This time around, I believe strongly that the men’s title will be claimed by a top three seed, and no one else. Barring startling injuries or freakish upsets, either two-time champion Novak Djokovic, 2013 victor Andy Murray or seven-time titlist Roger Federer will be the last man standing. I would be very surprised if anyone else wins the most important tournament of them all. To be sure, a cluster of other players can go very deep into the draw, and perhaps even reach the final. In that category, I place French Open winner Stan Wawrinka, two-time former Wimbledon champion Rafael Nadal, a healthy Kei Nishikori, the ever underachieving Tomas Berdych, and 2014 semifinalist Milos Raonic.
But Djokovic, Murray and Federer are the class of this field, and their current credentials are more substantial than those of anyone else. Let’s start with Djokovic. Despite a devastating defeat in Paris at the hands of Wawrinka in the French Open final, the 28-year-old Serbian has been a league apart from his peers all year long. He won the Australian Open to secure his eighth major title, and backed that up with no fewer than four Masters 1000 championship runs, taking the Indian Wells and Miami crowns on hard courts, coming through on the clay with victories in both Monte Carlo and Rome. He has won five of the eight tournaments he has played in 2015, and only once has he not made it to a final.
Moreover, Djokovic has been no less than a semifinalist at Wimbledon over the past five years, winning his first title in 2011, triumphing again a year ago, losing the final to Murray in 2013. I maintain that he is a more comfortable and confident player on both hard courts and clay than he is on grass, particularly on the former surface. On grass, Djokovic is not as stable with his movement and his footwork can be less economical and efficient. But the fact remains that he is the best player in the world on any surface.
On the grass, Djokovic is formidable because his return of serve is the greatest in the game, and his situational serving is outstanding as well; he can garner more free points on his delivery when competing on grass, and take greater advantage of his highly underrated second serve. Moreover, he can flatten out his ground game more frequently to seize control of rallies, and his passing shots are magnificent.
A remarkable match player, Djokovic has made considerable strides as a grass court player, and that is why he has ruled at Wimbledon two of the last four years. I make him the clear if not overwhelming favorite to succeed on the lawns this year. In 2011, he had won 41 matches and seven titles in a row before Federer upended him in the semifinals of the French Open. Yet he bounced back mightily to win his first Wimbledon. This year, I envision Djokovic reasserting himself similarly to rule for the third time on the Centre Court. He is plainly the man to beat.
And yet, both Murray and Federer are primed for this particular Wimbledon. In my mind, they must be graded Co-No. 2 among the favorites. Murray has been superb all through 2015 after working inordinately hard in the latter stages of 2014 to bounce back into the forefront of the game. He played some stellar tennis to win the Aegon Championships at Queen’s Club in London for the fourth time this past weekend. On top of that, Murray reached the Australian Open final at the start of the year, captured a pair of titles on the clay this spring, was runner-up to Djokovic in Miami on the hard courts, and took the Serbian to five sets in the semifinals at Roland Garros. His consistency this season has been impressive, reflecting his growing maturity, reinforcing the notion that he is on the verge of adding to his total of two majors.
Murray’s 2013 Wimbledon triumph was no accident. He is entirely at home now on the lawns, and in my view his game is even more complete and convincing than it was two years ago. His second serve has improved this year, his first serve remains an immense if sometimes irregular weapon, and he returns better than anyone but Djokovic. Murray’s court coverage on grass can be astounding, and at Wimbledon he has learned to use the home crowd motivationally. Not only did he become the first British man since Fred Perry in 1936 to win Wimbledon when he was victorious two years ago, but Murray also collected the Olympic gold medal in 2012 on the same Centre Court.
He stopped both Djokovic and Federer to win that 2012 Olympics. In fact, it should be encouraging to Murray that he has twice eclipsed Djokovic on the Centre Court (in the 2012 Olympic semifinals and 2013 Wimbledon final), without losing a set. To be sure, he has lost eight times in a row to the Serbian, including setbacks in the last three Grand Slam events. But a case can be made that the best place for him to combat Djokovic is on the Wimbledon grass—the court is more to his liking, the arena seems to suit him to the hilt, and the crowd is fervently on his side.
Federer, of course, has been thinking all year about the tournament he values above all others. Not only has he won it seven times, but his last major tournament victory was at Wimbledon three years ago. He is far and away the most natural grass court player in the field. His attacking inclinations are second to none, and he has been serving-and-volleying marginally more these last couple of years. In my view, he is clearly the best volleyer in the game, and his first serve is right up there with the finest in the sport. No one has a more precise delivery.
All of these assets make him a primary threat to win his 18th Grand Slam title on the grass this year. A year ago in the final, he rallied with quiet ferocity from two sets to one and 2-5 down in the fourth set, saved a match point at 4-5 on his serve with an ace, and took the top seed into a fifth set. At 3-3 in the final set, he even had a break point. But Djokovic ultimately prevailed 6-7 (7), 6-4, 7-6 (4), 5-7, 6-4 in nearly four hours.
Perhaps Federer’s hardest challenge is pacing himself over the arduous fortnight. He will be 34 in August, but plays and moves much younger than his years. Even so, the leading players in their late twenties have a slight edge over the Swiss stylist in best of five set combat. Federer travelled so swiftly and efficiently through his first six matches last year (he dropped only one set), that he had a critical energy reserve for the final. But this year the draw could be tougher. Recovering from long matches these days is a tougher and taller task for Federer.
Still, all in all, he heads into Wimbledon confidently, having built his entire 2015 campaign around being in peak condition for this event. In turn, he has won tournaments this year on hard courts (Brisbane over Raonic, and Dubai over Djokovic), clay (the Istanbul Open), and just last week on grass at Halle, where he took that title for the eighth time in his career with a final round victory over his Australian Open conqueror Andreas Seppi. His record across the board in 2015 has been remarkable, although he fell in the third round of the Australian Open and the quarterfinals of Roland Garros.
I repeat: it is hard to imagine one of the top three in the world not winning Wimbledon this year. But let’s briefly examine some of the other leading candidates. Wawrinka toppled Federer in straight sets and Djokovic in four to capture the French Open for his second career Grand Slam tournament singles title a few weeks ago. He never played well on the Wimbledon grass until last year, when he surged into the quarterfinals and took the first set from Federer before falling in four sets. Wawrinka’s explosive game translates well to any surface.
He could oust one of the higher seeds at Wimbledon, and make it far into the tournament, advancing to the semifinals or, perhaps, the final. But the last four men to win the French Open and Wimbledon back to back were Rod Laver (1969), Bjorn Borg (1978-80), Nadal (2008 and 2010) and Federer (2009). Somehow, as much as I respect Wawrinka’s growth as a competitor, it is hard to envision him joining that cast of all-time greats by sweeping the Paris-London double.
Nadal can draw on a sterling record earlier in his career at Wimbledon; in his five appearances from 2006-2011 he never missed a final, winning the tournament twice. But in his last three visits to the game’s showcase event, the Spaniard fell in the second round (2012), first round (2013), and in the round of 16 last year, when the dynamic Nick Kyrgios served him off the court with 37 aces across four sets. If Nadal can survive the slicker conditions through the first three rounds and make it to the second week when the courts are hardened and the bounces higher, he could be increasingly dangerous.
But this has been a disconcertingly uneven year for him. His ranking has dropped to an unthinkable No. 10 in the world and his confidence has been eroded by unreliable performances. His last two tournaments are an excellent case in point: Nadal won Stuttgart on the grass two weeks ago, but let a 4-2 final set lead evaporate last week against Alexandr Dolgopolov in the first round of Queen’s, losing four games in a row to drop that contest disappointingly. He does not seem to know what to expect from himself these days; it may take Nadal a few more months to recover his customary inner security.
That leaves Nishikori, Raonic and Berdych among the serious men’s contenders. The gifted Japanese player has played reasonably well in his last two majors after reaching the final of the 2014 U.S. Open. He got to the quarterfinals in both Melbourne and Paris. But he has not set the world aflame the way many believed he might after his exploits in New York, and he retired from his semifinal at Halle last week against Seppi with a calf injury. It seems as if Nishikori is fragile at the moment, both physically and emotionally. Can he move beyond the quarterfinals on the grass this year? I doubt it. Raonic could match his semifinal showing of a year ago. He can be unbreakable, but is not quite ready in my view to win Wimbledon. As for Berdych, the big man knocked off both Federer and Djokovic to reach the 2010 Centre Court final. But he has not been back in a major final since. That pattern will probably continue.
Let’s shift to the women. Clearly, Serena Williams will be front and center as she approaches Wimbledon for the first time in her career as both the Australian and French Open champion, standing at the halfway point in her quest for the Grand Slam. Williams has not lost a singles match at a major since she bowed out in the third round a year ago at the All England Club against Alize Cornet. But she has not won Wimbledon since she captured her fifth singles crown in 2012.
That makes no sense. Williams is clearly the best player in the world of women’s tennis, and the leading grass court practitioner among the ladies as well. She is universally revered as the greatest woman server in today’s game, and, for that matter, of all time. Her first serve is nearly impossible to read and her second delivery has consistently great depth. Serena’s serve—coupled with her crackling returns and overwhelming power from the backcourt—make her the irrefutable favorite to take the title this year. At Roland Garros, Williams was taken to three sets in five of her seven matches, winning her 20th major primarily on willpower. At Wimbledon, she should get through most of her matches more swiftly and convincingly. I like her chances of coming through on the British grass for the sixth time.
If any of the top players is going to stop Williams, it is the spontaneously brilliant left-hander Petra Kvitova. Kvitova—like Djokovic—won her first Wimbledon title three years ago, defeating Maria Sharapova with an immaculate display in the final. A year ago, she joined the Serbian in the winner’s circle again, crushing Canada’s Eugenie Bouchard with another flawless performance in the title round. Kvitova is a shotmaker supreme. She invents angles that no one knew existed. She has virtually every shot in the book, scorching returns off both sides, and an uncompromising posture on the court. She has the propensity to beat anyone in the field, but far too frequently she beats herself. Which Kvitova will show up in London? I have no idea.
Sharapova, of course, joins Serena Williams, Venus Williams, and Kvitova as the only active women’s singles players to have won Wimbledon. She was runner-up this year to Serena at the Australian Open, and is a perennial force at the majors. Sharapova has failed to reach the quarterfinals in her last three Wimbledon’s but is still going strong at 28. She can beat anyone in the draw but Williams. The feeling grows that she will be around for the latter stages this year. If Williams unexpectedly departs, the 2004 champion Sharapova might even win the world’s most prestigious tournament for the second time.
A number of other women can make their presence known this year. Lucie Safarova just reached her first major final at Roland Garros, and a year ago was a semifinalist at Wimbledon, losing an all-lefty collision with Kvitova. Safarova is probably even better on grass than clay. She toppled Sharapova and Ana Ivanovic at the French Open. She is now a player who knows what she is doing on big occasions. I expect her to be a serious contender at Wimbledon.
Germany’s left-handed Angelique Kerber will approach the tournament with cautious optimism. She took a pair of clay court titles this spring in Charleston, South Carolina, and in Stuttgart. Last week, she won Birmingham on the grass. Kerber attains her goals through exceedingly hard work, immense dedication, a limitless supply of determination and superb defense. Kerber got to the semifinals of Wimbledon in 2012 and the quarters a year ago, but has not fared well in the majors this year. Perhaps she will get her bearings back on the lawns.
Three players clearly worthy of attention this time around are Venus Williams, Madison Keys and Karolina Pliskova. Venus has won Wimbledon five times, and when she was at her zenith the Centre Court was her favorite playground in the world; it was the stage where she did her best work. But she is 35 now and her form is ever uncertain. Williams could spring an upset but winning the tournament is beyond her now, or so it would seem.
Keys stopped Venus Williams to reach her first major semifinal at the Australian Open. She is a potential world No. 1 yet her learning curve as a match player remains sizeable. But she could do some damage at this Wimbledon with her aggressive game and terrific serve. Last, but not least, Pliskova has made it all the way to No. 11 in the world, and lost a hard fought encounter with Kerber in the final of Birmingham last week. She beat Kerber earlier in the year and twice upset Safarova. This is a player to be reckoned with.
In the final analysis, however, Serena Williams is a big favorite to win Wimbledon this year, with Kvitova a solid No. 2 candidate despite her wild fluctuations in form. Sharapova always has a chance at a major. I believe Djokovic will win the men’s crown, although Federer will inevitably play hard, purposefully and well. Murray, too, will be awfully difficult to beat. This much is certain: regardless of which man and woman come away with the top honors, Wimbledon, as usual, will keep us thoroughly immersed from beginning to end.