But the preeminent tournament in the game will always be Wimbledon. Winning there is the highest honor any player can secure. It appeals to the widest base of sports fans. Every single day, in each corner of the globe, on all continents, people are paying attention to this fortnight with a fervor they could not find for any other major. This is our Kentucky Derby, and it must be celebrated unabashedly by all followers who share my view that tennis is the greatest game of all.
Using history as our guide, what should we expect this time around at the All England Club? The answer is that those who win Wimbledon are rarely outsiders. Go back to 1993 when Pete Sampras collected his first of seven singles titles on the hallowed lawns in Great Britain, and you will discover that the elite have predominantly ruled. Starting with that breakthrough triumph by Sampras 23 years ago, only seven other men have garnered the highly coveted crown. All but two of these champions were either members of the current ” Big Four” or competitors who resided at No. 1 in the world. The only stunning developments in that span were when the tall Dutchman Richard Krajicek came out of relative obscurity to prevail in 1996, and when three time former finalist Goran Ivanisevic was victorious as a wildcard ranked No. 125 in the world five years later.
Among the women, the pattern has been much the same. The leading players have been largely in control on the grass. Venus Williams has taken the title five times. Serena Williams has been victorious on six occasions. Across the years, Martina Navratilova has succeeded more times than any other modern player (male or female), with nine title runs. Steffi Graf amassed seven.The enigmatic Petra Kvitova—often her own worst enemy, sometimes owning her talent—pulled off a couple of mildly surprising championship runs in 2011 and 2014. At 17, Maria Sharapova astonished everyone by taking her first major as the No. 13 seed in 2004. And, most astounding of all, Frenchwoman Marion Bartoli was the Wimbledon victor three years ago as the No. 15 seed.
So, against that backdrop, what figures to happen this year? I am picking Novak Djokovic to win his fourth championship, his third in a row on the Centre Court, and a fifth consecutive major. Djokovic is at his zenith, and these days he seems as comfortable on grass as he is on any kind of court; in fact, he is the ultimate all surface performer. Having won his long awaited first French Open a few weeks ago, Djokovic has now joined the career Grand Slam club. Having realized that considerable feat, Djokovic may well be more self assured than ever at the shrine of his sport. I like his chances to win a thirteenth Grand Slam singles championship.
Among the women, my prognosis is that Serena Williams will tie Steffi Graf for second place on the all time women’s list with 22 majors, but I am not entirely confident about that projection. She is undoubtedly the most accomplished woman player on grass. She has the propensity to use her serve—the best in the history of women’s tennis—to carry her through the tournament. Meanwhile, she will be extraordinarily motivated. This will be the seventeenth visit to the ” Big W” for Williams, who first appeared there back in 1998. Serena will be 35 in September. She will not want to waste a monumental opportunity like this one to claim a seventh Wimbledon singles title. But, since she captured the Wimbledon singles crown a year ago,Williams has not lived up to her highest standards at the majors. She lost her bid for a Grand Slam with a jarring semifinal loss to Roberta Vinci at the 2015 U.S. Open and then fell in the finals of the Australian and French Opens this season against Angelique Kerber and Garbine Muguruza. Those setbacks could weigh heavily on her psyche. But I still believe she will win Wimbledon.
Let’s examine the draws, starting with the men. On the top half, Djokovic will open against Great Britain’s James Ward and he should reach the quarterfinals without undue difficulty. To be sure, a potential fourth round meeting with Germany’s flashy Philipp Kohlschreiber could be a test, but Djokovic would win that meeting in four sets.
In the quarters, the top seed will face one of the game’s finest servers in Milos Raonic, the No. 6 seed. Raonic, a 2014 Wimbledon semifinalist and a semifinalist earlier this year at the Australian Open, is a methodical fellow who knows what he is doing on a surface that suits him beautifully. He has John McEnroe on his coaching team. He should have won at Queen’s Club but Andy Murray wrestled that title away from the Canadian.
