moment after defeating Federer in Rome. In the third quarter, Federer received the smoothest draw of the top four seeds. Little stands in his way until the quarters, though he is just 10-8 lifetime against probable 3rd-round opponent and #28 seed David Nalbandian. At the bottom of the draw, Djokovic will have no tougher test than the man who bested him in Paris. He’s 7-0 combined against his two most likely 3rd-round opponents, #32 Marcos Baghdatis and unseeded James Blake, and the best bet to truly challenge him would be if #29 Nikolay Davydenko (2-3 lifetime versus Djokovic) emerges opposite him in the quarterfinal.