June 21, 2009

Wimbledon Preview

There may be four official Grand Slam events in tennis, but across the world there's only one we call "The Championships".

It's no wonder, then, that a Wimbledon trophy carries a caché that even other Majors do not -- and that players and fans alike hold the games here in such high regard. There's something dignified, even regal, about this tournament -- and winners can truly be thought of as kings and queens of their sport.

In a tale not unlike the wending history of a European monarchy, last year we witnessed something of an uprising as one long-time ruler was unceremoniously dethroned by a foreign upstart and another staunchly pushed off advances by her wily sister.

But this year's tournament already promises an even more intriguing coup. Last year's king Rafael Nadal, officially -- and very disappointingly -- pulled out of Wimbledon on Friday afternoon, leaving the line of succession all twisted. You might think you know who's next in line, but like in any good revolution, there are bound to be surprises.

Women's Draw

Something seems to take over defending champion Venus Williams at Wimbledon. No matter what she's looked like all year, when she steps on the grass at the All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club she becomes a different player. She went straight from a third-round loss at the French Open last year to a victory here as the seventh seed. She won in 2007 while ranked thirty-first in the world, pulling off "upsets" over Ana Ivanovic, Svetlana Kuznetsova and Maria Sharapova on her way.

This year she's trying to win her sixth title with a #3 ranking, the highest she's had in the tournament since 2002. And though she's suffered some upsets in recent weeks -- including another third round loss in Paris -- we all should know better than to count her out. Same with sister Sererna, runner-up last year and the number two seed in 2009. In fact there has only been one year this decade when neither of the two played in the final.

But there are plenty of others who want to make this the year the ruling family is unseated.

Top-ranked Dinara Safina has played in two straight Grand Slam championship matches and still hasn't come away with a title, which has to be frustrating. In the Netherlands this past week, she made her way to the semis before falling to veteran Tamarine Tanasugarn. She should have a few easy rounds at Wimbledon, but is lined up to meet former champion Amelie Mauresmo in the quarters fourth round. With her unfortunate tendency to fold under pressure -- sorry, but it's true -- I'm not sure she'll get too much farther.

Speaking of folding, the woman Dinara fell to in Paris -- Kuznetsova -- is in the same quarter of the draw. She was runner up here in 2005, when she lost to Lindsey Davenport, and has an easy first round against the #713 woman in the world, Akiko Morigami. But she could face Eastbourne champ Caroline Wozniacki for the quarters, and it's not easy to look past that Danish teenager.

For her part, Caroline has proven she can be a force on grass and clay, defeating some real competitors in the meantime. Her first opponent in London will be thirty-eight year old Kimiko Date Krumm, who made it all the way to the semifinal round in her last Wimbledon appearance -- in 1996. If Wozniacki survives she could face Safina or Kuznetsova before the semis.

Then there's Maria Sharapova who won her first of three Major titles here in 2004. After a nine-month absence she's proven to be a resilient competitor, making the quarterfinals at Roland Garros and the semis at Birmingham. Despite the fact that she hasn't yet made her way back into the top fifty, she was granted the benefit of a 24th seed at Wimbledon. She's set to meet either Anastasiya Yakimova or Nadia Petrova in the third round, but that shouldn't be a problem -- she beat both in Paris. Her biggest threat would come from Serena, runner-up in 2004, who she might have to battle for a spot in the semis.

Men's Draw

As exciting as the women's bracket could get, I think the real fireworks will be reserved for the men.

By now we all know the story about how Rafael Nadal, once largely -- and unfairly -- criticized for being a force only on clay, dethroned Roger Federer, who was going for his sixth straight title at Wimbledon last year. When he followed that up with a victory in Melbourne, we all -- well, I -- started talking about how Rafa was destined to be the new King of Tennis. But then the unthinkable happened in Paris, followed by Nadal's decision to bow out here. (*Tear!*)

(Incidentally, did anyone notice how Rafa's had those four flames on his sneakers in Paris, one for each title he'd won there? Roger had something similar last year at the AELTC. Both lost on their respective homefields. Coincidence?)

It seems now that the path is clear for Roger to reclaim his spot at the top. But with the balance of men's tennis all upset, there's no telling what could happen in 2009. This could be the year Federer puts his record fifteenth Major trophy on his mantle, but it could just as easily be the year someone brand new gets crowned as champion.

Andy Murray is certainly one of the possible contenders. His win at Queen's Club a week ago ended a seventy-one British drought at the event, and gave him his first grass court title. Grudgingly I admit he's probably the best player -- man or woman -- without a Grand Slam title, and playing at home should be to his advantage. At the same time he's got a decent draw, but there could be some thorns in his side. He's got a potential fourth round matchup with Stanislas Wawrinka, who has a decent 3-4 record against Murray. And if he makes the semis, Juan Martin Del Potro -- who pulled off a major upset over the Brit in Madrid just last month -- could be waiting for him.

The other Andy -- Roddick -- could be the other man to watch. He started this year with a lot of hype, having lost some fifteen pounds, getting himself in better shape and getting to at least the quarters of every tournament he's played, except for Roland Garros. Even still he did have his best showing there, advancing to the second week on the clay court tourney for the first time in his career -- and Wimbledon is a surface he's much more comfortable on, making the finals twice before. Unfortunately he did suffer an ankle sprain during the semis in Queen's Club so might not be fully up to form to face Jeremy Chardy in the first round. The Frenchman's no slouch -- he's scored upsets over David Ferrer, Radek Stepanek and Mardy Fish all this year -- so Andy's going to have to be in good shape

Things to Watch

As with any Grand Slam tournament, there are always a few surprise stars who battle their way through to the second week. Dominika Cibulkova and Samantha Stosur did it at the French, but given some of their missteps on grass this past week, they may have to wait 'til clay court season rolls around again before they can make their mark.

On the other hand there have been a couple winners in the last few weeks that could make an impact. Tommy Haas, who took Federer's place as champion at Halle, took out Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Novak Djokovic on his way to the title. Seeded just below him at #25 is Eastbourne champ Dmitry Tursunov. Both should have easy first rounds, but Haas could face Nole again for the semis while Tursunov potentially has DelPo or even Lleyton Hewitt in the third round.

I'm also rooting for some youngsters to show their metal. Slovakian teenager Magdelena Rybarikova took her first title in Birmingham and French Open standout Sorana Cirstea will receive her first ever seeding at a major. But Maggie pulled out of 's-Hertogenbosch with a thigh strain and Sorana lost early to eventual finalist Yanina Wickmayer. It'll definitely be a struggle, but I can't wait to watch them try to pull it off!

And just hours from the start of the greatest tournament in tennis, I'm hoping for a fantastic two weeks as we watch the battle to crown this year's king and queen!

Stay tuned!

1 comment:

Kavitha said...

Thanks to @TheFanChild for correcting me on the top-quarter of the women's draw! I don't know how I always lose track when doing those projections!