Among the women, nine time singles titlist Martina Navratilova always figured to be the champion when she was controlling the climate of the game, especially when she took six consecutive singles championships from 1982-87. Both Serena and Venus Williams were clear favorites at various junctures in their careers, and authorities were never caught off guard when the sisters were victorious on the lawns. You did not have to be a genius to recognize that they were almost bound to win Wimbledon many times; they have taken the top honor in the sport ten times combined in singles, usually with the odds in their favor.
But picking the eventual champions this year is not an easy task. Lets start with the men. Nadal has won Wimbledon twice and he had a stretch of five consecutive appearances at the shrine of tennis (2006-2011) when he did not miss a final. And yet, the Spaniard has suffered a pair of shocking defeats the last two years when his knees were acting up. He fell in the second round two years ago against a highly charged Lukas Rosol in five sets, and did not compete again on the ATP World Tour for seven months. A year ago, Nadal bowed out in the opening round against the Belgian Steve Darcis, and then took the time he needed over the summer to heal his knee before returning in Montreal.
After sealing an astonishing ninth title at Roland Garros this season, Nadal went to Halle last week and was ushered out of the tournament in his opening match by Germanys audacious Dustin Brown, who followed a sensible gameplan by hitting out freely on everything, taking risks by serving hugely on first and second deliveries, and blasting returns almost venomously, even throwing in some glorious topspin lob winners for good measure. He never allowed Nadal any rhythm and the Spaniard did not get the match preparation he wanted on grass. But he reassured admirers later that his knees were much better than they were last year or the previous season.
If Nadal can survive the early days of Wimbledon when the grass is slick and the conditions play havoc with his game, he will be increasingly tough to beat across the second week when the courts harden and the conditions start to resemble those on hard courts. He can and has beaten all of his chief rivalsNovak Djokovic, Andy Murray, and Roger Federeron the Wimbledon grass, but will he earn the right to take on his foremost adversaries down the stretch? That question yields no easy answer.
Djokovic arrives in Great Britain this year on the heels of a bruising setback against Nadal in the French Open final. Curiously, the man who won Wimbledon convincingly in 2011 with a final round victory over Nadal has not won a major since his triumph at the 2013 Australian Open. In the five Grand Slam events he has played since that victory in Melbourne, Djokovic has suffered three losses at the hands of Nadal (two in finals), and one to Murray in the 2013 Wimbledon final, losing also to Stan Wawrinka in the quarterfinals of the 2014 Australian Open.
My view on Djokovic is this: he is a consummate professional who can adapt his game to any surface and beat anyone when he is at his best. But grass is probably his worst surface. The lower bounces can be problematic, and he can run into difficulty with his footwork, slipping more than most of the other top players. To be sure, Djokovic is eager for another opportunity to seal a seventh major singles title, but his morale may be low at the moment. Moreover, the conditions on the grasseven in the second week when the courts are more to his likingare not ideal for the Serbian, who now has slipped to 6-7 in finals at Grand Slam events after losing his last three across the past two years.
Murray, of course, has been a steadily adept performer on the Wimbledon grass. He reached three consecutive semifinals from 2009-2011, made it to the final in 2012, won the Olympic gold medal on the Centre Court later that summer, and took the worlds premier a year ago in straight sets over Djokovic. Murray moves beautifully on the grass, places more emphasis on his big first serve, and raises his level of aggression. He did lose in the round of 16 at Queens Club in London last week to Radek Stepanek, but that should not matter much. Murray is now a two-time major champion who lifted a big burden off his shoulders by becoming the first British man in 77 years to take the singles title when he came through a year ago on the Centre Court. Defending major titles is an arduous task, but Murray should be much less uptight about holding on to the crown than he was last year in trying to win it for the first time.
Meanwhile, Roger Federer will be primed to collect an eighth singles crown in his 16th appearance at the tournament he values above all others. Federer will approach Wimbledon with cautious optimism after winning in Halle. That was his second singles title victory of 2014; in all of 2013, he secured only one tournament winand that was also in Halle.
Federers last major title triumph was when he took his seventh Wimbledon two years ago for a 17th career Grand Slam championship. The Swiss will be 33 in August, but he has been a revitalized competitor this season after a trying campaign in 2013. He seems sprightlier these days and less burdened by insecurities and injuries, but the fact remains that he has not been back in a major final since that memorable 2012 Wimbledon; in seven majors since then, he has been to two semifinals (both in Australia) and two quarterfinals and has lost in the fourth round or earlier at the rest.
The fact remains that Federer is particularly formidable on grass, which suits his game to the hilt. It is inconceivable that he could suffer another loss along the lines of his startling second round exit against Sergiy Stakhovsky a year ago, but from the round of 16 on he will inevitably be tested comprehensively. Federer knows full well that this Wimbledon could be his last best chance to prosper at another major and he will surely throw his heart and soul into a fortnight that he would like to recollect for the rest of his life.
