WIMBLEDON PREVIEW – Splendor On the Grass

Photo by Getty Images

The Australian Open is jolly and happy. The French Open is so debonair and continental. And of course the US Open is one loud New York shout. All the while, Wimbledon at its essence is Mother Tennis. All hope some day to play within the game’s greatest cathedral – Centre Court. it’s the epicenter of the game.

So what should we look for this year?

ROGER FEDERER: The Swiss maestro’s signature élan and grace is at its zenith on the grass. But how long can the magic go on? The defending champion has reached the final in four of the last six years, winning twice, yet he will turn 37 in August. He reached the final of his traditional tune-up event in Halle, losing in three sets to Borna Coric. If he wins the title, it will tie him with Martina Navratilova from most Wimbledon singles wins – 9 – and bring his overall Slam tally to 21.

SERENA WILLIAMS: No her women’s athlete draws such attention. She hasn’t lost a match since March – but she’s only played three times. Serena made a bold, powerful statement with her bodysuit at the French Open, and on court she looked surprisingly sharp, reaching the fourth round before pulling out with a pec injury. Wimbledon, where she’s a seven-time champion, is one of her favorite events. But she hasn’t won a title since last year’s Australian Open, and won’t be playing any warm-up tourneys. Wimbledon’s flexible seeding traditions plus a new rule protecting players returning from pregnancy could help her. If there’s one case of a player who could lose in the first round or win it all, here it is.

RAFA NADAL: Once a top contender, Rafa has not fared so well on the grass in recent years, even when riding the momentum of a French Open win. The world No. 1 and two-time champion has not even reached the quarters since 2011, when he lost to Novak Djokovic in the final. Big hitters having a good day – Gilles Muller, Nick Kyrgios, Dustin Brown – have stood in his way. Still, Nadal and Federer have won the last six Slams, a truly incredible statement of dominance. Caution: Nadal is only playing a couple of exos as warmups.

GARBINE MUGURUZA: The defending champion was razor-sharp in the final rounds last year, effectively taking the court from big-hitting Venus in the final. But she has not been dominant thus far in 2018, falling in the second round of the Aussie, going down meekly in the French semis to eventual champ Simona Halep, and faltering in the early rounds of a grass event in Birmingham. A finalist in 2015, the tall Spaniard might find her footing on the grass, where her flat strokes pay dividends when they find the court.

NOVAK DJOKOVIC: Since he lost to Sam Querrey in Wimbledon’s third round in 2016, the three-time winner and 12-time Slam champ has gone into a curious and baffling mid-career funk like few others in memory. Currently, he’s ranked No. 17. All of tennis seems to wonder why. Has the departure of Boris Becker, who led him to six slams, played any role? Has he lost a little of his explosiveness, or is it just a matter of confidence? Once a superb match-closer, he’s now been overwhelmed time and again deep into matches. He hasn’t gotten past a Slam quarterfinal since the 2016 US Open, and hasn’t won a Slam since capturing the elusive French Open the same year. At times on court, we see him with blank expressions or smashing his racket. A once-great champ seems adrift and almost lost. It’s a shame, but don’t give up on the superb Serb.

ANDY MURRAY: No other player feels the weight of his country on his shoulders like Murray at Wimbledon. It’s made for some emotional moments, such as his tearful concession speech to Federer in 2012 and his worrisome losing battle against Sam Querrey and a hip injury last year. Anglophiles are hoping the two-time winner will somehow manage to come back and have a magical run. If he does? Murray mania will hit a newfound peak, especially on Murray Mount.

SIMONA HALEP AND THE WOMEN’S FIELD: With the monkey of being a “Slamless” No. 1 finally off her back, will the Romanian all-court counterpuncher rediscover the fluidity of her grass game? A grass title played a role in her initial rankings surge back in 2013, and though never a finalist, she’s been consistent at Wimbledon, reaching the semis in 2014 and quarters the past two years. Of this year’s Slam maidens, Simona stands a slightly better chance at the All-England Club than Caroline Wozniacki. Others to look for: two-time champ Petra Kvitova, who won Birmingham a second-straight year; Karolina Pliskova; Naomi Osaka; Ashleigh Barty, long-ago maiden Slam winner Maria Sharapova and a cadre of Americans.

AMERICAN AMBUSH: The Sampras-Agassi glory days of eight titles in nine years are long gone. In recent years, big-hitting Sam Querrey has been the US’s go-to guy at Wimbledon, where he’s scored shock upsets over Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray. He reached the quarters in 2016 and semis in 2017 – can he make the final this year? Marathon man John Isner, steady Steve Johnson, young upstart Jared Donaldson, mercurial Frances Tiafoe, and slumping Jack Sock also aim to stake their claim. In addition to Serena, the US has a fearsome foursome of women’s contenders: five-time winner Venus reached the final last year, though her 2018 form has been middling; Coco Vandeweghe has made week two the last three years; Madison Keys has a game built for grass, but injuries have conspired against her, but watch out. If anyone rivals Serena’s unpredictability, it’s one-time quarterfinalist Sloane Stephens, who began her wild road to USO champ and French finalist status with a first-round loss here last year. The 25-year-old is a legit threat.

TALL MEN – AND LONG SHOTS: Perhaps more than the other Slams, the quick-strike grass court play of Wimbledon rewards the big-serving and quick tall men of tennis – 2014 US Open champ and this year’s Aussie finalist, 6’6” Marin Cilic was runner-up last year, 6’6” Sam Querrey has been a major factor the past two years, and one-time semifinalist Juan Martin del Potro, also 6’6”, famously tested Federer and earned bronze when the Olympics were played on grass in 2012. Other big guys and lanky chaps who may factor: 6’8” Kevin Anderson, 6’4” Gilles Muller and 6’6” Karen Khachanov. Which brings us to….

NEXT GEN: It’s still too early to be super critical of the sublimely talented 21-year-old Alexander Zverev faltering in majors. The 6’6” world No. 3 and three-time Masters winner has yet to pass the fourth round at the All-England Club. Borna Coric, also 21, who knocked Zverev out of last year’s US Open, just defeated Federer in Halle. More good news for Next Gen fans is that Nick Kyrgios has bounced back from injuries. Despite a hefty $17,000 fine for making a “sexual gesture,” he reached the Queen’s Club semis, defeating Murray and defending champ Feli Lopez along the way. He noted he’s relaxed and added, “It helps when you have 32 aces.” As for previous Next Gens, could long-injured Milos Raonic, perennial wannabe Grigor Dimitrov or French finalist Dominic Thiem do damage in London? We’ll see.

LET’S GET ZANY: Maybe it’s just because of its propriety, its snooty sense of place, and its refined codes of conduct that Wimbledon invites quirky happenings. From streakers on Centre Court, to world-class implosions, to quirky fashion statements that tweak the uptight all-white rules, there are always zany moments at this tourney, which often seems like an English country fair. One twist this year is that the game’s greatest Championships will be competing with the world’s greatest sporting competition, the World Cup. As we write this, if Federer, Murray, Cilic, Nadal, Zverev, Djokovic or del Potro win on July 15, they could match a World Cup victory by their national team to score one of the greatest one-two punches in sports history.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here