June 20, 2010

Semifinal Predictions: Wimbledon

The grass courts have been mown, the players' dress whites carefully pressed, bushels of strawberries and barrels of cream have been stocked.

It must be time for Wimbledon!

But even though the Championships always have an air of propriety about them, you can't deny that matches here can get the crowd going as much as those on the grittier hardcourts or the dirty clay. And all that excitement is bound to lead to some great matches.

For the past several years at the All England Lawn Tennis Club, we've been graced with some stalwart champions. But let's not forget that it was here that qualifier Goran Ivanisevic and upstart Maria Sharapova made their way to the champion's podium. Sure it'll be a tough road, but dozens of the sport's top stars have spent 2010 proving they aren't invulnerable to a well-placed shot here and there, so it's certainly possible we see more surprises than in years past. And after the crazy eight who made the semis in Paris, I don't think anyone is safe.

So let's see what could happen!

The MenThe Women

The Men

First Quarter

Tournament officials really had a field day with the men's seedings this year -- some make sense, others less so. Appropriately, Roger Federer headlines the top half of the draw for the sixth time in his career despite his current #2 world rank. Clearly those in charge felt he deserves credit for the many titles he's already won here.

But Roger is riding a momentum wave we haven't seen from him in a while -- it's been nearly five months since he won his last title back in Australia, and he's only played two finals in the interim. Of course just last month he famously ended his Major semi streak at twenty-three consecutive appearances in Paris but, as he good-naturedly pointed out, he now has an even longer running quarterfinal streak, and he won't make it easy for anyone to end that.

Encouragingly, he actually has a fairly smooth section of the draw -- certainly smoother than what he faced in France. Nikolay Davydenko is his biggest threat, and although the hard-hitting Russian posed quite a threat to Roger late last year, a wrist injury that's nagged him since Melbourne kept him off the circuit until just two weeks ago. I once called for the #5 player in the world to pull off the upset -- not this time.

There are a few other tricky players in this quarter, though. Tomas Berdych shocked Federer in Miami back in March and carried his momentum all the way to the finals. Feliciano Lopez beat Rafael Nadal at Queen's Club and gave Andy Roddick a little bit of trouble in Australia -- he's seeded twenty-third at the All England Club, seven spots higher than his ranking. Plus Jurgen Melzer, a breakthrough semifinalist in Paris is currently at a career high ranking and could cause some troubles.

Challenges aside, though, few people are able to get under Roger's skin on grass, and I don't see him having too much trouble that first week.

Predicted Semifinalist: Federer, duh.

Second Quarter

As big a fan as I am of Rafael Nadal, I can't really take umbrage with the fact that he was knocked down to the #2 seed at Wimbledon -- the 2008 champion has a couple titles on grass, but he's clearly more likely to do damage on other surfaces. That said, Rafa has made the finals here the last three times he's played, and coming off that spectacular run at Roland Garros, he's going to do his best to defend the title he couldn't last year.

Unfortunately, he's going to have to knock out a handful of my favorites to do it -- James Blake, who has traditionally been good on grass, is a potential second round opponent, and John Isner looms very tall in the fourth.

The bigger threats, though, are in the top half of this section. Ninth-seeded David Ferrer has never gotten to the quarters at Wimbledon, but he's playing some good ball these days and may surprise us. Marcos Baghdatis made the semis in 2006, and though he didn't quite capitalize on his #2 seed in 's-Hertogenbosch, he could get in a few wins. And Thomaz Bellucci, seeded just below the Cypriot, has good things in his future. He's actually only won one match at this tournament, but this might be his breakout year.

Most intimidating, of course is that man seeded sixth -- Robin Soderling, now a two-time finalist in Paris, seems to learn something new every time you see him. But grass isn't his best surface, as he's just better than even on the lawn over his career. I certainly don't think he's ready to bring home the big prize just yet, but he should be able to improve on his fourth round run from last year.

Predicted Semifinalist: Rafa simply has more experience in this bracket than anyone else. It might not be the perfect run he had at Roland Garros, but I think he'll get through.

Third Quarter

Poor Novak Djokovic is kind of the forgotten man these days, but remember he's the only man at Wimbledon other than Roger and Rafa who's won a Slam in the past five years. He's never won a singles title on grass, but he did make the quarters at Wimbledon last year and the semis in 2007, and he teamed with Jonathan Erlich to take the doubles crown at Queen's Club.

That said, Nole has probably the toughest draw on the men's side. Last year's runner-up Andy Roddick was blessed with a seeding two spots ahead of his rank, and 2002 champ Lleyton Hewitt got an eleven position boost thanks in part to his win over Federer in Halle last week.