Raonic will probably have to cut down Jack Sock and either David Goffin or Kevin Anderson on his way to this enticing quarterfinal duel with Djokovic, but he can get that done. This will be a classic skirmish between one of the game’s three best servers and the best returner of them all. Raonic will be tough to break, but Djokovic will keep working him hard and making the Canaidan pay a substantial price for every missed first serve. Raonic, however, will fight earnestly and even forthrightly. In the end, however, Djokovic will expose Raonic’s less than stellar return of serve. Djokovic will get the victory 7-5, 6-7 (5), 6-4, 6-3.
That win takes the top seed into the penultimate round. Who is waiting for him there? Federer is seeded third this year, and for the first time in 16 years he arrives at the tournament he cherishes like no other without a singles title in his collection. His year has been disrupted enormously by injuries. Federer had knee surgery not long after losing to Djokovic in the semifinals of the Australian Open. He did not play again until Monte Carlo, and then played Rome. He missed Roland Garros. And then he was toppled in the semifinals of back to back German grass court events by the surging Dominic Thiem and Alexander Zverev.
And yet, this is Wimbledon. Moreover, the Swiss has what appears to be a favorable draw. He might collide with the free-wheeling Alexandr Dolgopolov in the third round, and “The Dog” may steal a set along the way. Federer still wins in four. In the round of 16, he figures to meet a Frenchman. It might be Gael Monfils, or could be Gilles Simon. Possibly even Jeremy Chardy—a first round opponent for Monfils—could make it to a round of 16 appointment with Federer. Yet on this surface, even if the 34-year-old is struggling, he will manage to get through it, although a healthy Monfils would provide the sternest opposition.
In the quarterfinals, 2014 U.S.Open finalist Kei Nishikori is my tentative pick to play Federer. The No. 5 seed seems injured more often than he is not nowadays. He is too brittle. But he is also brilliant. I see him reversing the result of the 2014 U.S. Open final with a five set, round of 16 win over Marin Cilic, and that will propel Nishikori into a quarterfinal collision with Federer.
It is a dandy. This matchup to me is one of the most appealing in tennis, featuring two supreme shotmakers who will be holding nothing back and hitting out as freely as possible. Federer serves too well in the first set, but Nishikori finds his range off the ground and on his returns to take the second and third sets. The fourth set is settled in a tie-break, and the Japanese icon leads five points to three, standing only two points away from victory. But Federer goes on a shotmaking spree, winning four points in a row, taking three of them with outright winners. He then gets an early break in the fifth set and rides it to a 6-4, 4-6, 5-7, 7-6 (5), 6-4 win, landing in the semifinals.
Djokovic and Federer met in both the 2014 and 2015 Wimbledon finals, so what a strange feeling it is to see them pitted in a semifinal confrontation this time. The first two sets are spectacular, with Djokovic winning the first 7-5 and Federer taking a tie-break in the second. From that juncture, though, Djokovic soars to a 7-5, 6-7 (5), 6-3, 6-3 triumph in a match which strikingly resembles their 2015 final. Djokovic makes so many searing returns that not even an in form Federer can withstand the barrage. Novak Djokovic is in the final.
We move on to the bottom half of the draw. Outside of the game’s standout players at the top, the three most compelling competitors at Wimbledon this year are surely Thiem, Zverev and Nick Kyrgios. Every member of that glittering trio is in the bottom half of the draw. Thiem has a tall assignment in the opening round against Florian Mayer, who just ousted the Austrian in the semifinals of Stuttgart. Mayer went on to topple Zverev in that final. In this Thiem-Mayer meeting, it is the No.8 seed who turns the tables, winning in four hard sets.
He then finds his form. In the round of 16, Thiem meets Zverev. It is a blockbuster that goes the distance, but Thiem is marginally better and wins in five sets for a place in the quarterfinals. He faces Stan Wawrinka in the last eight. Wawrinka survives a strenuous contest against the rapidly rising Taylor Fritz. Fritz nearly produces a major upset but eventually falls in five sets against the No. 4 seed from Switzerland. Wawrinka moves on confidently into a fascinating battle with Thiem. But he can’t contain the big hitting Austrian, and Thiem advances to his second straight major semifinal.
