June 17, 2011

Wimbledon: First Round Matches to Watch

The grass court season, as it so often does, really snuck up on us this year, and just a couple weeks after the king and queen of the French Open were crowned, everyone's forced to quickly change gears and take to the lawn.

Maybe it's this lack of prep that allows for seeds to so widely diverge from actual rankings. It might seem a bit unfair -- rewarding those who have dropped out of the top spots with relatively easier draws. But with some tough-as-nails players having been out of the game so long, their potential opponents should actually breathe sighs of relief that they won't face the big guns too early in the draws.

But the seemingly mangled seedings still leave plenty of room for surprises in players' openers. And, as always, you know some will get an opportunity to break through, while others may be sent packing far sooner than they expected.

Let's start with the gentlemen.

The MenThe Women

The Men

First Quarter

The pressure is on top seeded Rafael Nadal -- if he finishes anything less than champion, he'll lose his #1 ranking. And the draw is certainly working against him -- though his first couple rounds should be easy enough, with big servers like Juan Martin Del Potro and Milos Raonic in his section, he'll clearly have to battle later in the week.

But there are some interesting early matches here. Raonic, seeded below his ranking at #31, faces Fabio Fognini to start. The Canadian's serve-and-volley game should be well suited to this surface, certainly more so than the clay-court specialist's, and I want to see him come out firing from the get-go. And Fernando Verdasco, who's fallen a bit in the game, takes on former top-ten player Radek Stepanek. The Czech has a winning record against Nando -- and won their only meeting at Wimbledon five years ago. And if his game is up to snuff, he could cause an upset.

The late-round match-to-watch: Mardy Fish is playing at his best career ranking, and has spent the last year showing he's a contender on any surface. He could set up a fourth round first date with last year's runner-up Tomas Berdych. Two strong guys with great games could put on quite a show to kick off the second week.

Second Quarter

Novak Djokovic has another chance to grab the #1 ranking from Nadal in London, and after his legendary win streak ended in Paris, you know he'll be eager to take every opportunity he gets. He faces France's Jeremy Chardy in his first round, and so should be able to kick off his campaign in style.

But I'll be closely watching the return of my dear James Blake, playing his first Major since last year in New York. He's been spending a lot of time in the triple-digits recently, but a couple good results at Challenger events earned him entrée here. He'll face 's-Hertogenbosch semifinalist Marcos Baghdatis in his opener -- a wholly winnable match -- and could be the latest veteran to make a late push at a Slam.

Also keep an eye on Alejandro Falla -- a wildcard at Wimbledon, he nearly stunned Roger Federer in the first round last year. He'll meet Jurgen Melzer, who's been a little spotty recently, so could take a big step in improving his ranking. And the match up between Ernests Gulbis and Dmitry Tursunov should set the stage for players trying to pull off -- and, in the latter's case, actually succeeding in -- their comebacks.

The late-round match-to-watch: Robin Soderling is one of the favorites here, but is flying well below the radar compared to his contemporaries. He's slated to meet a rebuilding Nikolay Davydenko in the third round -- the two were foils in 2009, trading wins during their respective best years. If Davydenko can't put up a fight here, it might mean his time at the top is well past him.

Third Quarter

Roger Federer hasn't been seeded this low at Wimbledon since 2003 -- where, incidentally, he won his first Grand Slam. He had looked a bit soft early in the year, but a finals run at Roland Garros pushed the needle back in his direction. He shouldn't have as much trouble with Mikhail Kukushkin as he did with Falla last year, though we could always be surprised.

Eighteenth seed Mikhail Youzhny has been battling injuries lately and has made a couple quick exits during the spring. His volatility could open the door for Juan Monaco, a couple positions out of seeding range, to make a move. And former world #5 Fernando Gonzalez is playing his first Slam since hip surgery sidelined him for most of last year. He's taking on young standout Alexander Dolgopolov, who's lost early in both Halle and Eastbourne, so Gonzo's has a chance to work his way back into the mix.

But the most-watched match in this quarter should be the repeat of John Isner versus Nicolas Mahut. Isner was my original pick to win this whole deal, but that was before I thought this would ever happen. In any case, if he can stay mentally strong enough to get the win -- and, more importantly, do so in fewer than five sets -- it would do wonders for his confidence the rest of the tournament. And year.

The late-round match-to-watch: Federer is set to meet fellow veteran David Nalbandian in the third round. The two have a fairly close history, but the momentum has clearly been in Fed's favor more recently. I'd like to see a battle between these two -- you know they've got it in them.

Fourth Quarter

Andy Murray is in the same half of the draw as Nadal, but the way he's playing recently, he shouldn't be intimidated -- especially by his opening opponent Daniel Gimeno-Traver. That's not to say the Spaniard won't pose any problems for the Queen's Club winner, but his game is much more suited to clay, and so the on-paper favorite should be able to make good.

More interesting is the pairing of countrymen Marin Cilic and unseeded Ivan Ljubicic. Both are well off their career high rankings, but have the potential to deliver big on the grass. And though Cilic has disappointed me in recent months, a nice run at Queen's makes me think he has at least this win in him.

One more Croat could cause a stir a bit further down the draw. Ivo Karlovic, the man who can ace, but barely breaks, meets Janko Tipsarevic, who'll play his Eastbourne semi on Saturday, in the first round. Tipsy is the seed here, and certainly has moments of brilliance -- but if Dr. Ivo can hold it together, he could make a move.

