The Fab Five: Previewing the Wimbledon Men’s Contenders
At the Australian Open and Roland Garros this year, one man entered the tournament as a clear favorite to extend his mastery over it. Wimbledon presents a much blurrier and thus more intriguing picture, for any of the top four men will have a real chance to win. Here is my best shot at an early ranking of contenders ahead before the draw.
1) Roger Federer: The man who has won seven of the last ten men’s titles at Wimbledon probably enters as a slight favorite because of those credentials alone. While Federer has not defeated nemesis Rafael Nadal there (or at any major) in six years, he claimed consecutive victories over his other two rivals en route to the 2012 title. Defeating both Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, he showed how the best serve and best forecourt skills of the Big Four can trump the superior physicality and consistency of the others on grass. Federer recaptured the Halle title last week despite some concerning stretches of fallibility against opponents whom he would have dominated in his prime. He still owns just one victory over a top-10 opponent this year, and he will need to win efficiently in the earlier rounds to conserve energy for more demanding competition.
2) Rafael Nadal: A two-time Wimbledon champion, Nadal did not lose before the final there between 2006 and 2011. When Lukas Rosol snapped that streak last year, he continued a trend in which unheralded men with massive serves have troubled the Spaniard in the first week. Take a careful look at his early draw, then, but prepare for him to raise his level several notches if he survives any early tests. The grass slows during the course of the fortnight, especially behind the baseline where Nadal prefers to play, and that factor should aid him in the second week. No questions remain about his ability to recapture championship form in his comeback, including on surfaces other than clay. Nadal’s Indian Wells title, built upon victories over three top-eight opponents, proved the latter point. Dominant at Wimbledon against Andy Murray, he holds the momentum in key rivalries against Djokovic and Federer.
3) Novak Djokovic: The world No. 1 may attract the least scrutiny of the Big Four heading into the season’s third major. Federer defends the title, Nadal seeks to complete a third Channel Slam, and Murray bears the hopes of the host nation on his shoulders. A Wimbledon champion two years ago, Djokovic will finish the tournament in the top spot regardless of his result and may arrive at the All England Club in an emotional lull. Revenge on Nadal for his heartbreaking loss to the Spaniard at Roland Garros might offer the Serb some motivation, or he may need time to regroup emotionally. His reliance on extended baseline rallies and vulnerability at the net may hamper him on grass, although Djokovic acted wisely to choose rest rather than preparation ahead of Wimbledon. Strangely, he has played only three matches against the rest of the Big Four on grass, winning just one.
4) Andy Murray: And so it begins, the quest to become the first British man since the Second World War to win Wimbledon. For the first time, though, Murray plunges into the cauldron of scrutiny as a proven major champion, which might relieve the pressure on him even as it may raise expectations. He arrives at Wimbledon fresher than the other contenders, having cut short his clay season after a back injury in Rome. Murray reaped the rewards of that decision immediately when he reclaimed the Queen’s Club title that he won in 2011. He defeated both Djokovic and Federer at the All England Club last year when it hosted the Olympics, another experience that should help settle his nerves, and he also now knows the feeling of playing the Wimbledon final. Murray will hope to avoid Nadal, from whom he has won one set in three Wimbledon meetings.
5) Jo-Wilfried Tsonga: Realistically, one struggles to imagine anyone other than the Big Four lifting the Wimbledon trophy. Extending beyond that group, 2010 runner-up Tomas Berdych might seem the most logical contender as the only active man other than the four above to reach the Wimbledon final in the last decade. But Berdych has disappointed for most of the last few months, outside a victory over Djokovic in Rome, and he has only one quarterfinal in eight other Wimbledon appearances. A more plausible threat could come from a man whose explosive serving and deft touch at the net positions him for success on grass. Tsonga defeated Federer at Wimbledon two years ago, an upset that he repeated at Roland Garros last month, and he has won sets from Murray and Djokovic there. The short points on this surface reward his shot-making talents while camouflaging his impatience and lapses in focus.
In a day or two, I will return with a similar article on the women’s contenders. Constructing the hierarchy of their title chances oddly came more easily than it did for the men.