He confronts none other than 2013 champion Andy Murray. Murray has endured a tough road to get here. He stood up to the immense challenge posed by Kyrgios in the round of 16, winning that hard fought encounter in four sets, prevailing 3-6, 7-6 (8), 6-4, 7-6 (4). Murray is better on the big points in a highly entertaining and well played match. In the quarterfinals, Murray finds himself up against Richard Gasquet, who replicates the run he made to the 2015 semifinals. Murray and the gifted Frenchman played a five set hum-dinger in 2008 on the Centre Court, with the British player rallying from two sets down to win that round of 16 showdown in five. Recently, they had a terrific skirmish at Roland Garros, with Murray coming from behind to win in four sets.
This one will be similar but even tougher. Gasquet’s one-handed backhand is dazzling at the outset and Murray is befuddled, but the No. 2 seed gets his bearings and is fueled by the deep intensity of his effusive fans. Murray stops an inspired Gasquet 4-6, 7-5, 3-6, 6-4, 6-2. He is now ready to tackle the difficult assignment of trying to overcome Thiem. Early on, Murray is overpowered by the Austrian from the baseline. Thiem is unleashing ferocious winners off both flanks. He is fearless. His first serve is keeping Murray at bay. Thiem goes up by a set and a break, and the Centre Court crowd is restless. Thiem serves for a two set lead but Murray meets that moment majestically. His returns are astonishing. Murray rallies to win the set, but drops the third in a tie-break.
Thiem is one set away from the final of Wimbledon, but Murray is one obstinate and determined individual. He turns up the volume of his intensity, raises his first serve percentage dramatically, and casts aside Thiem with unwavering pride and professionalism. Victory goes to Murray 4-6, 7-6 (2), 6-7 (5), 6-4, 6-2. He has worked hard, but in the process he earns a third straight major final appointment against Djokovic.
In 2013, Djokovic was a bit worn out by a brutal five set semifinal win over Juan Martin Del Potro. In turn, Murray was almost letter perfect when he took on Djokovic in the final. Murray defeated Djokovic in straight sets to become the first British male player in 77 years to win the world’s premier title.
In this meeting, Djokovic settles in quickly. His second serve returns are too much for Murray to handle. The Serbian is also serving with stunning accuracy and deception. Murray is crushed in the opening set 6-2. The second set is a closely contested one. Murray fights off break points in almost every service game to reach a tie-break. That sequence is locked at 6-6 but Djokovic demoralizes Murray with a startling backhand down the line winner at full stretch. Serving at 7-6, Djokovic aces Murray out wide.
The top seed is ahead two sets to love. Murray fights on honorably and wins the third set 6-4 on one break, but Djokovic isn’t buckling. He raises the stakes once more and crushes Murray in a breathtaking fourth set. Djokovic is the champion, overcoming Murray 6-2, 7-6 (6), 4-6, 6-1. Down the stretch he is unstoppable.
We move to the women’s draw. Serena Williams nearly lost a year ago to Great Britain’s poised and inspired Heather Watson, who served for the match in that exhilarating third round contest. They could collide again in the third round this year if Watson can account for No. 31 seed Kristina Mladenovic, a formidable player in her own right. I pick Mladenovic to beat Watson in the second round, but, in either case, Williams will win and advance to the round of 16.
Serena’s section is crowded with dangerous players. Sloane Stephens and two-time former major singles champion Svetlana Kuznetsova are expected to meet in the third round (if Kuznetsova can stop Caroline Wozniacki in a compelling first round meeting), with the winner to face Serena. Stephens and Kuznetsova are maddeningly unpredictable players but I lean toward a Stephens victory in three sets. The explosive American then catches Williams off guard in the first set before the favorite elevates her game decidedly and wins in three sets.