Aside from the aforementioned four men who have all demonstrated that they know how to get the job done, a few other contenders must be mentioned. Wawrinka reshaped his career in many ways by winning the Australian Open at the start of this year to secure his first major title. Wawrinkas serve and backhand could carry him far at Wimbledon, although this burly fellow does not move that well on the grass in my view. In nine previous appearances at the All England Club, Wawrinka has been largely abysmal, losing in the first round five times (including the last two years) and never advancing beyond the round of 16. He could contend this year in a serious way for the first time, but winning the championship will almost surely be too tall a task for the Swiss.
Two individuals I will watch closely this year are the charismatic Grigor Dimitrov of Bulgaria and Japans stylish and quietly brilliant Kei Nishikori. Both men made bold statements at the Australian Open this year. Dimitrov toppled Milos Raonicanother man who could do considerable damage this year at Wimbledonon his way to hard fought quarterfinal loss to Nadal. Nishikori got to the round of 16 in that tournament before losing a tough skirmish of his own to Nadal, and he has improved markedly over the past four months. Dimitrov was impressive at Queens Club, taking apart Wawrinka in a straight set semifinal, saving a match point en route to defeating Feliciano Lopez in the final. Dimitrov is going to win some majors over the next five years; I have no doubt about that.
His game is complete, his versatility beyond dispute, his match playing potential growing steadily. I dont think Dimitrov is ready to win Wimbledon this year, but a semifinal showing is entirely possible. As for Nishikori, he, too, could go deep into the draw.
No wonder Serena Williams has won Wimbledon five times in her sterling career. She is irrefutably the best grass court player of her generation, and no woman in the history of the game has served more prodigiously. Her speed, athleticism, searing service returns and insatiable competitive appetite are other undeniable assets for Serena on the grass.
If she is healthy and free of nerves, Serena should win Wimbledon. She is the best player in todays world of womens tennis, and among the finest of all time. If she can take this title, Williams would place herself in a tie with Chrissie Evert and Martina Navratilova at 18 major championships, and that would be a major milestone leaving her only four shy of Steffi Graf. But will her nerves and her body hold up? Williams won two majors in 2012 and two more in 2013, but she was stunned by Ana Ivanovic in the round of 16 at the Australian Open this year and then crushed by the uncompromising Garbine Muguruza of Spain in the second round at Roland Garros. Moreover, Williams was the heavy favorite at Wimbledon a year ago, but she was halted in the round of 16 by Sabine Lisicki, squandering a 4-2 lead in the final set of that contest.
If Williams does not succeed this year on the lawns, then who will? Li Na is ranked second in the world and she garnered her second major title at the Australian Open this year. Li can play great tennis on any surface. She has advanced to the quarterfinals at Wimbledon three times, including a year ago. But while her aggressive ground game and superb returns could carry her far into the tournament, Li is a player who seems to suffer wild mood swings, sometimes believing in herself unequivocally, often doubting herself thoroughly.
French Open finalist Simona Halep is ranked third in the world, with Agnieszka Radwanska stationed right behind her at No. 4. Halep is a terrific match player and a seasoned competitor who will build on the progress she made in Paris, but she has won only two matches over the last three years at Wimbledon. Her serve is a weakness that could catch up to her on the lawns. As for Radwanska, she was a lot more confident when she got to the final two years ago and the penultimate round in 2013. Perhaps the perspicacious Canadian Eugenie Bouchard will have a third straight impressive major after reaching the semifinals of the first two. Her game can translate well to any surface.
Meanwhile, Maria Sharapova is long overdue for another stirring run at Wimbledon. Having just captured her second French Open, this career Grand Slammer is riding high and very determined to keep flourishing. The 27-year-old Russian took her first Grand Slam title at Wimbledon ten years ago, and was back in the final in 2011. With her overwhelming returns and firepower off the ground, she is ever formidable on the grass. If she can avoid Serena Williams, Sharapova could well win this Wimbledon. Of that there can be no doubt.
I dont see Petra Kvitova winning her second Wimbledon this year, but the left-hander who performed so magnificently to oust Sharapova in the 2011 final cold be a threat if she is healthy and on a good roll. This woman is an enigma, but she is a superb shotmaker and a first rate grass court player when she is on her game.
So there you have it. This will be a Wimbledon of immense intrigue. There are so many plausible scenarios. It ought to be a riveting fortnight for the fans, a window of opportunity for a number of leading players, a time for all of us to cherish. I believe Serena Williams is too good to lose three majors in a row these days, so I am picking her to be victorious for the sixth time. I believe Andy Murray will somehow defend his crown.
Ask me tomorrow, and I just might change my mind.
<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.
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