By Peter Nez
With Wimbledon only one week away, the talk has shifted from sheer dominance on the sandy surface to an all out blitz of question marks and shrugging shoulders as to who will take away lawn glory. It’s hard to refute a 76-2 record on grass for the past seven years by defending champion Roger Federer, and one would be remiss if he wasn’t, on all accounts, the decisive favorite, but circumstances are bound to change, the wind can shift, and church bells may toll, sounding off eras swaying, and epochs coming to an end, as we saw inevitably happen in France when Robin Soderling dismissed the G.O.A.T. in the quarterfinals, ending an astounding streak of 23 semis or better in a row.
Roger, who typically plays his Wimbledon warm up tournament in Halle, Germany, the Gerry Weber Open, did the same this year, only bypassing it twice in the last eight years. He had a strong week, reaching the finals, taking out some accomplished grass court players along the way, losing only to Lleyton Hewitt, a former world no. 1, and former Wimbledon champion; an accredited savant on the green stuff, in three sets on Sunday. Not a terrible start to Federer’s grass campaign, especially considering how quick the transition is from clay to grass, and the results of his arch rivals and other top players: Nadal, Murray, Roddick, and Novak, all went out fairly early in their Wimbledon warm up at the Queen’s Club in London.
Entering major tournaments in good form is all about momentum, and nothing can build momentum like match play and excellent results at preceding tournaments. This couldn’t be exemplified any more than what happened this past spring where Rafael Nadal took three back to back masters titles upon entering the French Open; riding on a mountain of momentum, there was little doubt as to what the Savage Spaniard would do at Roland Garros. I don’t think there was one ‘expert’ out there in the tennis universe who didn’t pick Nadal to win it all, and many thought that maybe spring 2010 would mirror spring 2008 for the Mallorca Madman, who won not only The French Open, and Wimbledon, but the warm up to Wimbledon in the interim, (Queen’s Club Open) taking out a red hot Novak Djokovic in the final. But all for not, Nadal lost to Feliciano Lopez in the quarterfinals in straight sets, his only other loss to Lopez coming when Rafael was a bubbly seventeen year old, raw on the tour. Nadal seemed relaxed about his loss saying he was, “looking forward to going home,” and was happy so he could, “play golf and see family.” A peculiar attitude to exude before the Super Bowl of Tennis, but who am I to speculate on Rafa’s preparation? His track record speaks for itself. A friend of mine said, about Nadal’s performance, who was a National Doubles Champion for the USTA, in his smooth southern drawl, that “It looked like he wasn’t timing the bounce as well. He looked unbalanced.” It’s not out of order to speculate that he may be feeling the magnificent run he had this past May, and a bit tired, and I don’t see any cause for alarm for Nadal fans, but I don’t get the feeling that 2010 will sing a cover song anytime soon for the Spaniard, but even more than that, I have reservations about King Roger as well.
Federer has been in a title drought since the Australian Open, and his clay season was anything but normal, and we know how important confidence is to him, and to lose to Hewitt, somebody he has owned in past meetings, in a final of a grass court tournament that he has won many times before can’t bode well. Something is amiss. I get this strange feeling that there may be something more to this “lung infection” he acquired back in February and that it hindered him more than anyone thought, including himself. Who knows, maybe the universe is saying it’s time for somebody else, that the old adage about greed may prove true. The “uncharacteristic losses” have been accumulating since 2007, and Roger fans have been biting their nails more readily during his matches these days. Between the alien arrival of the spraying forehand, and the cryptic breakdown in his first serve (something we saw full fledged against Ernest Gulbis, in Federer’s first round loss at the Rome Masters), the impenetrable veneer of the Federer palace is looking to wane. But, the caveat to that is the swirling doubts have been parading around the press rooms and fan sites before every major, and Roger seems to silence the naysayers time and time again, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he places a giant index finger across them yet again, by holding the coveted title that fortnight.
If anything, this year’s Wimbledon will be the hinge that turns the door on the rest of the season for anybody, especially the top players. Who can do it? A number of players can step up. What about Murray? Maybe he can finally reach grand slam glory that he has come so close to tasting before? Last year he was a semi-finalist and has an entire nation pulling for him. Henman Hill has now been transformed to Mound Murray. Can Djokovic finally turn back the hand of time and resurrect the career many expected he would encompass? What about Roddick? He always has a chance, as he proved last year. This is the next sunrise, the new morning, the middle of the ATP season, the cathedral of tennis, the hallowed lawns of Wimbledon, where dreams come true, and tears tremble the blades of grass, and in a men’s draw loaded up with bursting at the seams talent, anything can happen. Federer and Nadal are the two super powers, and it would be great to see them in the final again, battling it out, knifing through the English dusk with their artistry and brute will, but something tells me there may be new blood lurking in the Channel, that the familiar silhouettes may have different shapes this year coming out of the tunnel. I don’t know exactly what it is, it’s just a feeling, but I sense something blowin’ in the wind…