Williams is in the quarterfinals, and takes on Coco Vandeweghe. The No. 27 seed serves up a storm and is crackling off the ground, pushing Serena into a tie-break and establishing a 4-0 lead in that sequence. But Williams cedes no ground, finds her spark, goes for broke, and sweeps seven points in a row, including two aces and a stream of scorching returns. Williams beats Vandeweghe 7-6 (4), 6-4 for a semifinal place.
Kvitova has been so sublime at Wimbledon in winning the tournament twice that I am sending her into the semifinals. The left-hander is inspired against Williams in this Centre Court skirmish. Swinging her slice serve out wide in the ad court and opening up avenues for winners, guessing right on Serena’s second serve and blasting winning returns, making the American frequently uncomfortable, Kvitova wins the opening set 6-3. Williams finds ways to impose herself in the second set, taking her returns earlier, getting Kvitova out of her groove.
Williams wins five games in a row from 1-2 down to take the second set with gusto, but Kvitova swiftly recovers her conviction and again sets the tempo. She strikes the ball off both sides with remarkable velocity and accuracy. Williams is in a serious bind. Serving at 0-2, she is behind 15-40. Ace out wide. At 30-40, she sends another ace down the T. Williams holds on for 1-2. She breaks back for 2-2. Both women hold until Kvitova serves to stay in the match at 5-6. The southpaw moves to 40-0, on the verge of a tie-break. But Williams unleashes a pair of thundering forehands. Shaken, Kvitova double faults for deuce.
Williams senses she can finish it all off now. A backhand down the line winner gives the American match point, and now Kvitova sprays a backhand yards over the baseline. Williams is a 3-6, 6-2, 7-5 winner, reaching the final. On the opposite half of the draw, the possibilities are endless. Muguruza is seeded second, Kerber is No. 4 and Simona Halep is the No. 5 seed. Madison Keys as the No. 9 seed will play a big role. Others who could be significant performers include Lucie Safarova, who reached the semis at Wimbledon two years ago and the final of Roland Garros in 2015. And No. 14 seed Sam Stosur—the 2011 U.S. Open champion—could also be a big factor.
Don’t ask me why, but I am envisioning a semifinal between Muguruza and Halep. Muguruza comes out of the blocks in style, blowing a baffled Halep off the court in the first set. Muguruza is ahead 5-3 in the second set but now Halep strikes gold. She wins four games in a row, hardly missing a ball in that span. Halep maintains her momentum to establish a 3-0 final set lead, but Muguruza demonstrates why she was in the final a year ago with a six game run of brilliance off the ground and more stability on serve.
Mugurza eclipses Halep 6-4, 5-7, 6-3. For the second year in a row—and the second Grand Slam tournament final in a row—Williams and Muguruza are the combatants. Williams starts off apprehensively, with her loss to the Spaniard at Roland Garros in her rear view mirror. Muguruza is as bold and unrelenting as she was in Paris, breaking Serena at 3-3 in the opening set with a forehand return winner from the deuce court. She wins the set 6-4. At 3-3 in the second set, down break point, Williams comes forward to make a spectacular forehand drop volley winner, surprising even herself with her supreme touch at that crucial moment.
That seems to largely alter the course of the match. Serena wins the second set 6-3. They are locked at 4-4 in the third, but Williams stamps her authority on the grass both powerfully and convincingly. She holds at love for 5-4 and then plays a superb return game to close out the stirring account, connecting with a forehand down the line winner with Muguruza serving at 15-40 in the final game. Williams wins 4-6, 6-3, 6-4. It is an intensely fought and well played battle.
There you have it. I project Djokovic and Williams as the 2016 champions. She is overdue to win another major after her succession of near misses at the last three majors. He is the dominant force in the game of tennis, and Djokovic’s unwavering belief in himself and his ongoing pursuit of the sport’s largest prizes will make the Serbian awfully tough to beat. The fortnight is upon us, and I am looking forward to every minute of it.