The late-round match-to-watch: The top seeded American in the draw, Andy Roddick, is usually at his best at the All England Club, and though he hasn't won a lot recently, he should be more comfortable here. But he could meet Gael Monfils in the fourth round, and the Frenchman has been playing surprisingly well in recent weeks. Hopefully Roddick will be able to turn around his recent slump.

The Women

First Quarter

All eyes will be on world #1 Caroline Wozniacki, who's playing her fourth Slam as a top seed without having won a title. She's never made it past the fourth round here and didn't play a warm-up tournament on grass, so she certainly hasn't been tested yet. But against Arantxa Parra Santonja in the first round, she should make good on her ranking at least for a little while.

Nothing early in this quarter really stands out, but I'd love to see a good battle between 2004 champion Maria Sharapova and former top-five player Anna Chakvetadze. After finally gaining some traction last year, Anna has retired from three straight tournaments this year. But when she's playing well, she can be dangerous, and I'll continue rooting for her return to the elite.

Much lower on the radar, young Swede Johanna Larsson will take on my 2010 one-to-watch Polona Hercog. She's beaten Daniela Hantuchova, Ana Ivanovic and Li Na already this year, so she's certainly capable of making a statement. And in this quarter, she has more than a good chance to do so.

The late-round match-to-watch: Julia Goerges and Dominika Cibulkova are slated to meet in the third round. They've never played each other before, but are both little dynamos when they're healthy. And perhaps more interestingly, the inner could face Caro in the next round, which would just be fun all around.

Second Quarter

Vera Zvonareva had the best results of her career last year, and has been rewarded with a #2 seed here in exchange. She has a lot of points to defend, but a huge win over Serena Williams in Eastbourne gives me confidence she won't just fade away this year. And with some relatively easy early rounds, luck may also be on her side.

Former #1 Jelena Jankovic may not be so lucky. In her kick-off match, she faces unseeded Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez, the woman who beat her in last year's Rome final. They've never met on grass, but the Spaniard holds a two-to-one career record over JJ, and could send her packing early if she's not careful. And Roberta Vinci, suddenly playing some very consistent ball, could make an impact too -- if her long week in 's-Hertogenbosch doesn't affect her first round against Vera Dushevina.

The late-round match-to-watch: If the seeds play out as expected, Petra Kvitova, who first made a mark on Tour at the All England Club last year, will face Svetlana Kuznetsova for the final. Though the Russian is clearly the more experienced of the two, Kvitova has found a way to beat some of the biggest names on the circuit all year. It should be a good match and may be rather prescient for what the future of tennis will look like.

Third Quarter

Li Na, fresh off her miraculous French Open win, has really improved an already-good game in the last six weeks. And now the pressure will be on. But some of the more interesting first rounds lie elsewhere in this quarter.

Defending champion Serena Williams, to the relief of many, is seeded eighth at Wimbledon, and so won't be a threat to most true contenders until later in the event. But her opening opponent, Aravane Rezai, who put together an amazing semifinal against the former #1 last year in Sydney, might be a little bummed at her bad luck. Still, we've seen Serena hasn't quite worked out all her kinks yet, and so Rezai could find some holes in the armor.

And Ana Ivanovic, who looked solid in the warm-up tournaments the last two weeks, drew one-time darling Melanie Oudin. She's won the pair's only previous meeting -- when the American was on the upswing -- but now that Oudin is an underdog again, perhaps she can surprise us. It'll be important for Ana to keep her cool, though, as she can't afford another disappointment just as she's regaining momentum.

The late-round match-to-watch: More than a few upsets would have to happen, but I would love to see Aggie Radwanska meet Marion Bartoli in the quarters. The Frenchwoman was a finalist here back in 2007 and she's been impressive in the big tournaments this year, while Aggie is one of those consistent players who really needs a breakthrough Slam. Maybe this is it.

Fourth Quarter

Victoria Azarenka was playing well in Eastbourne, before a leg injury forced her to retire. Again. But she stayed strong through five rounds in Paris after pulling out of , which encourages me somewhat. Hopefully she'll be in shape to take care of Rome Magdalena Rybarikova in her first round, or a whole other set of questions will start swirling around her.

Francesca Schiavone is another headliner in this section, but she might have drawn an even tougher first round. 's-Hertogenbosch finalist Jelena Dokic once made the semis at the All England Club and has scored wins here over legends like Martina Hingis and Mary Pierce. That was a long time ago, but after winning her first Tour title this year since 2002, she's certainly still in the game.

In a slightly lower-profile pairing Kaia Kanepi, who blasted her way to the quarters last year as a qualifier, will face always-feisty Sara Errani in her opener. Though she's now a shade off a career-high ranking, she hasn't been quite so solid this year, and if the Italian can take advantage, she might very well cause the upset.

The late-round match-to-watch: Andrea Petkovic and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova are both young and rising stars near the top of their games. Though they'd again each have to exact a couple upsets, it's very possible they meet for a spot in the semis. And it sure will be fun to watch.

In a land which has been so dominated by a select few in recent years, the 2011 draws at Wimbledon do suggest we could see more than a few surprises. And with so much on the line for everybody who takes the courts, it's imperative that they all bring their best.

But this has been the stage for some of the best matches we've seen. And I'm sure they'll all live up to expectations.

Be sure to check back Sunday when I blogcast my full preview of the action at the All England Club and highlight a few more things you'll want to watch at the year's most royal Grand Slam.

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