This section might hold the best opportunity for a long shot to make it through the cracks in the bracket -- Mardy Fish beat a few top players in London, and really put up a fight in the finals. Plus Marin Cilic, who I really do believe is on the verge of a breakout, claims the eleventh seed. His deepest run at the All England Club was the fourth round a few years back, but like Bellucci, maybe this is his year.

Predicted Semifinalist: This is a tough one to call, and I'd love Roddick to make the semis a fifth time. But Hewitt's been a little more solid in 2010, and his recent title followed by a week of rest allows me to give him the edge.

Fourth Quarter

It's a very strange relationship the tennis world has with Andy Murray. A year ago he was touted as the dark horse favorite to bring home Great Britain's first Major since Fred Perry did it in the 1930s. But even though he made the finals in Australia this year, no one seems to be talking about him at Wimbledon, his home Slam. It might be because he failed to defend his title at Queen's Club, or because he's lost fairly early at some recent tournaments, but the hype that's surrounded him for the past eighteen months seems to have dissipated a bit.

But maybe flying under the radar will serve him well this year -- though he's got a quarter full of tough players, most of his biggests threats are most lethal on clay. Former world #1 Juan Carlos Ferrero made the quarters here last year when ranked all the way down at #70 and Nicolas Almagro has been surprisingly consistent lately. Fernando Verdasco, who stunned Murray at the Australian Open in 2009, has been fairly steady at Wimbledon too.

Also in this section is Sam Querrey, who supplanted Murray as the champion at Queen's Club. He was given the eighteenth seed at the Slam, better than the current #2 American John Isner who was pushed down to #24. He's actually only made the second round once last year, but America is trying to find its next big tennis star, and Querrey could fit the bill.

Predicted Semifinalist: But if I'm giving the previous quarter to a veteran, I feel this one should go to a member of the next generation. I realize this call might be a bit premature, but it might be Sam's time to shine. At least I hope it is.

The Women

First Quarter

Strangely the women's bracket was seeded fairly routinely, with only a slight shift because of Elena Dementieva's unfortunate withdrawal and a couple lucky winners and losers who moved around after Dinara Safina and Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez dropped out on Saturday. Defending champion and current world #1 Serena Williams leads the top quarter, though she hasn't played a lot this year, and we haven't seen her on the lawn at all since she hoisted that trophy in 2009. And she's going to have to battle to make a sixth run to the finals.

Her potential second round opponent, Andrea Petkovic, is just out of seeding territory, and we've seen the damage she can do. The German had multiple match points against Svetlana Kuznetsova -- also in this section -- at the French Open and even put up a fight in the finals at the Unicef Open just this past week. And neither Dominika Cibulkova or Lucie Safarova are far away -- either could present a problem for Serena in her third match.

Then there's 2004 champion Maria Sharapova, who made the finals in Birmingham a week ago -- she originally had a first round date with feisty Kateryna Bondarenko, a quarterfinalist in Flushing Meadows last year. But the younger of the sport's other sister-pair, who's been battling injuries herself this year, got bumped up to a thirty-fourth seed, pitting Anastasia Pivovarova against MaSha instead. Cue sigh of relief. But lest she get too comfortable, Maria's road gets no easier as Daniela Hantuchova will probably be waiting for her in the third round.

On the bottom half of the section, two-time quarterfinalist Aggie Radwanska headlines. She's a tough cookie, and though she fell in the first round at Eastbourne, it was to eventual runner-up Victoria Azarenka. I keep waiting for her to cause some real damage at a Slam, and though she has a couple easy matches to start, she might have to fight Kuznetsova or Birmingham champ Na Li to make that third trip to the elite eight. And with the top of the quarter as stacked as it is, I'm not sure she'll make it any farther.

Predicted Semifinalist: I know Serena's a fighter and she'll make things hard for her opponents. But I feel like we have to see a shake up this year, and with the new draw I think Maria has a good shot at advancing.

Second Quarter

Fans of the top two women in the sport will be happy to know that if Serena does meet her sister at Wimbledon, it will have to be in the finals. Venus Williams is at her highest ranking at this Major since 2002, but ironically she's won three of her five titles since then. In fact, in her thirteen appearances at the All England Club, she's played in eight championship matches and only lost before the quarters three times -- not exactly a résumé that inspires confidence in her opponents.

