Snakes in the Grass: Previewing the Wimbledon 2013 Dark Horses
With the Wimbledon draw just a week ahead, the time has arrived to scan the ATP and WTA rankings in search of dark horses who could grab some unexpected attention. This survey features only players outside the top 20 at the start of the grass season, likely to meet an opponent of greater note in the first week. On any given day, these snakes in the grass could strike for an upset or two.
John Isner: Forever famous for his Wimbledon epic against Nicolas Mahut, Isner never has fared as well there as top-ranked compatriot Sam Querrey. His lack of impact surprises, considering a playing style that should flourish on grass with a nearly impenetrable serve and a preference for short points. Isner has languished in a slump for most of 2013, but he nearly reached the second week at Roland Garros with another valiant run. The American would benefit from exchanging his pattern of endless epics for some more efficient first-week victories, conserving his energy early in the fortnight.
Grigor Dimitrov: Reaching the third round of a major for the first time at Roland Garros, the Bulgarian rising star tends to perform better at non-majors than majors. But Dimitrov took Tsonga to the brink of a final set at Wimbledon two years ago, and he has threatened every member of the Big Four this year except Roger Federer, whom he has not faced. His combination of an explosive first serve with dexterity around the net could shine on the grass. Less impressive is his movement and his ability to convincingly take care of business against overmatched opposition.
Julien Benneteau: He came closer than anyone last year to knocking off eventual champion Roger Federer at Wimbledon, snatching the first two sets before the match slipped away. Benneteau has struggled to win any matches at all in singles since March, not long after he upset Federer in Rotterdam. His doubles expertise could help on a court that rewards net-rushers, and he reached the second week in 2010. Formidable early draws have stunted his progress in most Wimbledon appearances, but Benneteau has lost to only one opponent outside the top eight there since 2005.
Lukas Rosol: His presence on this list should need little explanation. Had Rosol won no matches at all after defeating Rafael Nadal in the second round last year, he still would merit a mention. As it stands, he built upon that upset to rise from the edge of the top 100 to well inside the top 50. Rosol faces the pressure of defending something meaningful for the first time, and he will need to insulate himself from the inevitable media scrutiny. He often brings out his best tennis against the best while growing careless or unfocused against the journeymen of the Tour.
Ernests Gulbis: Slinging ferocious forehands and controversial comments indiscriminately, the Latvian shot-maker once again has become someone intriguing to watch. Gulbis upset Tomas Berdych in the first round of Wimbledon last year, and he twice has won sets from Nadal this year. More distant achievements include victories over Federer and Novak Djokovic, showing that no elite opponent can feel safe when Gulbis finds his groove. He may struggle to stay in that groove in the best-of-five format, perhaps a reason why his greatest headlines have come at Masters 1000 events. Still, grass usually rewards the Jekyll-and-Hyde mixture of overwhelming power and deft finesse that Gulbis can wield.
Feliciano Lopez: The Spaniard’s best tennis lies well behind him, and he accumulated a losing record this season through the end of Roland Garros. Lopez has reached three Wimbledon quarterfinals behind his lefty serve-volley style, though, the rarity of which can unsettle younger opponents. His notable victims there include Andy Roddick and Marat Safin, as well as Tim Henman in his last match on home soil. Keep an eye on Lopez if he draws a relatively passive baseliner or grinder such as David Ferrer, who long has struggled against him on fast surfaces.
Daniel Brands: Like Rosol, Brands typically plays to the level of the competition. He lost resoundingly to Jan Hajek one week before he thrust Nadal to the brink of a two-set deficit at Roland Garros. Wimbledon marks the scene of his greatest accomplishment, a second-week appearance in 2010, although he lost in the first round of qualifying each of the two subsequent years. Beware of getting into a fifth set against Brands, who shares Isner’s asymmetry between a massive serve and a woeful return. That stark contrast leaves him vulnerable against anyone and dangerous to everyone.
Ekaterina Makarova: Only one woman has defeated both Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka in 2012-13: not Maria Sharapova, not Li Na, not Petra Kvitova, but Ekaterina Makarova. This fiery Russian also won Eastbourne on grass as a qualifier in 2010, her only title to date. Her lefty serve swings wide in the ad court effectively on this surface, a valuable asset on break points. Makarova’s doubles expertise has honed her net talents to a higher level than most of the women ranked near her, and she has proved that she can excel at majors by reaching two Australian Open quarterfinals.
Sabine Lisicki: Four or five years ago, Lisicki looked like a future Wimbledon champion. She honed the best serve in the women’s game outside the Williams sisters, even outdueling Venus to win a Charleston title. In three Wimbledon appearances from 2009-12, Lisicki reached the quarterfinals or better every time and even notched her first major semifinal there in 2011. An impressive list of marquee upsets in those appearances includes Maria Sharapova, Li Na, Caroline Wozniacki, and Marion Bartoli. Somewhat like Gulbis in her ability to combine first-strike power with the finesse of delicate drop shots, Lisicki has struggled to stay healthy long enough to develop momentum and consistency.
Tamira Paszek: A hideous 1-12 this season, Paszek has won barely any matches since last August but still held a seed at Roland Garros. She defends the majority of her total rankings points during the short grass season, when she won Eastbourne and reached a second straight Wimbledon quarterfinal last year. The good news is that Paszek rebounded from a similar sequence of futility at this time in 2012 to record those excellent results. The bad news is that the pressure will lie heavily on her with the penalty so great for a misstep at either event.
Venus Williams: Once a champion, always a champion, and never more so than at the greatest bastion of tennis tradition. Venus will appear in this type of article before every Wimbledon that she plays, no matter her current form. To be sure, that current form is far from impressive with losses this spring to Olga Puckhova, Laura Robson, and Urszula Radwanska. Venus wins many fewer matches than she once did on her poise and experience alone, and she probably cannot ration her energy efficiently enough to survive deep into the fortnight. But nobody wants to face that serve or that wingspan on grass, for one never knows when an aging champion will catch fire.
Laura Robson: Combined with a junior Wimbledon title, two compelling efforts against Maria Sharapova on home soil suggest that the top British women’s talent could rise to the occasion. Robson has proved twice in the last twelve months that she can shine at majors, upsetting Kim Clijsters to reach the second week of the US Open and outlasting Petra Kvitova in a nail-biting if ugly epic in Melbourne. Since the serve plays a heightened role on grass, she must limit the double faults that have grown too frequent this year. Robson never lacks for courage or belief, often aggressive to the point of reckless.
Zheng Jie: If she had finished off Serena Williams in the first week of Wimbledon last year, the trajectory of women’s tennis since then would have followed a completely different course. As it was, Zheng took Serena to 8-6 in the final set, displaying how well her compact swings and crisp footwork suit the low, variable bounces of the grass. This less intuitive model for surface success than heavy serves and first strikes carried her to the Wimbledon semifinals in 2008. Like Benneteau, Zheng has found herself saddled with some extremely challenging draws and has lost to few sub-elite opponents there.
Tsvetana Pironkova: Two years ago, it seemed that Pironkova existed solely to prevent Venus Williams from winning another Wimbledon title. The willowy Bulgarian defeated Venus in consecutive Wimbledons by identical scores, and she even came within a set of the final in 2010. Proving that success no anomaly, Pironkova extended Sharapova to a final set last year. A glance at her game reveals no clear reason why she enjoys grass so much. Pironkova owns a vulnerable serve and little baseline firepower, earning her living with court coverage and touch. Her Wimbledon feats show that counterpunchers can find ways to thrive on an offensively oriented surface.