June 29, 2011

Comfort in the Unfamiliar

It's not often that the draws at Wimbledon get turned so topsy-turvy.

Of course there's always an upset or two along the way, but over the last decade or so we've come to expect a few familiar faces still around by this time every year -- a Williams sister or two and probably Roger Federer. But this year none of the usual suspects are still around, and there's a very good chance we'll see two brand new champions at the All England Club.

And, somehow, that's oddly reassuring.

The four women remaining contest their semifinal matches tomorrow, kicked off by a replay of last year's third round. In 2010 then-#62 Petra Kvitova stunned Victoria Azarenka in a 7-5, 6-0 blowout. These days, both ladies are playing at the top of their game and have a real chance to make their first Major final. Kvitova has climbed to a career-high rank of #8 in the world on the heels of three titles and wins over players like Kim Clijsters, Sam Stosur and Vera Zvonareva. Azarenka, on the other hand, is newly inaugurated in the top five and, despite being one of the best hitters on Tour, enjoying her best ever run at a Slam.

There's no clear-cut winner in this semi -- Petra has a tendency to be erratic and can give up big leads as easy as she builds them up while Vika has infamously retired from seven matches in the past twelve months. They've, not surprisingly, split their previous four matches, with the Czech laying claim to the last two, so they are pretty well-paired. And with so much on the line for both these young talents, you know they'll both put up a fight for the championship slot.

In the other half of the draw, the only lady who has any experience winning Majors will take on a wildcard who is surely on the comeback trail. Maria Sharapova got her breakout here back in 2004 when she proved she wasn't just another pretty face, and now seven years later she's finally playing back at the top of her game. She'll next face my dark horse pick for this tournament, Sabine Lisicki, a talented German who's taken out two top-ten players on her way to the semi. Sharapova won the pair's only meeting handily, dropping only two games in the third round at Miami. But Lisicki's coming off a title in Birmingham and has all sorts of momentum on her side -- she should be able to put up a much better fight this time around.

The men's semifinal line-up was only decided today, and though three of the tournament's top seeds made good on expectations, there is nevertheless an air of oddness about the final four.

Last year's champion Rafael Nadal hasn't lost a match here since the 2007 final, yet if he doesn't defend his crown he can kiss his #1 ranking good-bye. He's played well through his first five matches, surviving a strange foot injury during his fourth round versus Juan Martin Del Potro and showing no signs of debilitation against last-American-standing Mardy Fish today. Nadal's not one to let the specter of losing his ranking weigh on his game, but I'm a little more worried about his prospects than I've been in the past.

On the other hand his opponent, UK-#1 Andy Murray, has played some of the most consistent tennis of the tournament. The two-time semifinalist has fallen to Nadal twice before at Wimbledon -- last year in just over two hours. But though he dropped sets to Ivan Ljubicic and Daniel Gimeno-Traver this past fortnight, he's fresh off a title at Queen's Club and has been cultivating his own win streak this past month. He's never been known to do well under pressure, and with the hopes of his country surely on his shoulders this Friday, he may falter again. But even I have to admit he's probably never had a better chance to make history.

Neither, I suspect, has Novak Djokovic. His near-record start to the year may have come to a quick end in Paris, but this time he is again a win away from ending the Nadal/Federer stranglehold on the #1 ranking and looks to have a much better chance of getting there. The Serb hasn't had the toughest test in London -- then again when you play as well as he does, you don't expect that many challenges -- but after holding his ground against young Aussie Bernard Tomic today, he's earned a spot in the semis for the third time in his career. In 2010 he was stalled by surprise runner-up Tomas Berdych, but this year his prospects of playing a Major final on something other than a hardcourt seem a lot brighter.

He still has to get past the biggest surprise on the men's side, though. Like Berdych before him, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga did the previously unthinkable by sending six-time champion Roger Federer home in the quarters -- but he might have been ever-so-slightly more impressive in doing so. The Frenchman, who lost to Murray in the same round last year, was in danger of doing so again, down two sets to King Fed after just over an hour of play. But he finally converted a break chance in the third set and successfully served out the fourth before getting an early lead in the decider. He's notched big wins at the Majors before -- Nadal in Australia on the way to finals in 2008 and Djokovic in the quarters there last year -- but this, by far, was the biggest.

So with just eight players left battling it out for the Wimbledon crowns -- five of whom have never won a Slam before -- it sure looks like no one is a true favorite. I have my picks, sure, but the most excitement could come if the least-likely players are the ones holding the trophies at the end of the day.

And with so much talent in the remaining field, it sure paints a pretty picture for what's to come in this sport.

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