But she does have a couple ladies in her draw that might draw inspiration from recent wins over the five-time champ. Agnes Szavay ousted Venus from Roland Garros last year and could face her again in the second round. The other option is Ekaterina Makarova, who won her first Tour title in Eastbourne just yesterday -- she may never have played Venus, but she did beat Svetlana Kuznetsova, Sam Stosur and Azarenka to claim the trophy. And should Williams pass that test, there's no time to rest -- Alisa Kleybanova, her potential challenger just two matches later, beat her in Madrid in 2009.

Up on top of this quarter is newly minted French Open champ Francesca Schiavone, who took Elena's place as the fifth seed. But this isn't her best surface, and with players like Yaroslava Shvedova and 2007 runner-up Marion Bartoli in her way, I don't see her improving on past results. And Melanie Oudin, who got a bump up to the thirty-third seed on Dinara's withdrawal, is also in this section. You might remember she made her first statement at Wimbledon last year, way before she became the darling of the U.S. Open. She's lost in two Major first rounds this year, though, and actually hasn't won a match since April. I hope she'll break that trend in London, but she's got a pretty rough draw to make a serious run.

Predicted Semifinalist: I would love to see something different in this quarter, but I have to say Venus will battle Bartoli for the semi spot and she'll ultimately get through.

Third Quarter

Caroline Wozniacki surprised everyone -- well, at least me -- when she made the quarters in Paris on an ankle that still isn't quite up to snuff. And though she fell in the first round while trying to defend her Eastbourne title, it was to Aravane Rezai, a strong player who incidentally is also in this quarter. So Caroline might just exceed my expectations this time too and get in a couple wins before facing a real threat on her campaign.

Rezai really made a name for herself during the clay court season, but there's no reason she can't have success too on the lawn. It might be tricky though, as she faces a first round against Magdalena Rybarikova, a woman who won her only career title on the surface last year. And though Victoria Azarenka crashed out of the first round at Roland Garros, she made an impressive run to the finals in Eastbourne, beating Radwanska, Bartoli and Kim Clijsters on the way. I might not have liked her a week ago, but the tide might be turning in Vika's favor this days.

The biggest on-paper power in this quarter, though, is probably French Open runner-up Sam Stosur, seeded sixth. Though she's made the finals here in the doubles draw a couple times, she's never made it past the third round in singles. I have a feeling she'll do a little better this year, but maybe not as much as we expect.

Predicted Semifinalist: This could be the quarter where we see the biggest surprise. I'd love to see Vika make it, but I'm going to go with someone out of left field and give it to Argentina's Gisela Dulko, who actually beat Sharapova here last year.

Fourth Quarter

Every tournament has one -- the quarter that is just so stacked you have no idea who'll survive it. In Australia it was the women's third, in Paris the ladies' first. This time around, they've literally saved the best for last.

Jelena Jankovic is the top seed in this part of the bracket. The former world #1 has been playing well this year, taking the trophy in Indian Wells and making the finals in Rome. She was also impressive in Paris, defying my predictions to make the semis before being steamrolled by Stosur in the penultimate round. She's done okay at Wimbledon in the past, but still hasn't gotten past the fourth match here.

In a quarter full of Belgians, Jankovic could meet Yanina Wickmayer in the fourth round. Though the current world #16 got off to a fast start this year by winning her third career title in Auckland, she's been a little quiet since the spring and actually has never won a match at the All England Club. She's got a tricky first opponent too -- U.S. teenager Alison Riske, who made the semis in Birmingham a week ago. And whoever makes it through the early matches probably has a third round meeting with yet another former top-ten player, Vera Zvonareva.

Battling through the top half of this section is Justine Henin, who's made winning Wimbledon the goal of her second career. She claimed the champion's trophy in the Netherlands on Saturday, so she's certainly got a fighting chance. But she's projected to face another clay court specialist, Anastasija Sevastova, in the first round, giant-slayer Nadia Petrova in the third and yet another Belgian, Kim Clijsters, twice a semifinalist here herself, in the fourth. Certainly not an easy week's worth of work.

Predicted Semifinalist: Had we seen a different result in the Netherlands, I might not have picked her for this quarter, but I'll put my money on Justine this time. And I think it'll be a fight to get there.

I feel like we've become too complacent at Wimbledon over the last few years -- Roger and Rafa, Serena and Venus, year in and year out. Eventually things have to change, and my gut is telling me this is the year.

Over the past several months we've watched stars struggle and supreme underdogs emerge as some of the brightest hopes for the future -- what better stage can you imagine for the next generation of players to rise in triumph. If nothing else we are at least due for a shake up.

After all, it sure is fun to get our crisp, clean whites good and messy!

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