ANDY MURRAY: The antithesis of soft, the young Scot has improved remarkably during the past year and now is a very legitimate member of the Big 4. He’s beaten five-times Wimby champ Federer on four consecutive occasions (although that US Open loss must still sting) and owns substantial wins over both Nadal and Djokovic on fast courts.
The irascible Scot combines sleight of hands tactics from the baseline, blowtorch first serves and deep returns. He’s always been the scrappy, confident sort, but physically, it has taken the gangly Murray a few years to grow into his body. He’s added a lot of muscle to his thin frame and is happy to show it off, taking to flexing his biceps after wins.
But it takes more than just increased muscle to be able to best the likes of the world’s elite, it takes guile and technical proficiency. Murray now has a fair amount of both, but the question is, does he, or any other emotional player, have what it takes to carry the 10-ton weight of his Slam-deprived nation on his shoulders? John Lloyd, Greg Rusedski and Tim Henman couldn’t bring the bacon for Britain, but none of them displayed Murray’s mean streak when closing out matches. Murray needed to learn how to be able to negotiate the highs and lows and not crush himself when he’s hit bad streaks. As a perfectionist, that hasn’t been easy. While the other members of the Big 4 chide themselves sometimes after bad shots, Murray is known to curse himself at the top of his lungs.
While many believe that the 22-year-old will win his first major on cement, there are few reasons why Murray can’t become the first man since Fred Perry in ‘36 to win Wimby. His serve and volley has improved, he’s a master surgeon when it comes to returning and he relishes big fights on show courts. But as mentally durable as he is, can he withstand the straining eyes and breathless hopes of 61 million British citizens? As they say in London town, the truth will be in the pudding.
ROGER FEDERER VS. RAFAEL NADAL FOUR-PEAT?
Think back to the remarkable five-setter the Swiss and the Spaniard played last year, when Nadal magically stopped Federer’s attempt to break the legendary Bjorn Borg’s run of five straight titles in a phenomenal 6-4, 6-4, 6-7(5), 6-7(8), 9-7 victory that ended just before the sun left the hemisphere.
The 22-year-old Spaniard defined heroic in what some call the most dramatic match ever. Federer equally proved deserving, but in the end, he was stopped by a indomitable man who was finally able to bury his nerves and close out his fifth Slam title with a extraordinary fifth set display.
Had he lost the epic four-hour and 48-minute contest, Nadal may have never mentally recovered from the defeat and gone on to win the Olympics, Aussie Open and snare the top spot. But he did, as he’s worked to become a better fast court player and more than any other player over the past year, believes in himself in crunch time.
Rafa moves like the wind on grass, passes as well as Borg did, can hurt foes with his slice serve and control the court with his hooking forehand and slapping two handed backhand. Federer has the most effective high variety serve in the business, a forehand to die for and now that’s he re-committed to the net, should be able to keep points shorter with his deft volleys. If they both play to form (and Nadal’s sore knees hold up), it will take spectacular performance from another elite player to stop a fourth straight meeting in the final.
ANDY RODDICK: Sure, the American has improved his transition game and backhand under his new coach, Larry Stefanki, but is it enough for Roddick to be able to bully his way back into the top 4? Maybe, but at this point, it appears as if he’s still a half step behind. With that said, on grass, the two-time finalist should be able to put his more polished net game to use and with his nuclear serve, he’s a threat to everyone with the exception of Federer, whom he’s 2-17 against.
NOVAK DJOKOVIC: After a terrific spring, the Serb imploded at Roland Garros. His super-solid game isn’t tailor made for the grass, but he’s reached the ‘07 semis and if he gets on a roll, a deep second week run is in the cards for the prideful Serbian.
JO TSONGA: Ali-lookalike has the serve, volley and inner thunder to knock off anyone.
Spoilers: Juan Martin Del Potro, Robin Soderling, Marin Cilic, Mardy Fish, John Isner, Ivan Ljubicic, Sam Querrey, Nicolas Davydenko, James Blake, Ivo Karlovic, Lleyton Hewitt, Tomas Berdych, Fernando Gonzalez, Gael Monfils, Radek Stepanek, Ernest Gulbis
VENUS WILLIAMS: Just like last year, the now seven-time Slam champ enters in a similar position: looking shaky after an early loss at Roland Garros but oh so capable of winning her sixth Wimby crown. Venus has been a player apart on the lawns, serving bigger and with more confidence, moving lightly onthe baseline, confidently charging to the net and putting away crisp volleys, and returning serve with more passion.
Some think that the 28-year-old is due for a freak upset, that she’s not as motivated as she once was, that she’s a little slower and that one of the ambitious Eastern Euro kids will knock her socks off. But Venus is still young enough to stand tall against vicious returners and has a world of experience, which is why she’s been by far the most effective player on the lawns this century and will likely go down as one of the greatest women on grass in the Open Era, along with Navratilova and Graf.
SERENA WILLIAMS: Her dream of completing another “Serena Slam “ was dashed in Paris by a more forceful Kuznetsova. It will take the more emotional Williams sister a week or so to get over the defeat, but recall what happened last year when she fell in the Wimby final to Venus: she strapped her hard hat on and went on to win the U.S. and Aussie Opens. Serena hasn’t won Wimby since ‘03, and is dead set on tripping up her older sister and winning Slam No. 11. But she’s going to have to serve and return a whole lot more ambitiously this time around.
DINARA SAFINA: Her heavily topspinned forehand doesn’t fit cozily into the grass, and like her brother Marat, she’s often seem unsure of her footing on turf. But the aggressive ball-striker has proven that even on lousy days, she can outfight her opponents. Beware a charge if she recovers from her Paris gag and gets into a fine serving and returning rhythm.
SAMANTHA STOSUR: The underachieving Aussie finally realized her singles potential in Paris and with the game’s most vicious kick serve, a huge forehand and a rock solid volleys, she could become the first Down Under gal to win the title since Goolagong. But does she have the heart?
SVETLANA KUZNETSOVA: Shook off her nerves in Paris and finally imposed herself again. She has good hands at net, a solid serve and forehand that causes pain, but her grass court results have been marginal.
MARIA SHARAPOVA: A true wildcard, the ‘04 champ Slam champ proved in Paris that she still has a world of fight left and plenty of quality, but just back on tour after 10 months off in singles, her tennis legs aren’t quite there yet. Still, her matches will be shorter on grass and her groundies should explode on turf. But she’ll need to serve at her ‘06 level to win the title and her speed is not quite there yet.
Spoilers: Jelena Jankovic, Ana Ivanovic, Victoria Azarenka, Amelie Mauresmo, Elena Dementieva, Nadia Petrova, Dominika Cibulkova, Caroline Wozniacki, Zheng Jie, Sorana Cirstea, Na Li.