June 26, 2012

Four Things that Need to Happen at Wimbledon

We've gotten almost one full round's worth of action in the books at the All England Club and, not surprisingly, not everything has gone according to plan. But there's a lot of play left to go before crowning Wimbledon's king and queen for the year, and with that comes a lot of opportunity for spoilers to emerge and favorites to further improve their game.

So while there's still a chance for "anything to happen", here are a couple of things I would love to see over the next two weeks or so -- some may be pipe dreams, others aren't such long shots, and a couple will necessarily preclude the rest. But this is a Slam, after all, and nothing is out of the question.

4. Someone needs to win their first Grand Slam

I detailed my picks to win their first Major at Wimbledon at the end of last year, and though my original thoughts may seem a little less likely these days, that doesn't mean it couldn't still happen.

It's probably slightly more likely for the ladies, who've crowned four first-time winners at the last five events and have failed to really establish a clear favorite at any Slam recently. Of course the favorites won't make it easy for them -- all but one of the last fifteen trophy winners are still alive -- but that doesn't mean someone else can't surprise us. Five women in the top ten have never won a Major, and most of them looked really good in their opening round. Players like Aggie Radwanska, Angelique Kerber and 2007 finalist Marion Bartoli have pulled off plenty wins against the sport's top names this year, so they don't even have to rely on their draws getting cleared for them. If they get confidence on their side, there's no reason they can't make a play for the title.

The men, on the other hand, have a slightly stronger claim to the trophy -- since early 2005, only one player has been able to sneak in between the troika of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. But should the powerhouses get eliminated early -- and, let's face it, that's not outside the realm of possibility -- a couple Slam virgins could pounce. David Ferrer is coming off a title in Den Bosch, the second time this year he's won a lead-up tournament to a Major, and though this isn't his best surface, he might be able to stun us all. And while I think Andy Murray is still not ready to make his breakthrough, his homecourt advantage and the strength he has buried under miles of attitude could make him "Man Most Likely" this time around.

3. An American not named "Serena" needs to make the semis

Nothing against the four-time champion, but with so much talk about the depth of next-generation tennis in the U.S., it would be nice to see one of them -- many of whom are several years older than either Williams, Jennifer Capriati, or even Andy Roddick when they first hoisted their trophies -- finally live up to the hype.

Several of our chances have been squandered, of course. After winning her first WTA title in Birmingham, Melanie Oudin dropped her opener to young Timea Babos. And marathon man John Isner has had a little trouble winning his recent races. And even Ryan Harrison who did manage a win in his first round may not last much longer with a meeting scheduled tomorrow against defending champion Novak Djokovic. None should consider their long-term prospects ended, of course, but I'd have loved to see them make a real play on a surface which has suited them so well in the past.

But there are still a couple good prospects out there. Twenty-eighth seed Christina McHale has started to make some strides at the Majors, so it was nice to see her battle through her two-day match and come out with a win. If she's properly regrouped -- and if she gets a little bit of luck going her way -- she might be in a good position the next few rounds. Sloane Stephens, also in her quarter, could similarly take advantage of some weak or injured seeds and make a deep run here. But maybe the best chances lie with Varvara Lepchenko, the Uzbekistan-born newly-named Olympian who put together her best-yet Slam run in Paris. She'll need to make it past Petra Kvitova in a few rounds, but there's no reason she shouldn't take advantage of what has been a spotty season for the defending champ and make another run here.

The American boys could also produce some surprises. Andy Roddick's been to -- and past -- the semis before, and after his "underdog" victory in Eastbourne, he's playing well above his seed again. He'll face an early test against David Ferrer, but the next few rounds are less intimidating. And Sam Querrey, who's been out of contention for some time, is finally looking like the player we wanted him to be a few years back. After making the semis in London and pulling off a solid win over Vasek Pospisil earlier today, he could have the confidence he needs to finally prove himself on a big stage.

2. A Cinderella needs to stay a princess (or prince)

There are a lot of reasons why players who break through at one Major fade away at the next: the pressure foisted on them eventually leads to a few cracks, they've exhausted all their energy and cannot recover, they shift to a surface they're not comfortable on. But wouldn't it be nice if the players who got a big career boost in Paris proved it was no fluke?

David Goffin took one step in the right direction today. After making the fourth round at Roland Garros as as qualifier, the Belgian was granted a wildcard to his first main draw at Wimbledon, but after his opening loss to Benoit Paire at 's-Hertogenbosch, it looked like he wouldn't be able to make a successful switch to grass. But against last year's underdog triumph Bernard Tomic today, he dismissed those fears. He lost the first set to the Aussie, but came back stronger for the rest of the match to keep his reputation for causing upset at the Majors in tact. He'll next meet Jesse Levine, a former college star who's had his own trouble capitalizing on long-ago wins here, so he might actually be the favorite this time.

With a little more at stake is French Open finalist Sara Errani, who arguably was the Cinderella of the Australian Open, comes to Wimbledon with a career-high #10 ranking and riding the best streak of her career. She lost early at Den Bosch, though, and really hasn't had a lot of success on the lawn, but just a game away from winning her rain-suspended opener, she could turn that around. After the success she'll already pulled together this season, it'd be nice to see her continue winning.

And hey, and while we're at it, let's hope the Cinderellas at the All England Club -- there are bound to be a few, after all -- take their momentum with them to the summer hardcourts. It'd be a shame to see their runs halted just as quickly as they start.

1. Someone needs to prove us wrong

It can't be easy dealing with the pressure put on a professional athlete -- players are derided as one-Slam wonders, top rankings are questioned, wins, when they don't come at the expense of the elite, are dismissed. And once these stars stumble a bit, pundits are quick to latch onto their falls from grace. What better way for them to respond than to take this opportunity to prove how well-deserved their spotlight is.

Juan Martin Del Potro was that only one to breach the fortress of men's Grand Slam winners, but after injury sidelined him for much of the subsequent season, it's been a long road back. He's won a handful of titles over the last eighteen months, but none carried nearly the same caché as that illustrious U.S. Open. And even though he's made the quarters of the last two Majors, "experts" have declared he doesn't have what it takes to get past the top guys again. But he was brutal in dismissing Robin Haase in his opener Tuesday, and with a couple of relatively easy challenges coming up, he might do even better than his fourth round showing last year. If he can make the final or even better, pull off a win, his detractors might have reason to silence themselves.

Poor Caroline Wozniacki has had an even tougher time of things. Long derided for her #1 ranking, achieved more than a year after she reached -- and lost -- her only Grand Slam final to date, she seems to have succumbed to the naysayers and has fallen well off the top spot. Even I questioned whether she'd make it past Eastbourne champ Tamira Paszek in her opener. But if she does she might have dismissed the toughest opponent she'll see for a while. And a deep run here, especially when she has no expectations on her, might be exactly what she needs.

Of course I don't expect all, or maybe any, of these things to happen, but it sure would be fun to see the players try to fulfill my wishes. In the beginning days of any Major, there really is this feeling that pretty much anything is possible, so why not take advantage of that? After all, it could make for one of the most exciting Slams in a while.

No comments: