June 23, 2012

Wimbledon: Draw Analysis

I feel like I haven't even had a chance to breathe since the French Open, and here we are, already on the eve of Wimbledon eve. There are never as many same-surface events leading up to this Major as there are for the others -- in fact this year, with Newport and the Olympics later in the summer, this Slam is practically the start of the lawn tennis season -- so it's difficult to telescope who's best prepared.

Maybe it's that uncertainty -- plus the slew of somewhat crazy results so far -- that makes the draws so ripe for upsets and breakthroughs. And this year promises to be no different.

The MenThe Women

The Men

First Quarter

Defending champion Novak Djokovic comes back to the All England Club with the top seed and a decent draw. Pitted against clay-court veteran Juan Carlos Ferrero in the first round, he should be able to advance without much difficulty. The bigger problem for me is that he'll likely take out personal favorites like Eastbourne semifinalist Ryan Harrison and my dear James Blake to do so. Tomas Berdych could also claim a similar victory when he meets struggling comeback-story Ernests Gulbis in the first round. But eventually, you can expect, the stronger talent will survive.

There are still some interesting matches in this section, though. Harrison will face an immediate rematch with Yen-Hsun Lu, whom he beat just a few days ago in Eastbourne. But the man from Taipei, who's had his most success on grass and made the quarters at Wimbledon in 2010, might have the advantage in a best-of-five situation. And just unseeded Viktor Troicki meets up against dirt specialist Marcel Granollers, which could result in one of the early upsets.

But perhaps the biggest potential for a Cinderella in this quarter comes from world #101 Philipp Petzschner who, despite a couple Major doubles titles, has never had a lot of success on the singles circuit. He's made the third round here once before -- the best result he's put up at a Slam -- and took a two-set to one lead over Rafael Nadal in that match, and after making the 's-Hertogenbosch final as a qualifier, he might be primed to roll that momentum forward. He'll face largely-unknown Blaz Kavcic in the first round, and if he hasn't exhausted himself too much to get through that battle, he could put in a few more wins here.

Who'll survive? The likely battle between Nole and Berdych is rife with history -- the Czech notched his only win over the world #1 on his way to the 2010 final, but subsequent meetings have been hard-fought. He might be playing the slightly better game these days and could score the upset again.

Second Quarter

Two-time champion Rafael Nadal has been riding a nice streak of momentum the last few months. He collected four titles through the clay court season, and more importantly avenged defeats by Novak Djokovic and ended a streak of three straight losses to the world #1 in Slam finals. He may have lost early in Halle, but he's done so before and still walked away with this title. First round opponent Thomaz Bellucci has been close to the top-twenty, and he's had a couple nice wins this year, but he's really more of a wildcard on clay and should give Rafa no trouble on grass.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga is probably more of a question in this section of the draw. My New Year's pick to win his first Major here, the Frenchman injured his finger in London and may not yet be in top form. Kicking off against 2002 champ Lleyton Hewitt, Tsonga will have to be in top form. And Feliciano Lopez, who has an impressive record on grass himself, may face Roland Garros Cinderella Brian Baker in the second round. The sorta-veteran American has already worked his way through the qualies and proven he can be a force on Tour. Should he become the player to watch in two straight Slams, we'll really know he's going somewhere.

This quarter also has a couple of first round matches with some interesting storylines. One of the two Alexes -- Bogomolov and Dogopolov -- neither of whom is playing as well as he did last year, will be stopped early in his Wimbledon quest. The Russian has logged eight first round losses this year, and something tells me that number is about to go up. And 2011's surprise quarterfinalist Bernard Tomic and this year's French Open standout David Goffin will present a battle of next-generation stars. It's a shame one will lose so early, but hopefully they'll both put in a good fight.

But perhaps most interesting will be the rematch of the Halle semifinal between world #30 Philipp Kohlschreiber and that tournament's champion Tommy Haas. The seeded German has had a good season, beating Nadal at the Gerry Weber Open, but retired in his Eastbourne quarterfinal. If Haas, a semifinalist at Wimbledon in 2009, continues the run he's been on, he could get a couple wins in before the inevitable third round date with Rafa.

Who'll survive? There are a ton of fun stories in this quarter, but only one will really matter. Nadal should be able to rise above the surface and make the semis again.

Third Quarter

Roger Federer far and away has the most experience in this quarter, and shouldn't really be tested in his early rounds. The first seed he's set to meet is France's Julien Benneteau, who hasn't made a lot of waves in recent matches, so odds and talent favor the six-time champion for at least a few matches.

This quarter of the bracket does reveal a sense of humor in the fates, though. After two straight years of first round matches, John Isner and Nicolas Mahut are scheduled for a second round meeting this year. Mahut is coming off a solid win over Andy Murray in London, while Isner might still be reeling from another epic match -- this time resulting in a loss -- in his French second round. It could be an interesting psychological match, if not a physical one.

Veteran Xavier Malisse does lurk as a spoiler in this section -- he made the quarters at Queen's Club and the semis in the Netherlands. The one-time semifinalist is slated to meet Gilles Simon in the second round, a man who's beat him in their previous two meetings, but if he can pull off the upset, it might be smooth sailing for awhile.

But perhaps the most interesting opener will be between eighth-seeded Janko Tipsarevic and London-disqualified finalist David Nalbandian. They've split their two meetings this year, but the Serb hasn't won a match at the All England Clip this decade. If Nalbandian has gotten over his disappointing display at Queen's Club and plays to his ability, he might be able to pull off the win.

Who'll survive? There aren't a lot of threats to Federer in this quarter. I'd love to see him and Isner battling it out for the semi spot, but whoever his opponent is, the result will likely be the same. Roger is the only man to beat here.

Fourth Quarter

Andy Murray might have the most interesting opening round of the favorites -- Nikolay Davydenko may have fallen down the rankings since the last time they met, but he does have a decent 4-5 record against the Scot. And Murray's been struggling with injury and attitude for years months -- a loss to Nicolas Mahut in his Queen's Club opener doesn't exactly bode well for him right now. If the Russian can take hold of this match early, it might make for some interesting drama in this draw.

David Ferrer, the other top seed in this quarter, might have an easier time -- a couple qualifiers, a wildcard and a lucky loser highlight his immediate section -- and after his run to the Den Bosch title he could use the break. If all goes according to plan, he should meet Andy Roddick in the third round. The American, of course, has been struggling of late, but his title in Eastbourne proves he's still got some fight left in him. He did notch a win over the Spaniard in their last Major meeting last fall and is arguably the better grass court player. If he's healthy and rested, this could be a great opportunity to pronounce himself still-relevant.

There are a couple other players in this quarter that have the potential to make a big impact. Juan Martin Del Potro made the fourth round here last year, but is now playing even better than that. He's only lost once this year to someone ranked outside the top ten, so even with a first round against Robin Haase, who pushed Rafael Nadal to a fifth set in 2010, he should be in decent shape. And Milos Raonic, who dropped his second round here last year with what would be a near-season ending injury, should feel at home on this surface. He could meet London champ Marin Cilic in the third round and Murray a match later. But he'll be out to prove himself at the All England Club, and it'll be tough to get past that.

As for this quarter's Cinderella, keep an eye out for Sam Querrey -- injury kept him off the lawns in 2011 and his comeback has come in fits and starts, but by making the semis at Queen's he made a nice jump back up the rankings. Slated to meet Raonic in the second round, he'll have his work cut out for him but maybe -- just maybe -- he'll be able to pull off some upsets.

Who'll survive? Hope and sentiment aside, this will be a quarter where only the strong survive. And this time it might be Raonic besting Ferrer for the ultimate semi spot.

The Women

First Quarter

Maria Sharapova takes the top seed at a Slam for the first time since the 2008 French -- ironic, isn't it? -- but she has a bit of a tough road if she's looking to extend her Major win streak. Tsvetana Pironkova, who seems to do well here no matter what the rest of her season looks like, might be her second round opponent and, should the seeds play out as planned, Eastbourne finalist Angelique Kerber, who bested her in the Paris Indoors, would vie for the spot in the semis.

But there are even more interesting stories -- and some bigger threats -- in this section of the draw. Either Sabine Lisicki, last year's surprise semifinalist and my New Year's pick for the title, and Petra Cetkovska, who made her own run to the fourth round in 2011, could challenge MaSha for a spot in the quarters. And twenty-eighth seed Christina McHale and rising star Sloane Stephens could give their immediate opponents a run for the money while they try to resurrect Americans' status in the sport.

But perhaps the greatest fireworks will come from the middle of this quarter which houses 2010 runner-up Vera Zvonareva, former #1 Jelena Jankovic and unseeded, two-time semifinalist Kim Clijsters. Frankly I'm a little surprised Bepa, who withdrew before her first round at Roland Garros because of an ongoing shoulder injury, is still in the mix. And with an opener against Mona Barthel, who had an amazing start to the year, it might be hard for her to make any headway here. JJ and Kim, who've both done well at various lead-up events, will meet each other in their first round. Clijsters had to pull out of her 's-Hertogenbosch semi, but if she recovers from her abdominal injury in time, she might just get that on-paper upset.

Who'll survive? All the challenges aside, Sharapova is playing at the top of her game. And with the only true big-hitter in her quarter just coming off injury, I'd expect her to make it past even Clijsters to reach the semis.

Second Quarter

Victoria Azarenka started to look like her old self again at Roland Garros, and not necessarily in a good way. But the run she had in the early part of the year was not for naught, and she certainly has the ability to get back on the winning track here. She'll kick off against Irina Falconi, who may put up a struggle, but probably won't face a test for a couple rounds. If early action favors the seeds, her first challenge would come from Ana Ivanovic -- who'd incidentally have to get past a tricky Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez in her opener -- in the sweet sixteen, and even that Vika should be able to handle.

Trickier is the other side of the quarter where former world #1 Caroline Wozniacki, who'll meet surprise Eastbourne champion Tamira Paszek to start. The one-time Junior contemporaries have only played once on the pro Tour, but the Austrian might be riding a more successful wave these days. After her first round loss at the AEGON International, Wozniacki now has fewer than two victories for every defeat this year and hasn't notched a single win over a top-ten player. If she doesn't turn her season around quick, she might be in for her earliest Major exit since the first one she played.

There's room for a few more upsets in this quarter as well. Barely seeded Svetlana Kuznetsova will meet Yanina Wickmayer, ranked just one spot below her, in her first round. Neither have been having the best year, but the Belgian started to turn things around with a runner-up trophy in Bad Gastein while Sveta pulled off that solid victory over Aggie Radwanska in Paris. Neither of those wins was on grass, though, and neither lady has put up any numbers on this surface this year. The Russian leads the pair's head-to-head, but Wickmayer pulled off a stunning win last year at the All England Club, so it might be an opportunity for her to pull even with her opponent.

Who'll survive? Azarenka might not be playing at her best, but the other players in this quarter aren't either. Whether by virtue of ability or luck, it looks like the Belarusian might have it made until the semis at least.

Third Quarter

Aggie Radwanska has been a little quiet since the successful run that brought her to the #3 spot in the world. A third-round loss in Paris and a opening defeat in Eastbourne may not be the way she wants to prepare for her historically-best Slam, and with the possibility of another second-round against Venus Williams, that's a shame. But if she wins that match, it could be smooth sailing for quite some time -- I'm not sure I'd say the same for Venus who, at thirty-one and still trying to manage her Sjogren's Syndrome, may not have the stamina for more than a few big battles.

There aren't many other true grass-courters in this quarter. Sam Stosur has never made it out of the third round at the All England Club, and Na Li, a quarterfinalist in 2010, haven't really done much off of clay recently. That could mean an opportunity for super-Cinderellas to emerge. Misaki Doi, ranked just out of the top hundred, scored a win over top-seeded Francesca Schiavone in Birmingham and first faces Arantxa Rus, who made a solid fourth-round run at Roland Garros. And one-time American darling Melanie Oudin might be polishing her star again after that title at the AEGON Classic. She'll probably face a tough second round against 's-Hertogenbosch winner Nadia Petrova, but the Russian is notoriously erratic and might not be the challenge her ranking suggests.

Who'll survive? If she gets through Venus early, this is Aggie's quarter. If not, it'll be someone totally random. Let's say Maria Kirilenko, just for fun.

Fourth Quarter

Defending champion Petra Kvitova comes to Wimbledon in 2012 with zero titles on the season -- at this time last year, she had three. She wasn't even able to defend runner-up points in Eastbourne, and despite her #4 ranking, she's currently just in the running for a spot in Istanbul, which she won in 2011. Luckily for her, she'll have a couple easy rounds here, with her first seeded opponent being a similarly struggling youngster, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. But it will get harder from there.

Serena Williams also has a clear road early on. Her potential third round against 2008 semifinalist Jie Zheng may be a bit more intimidating that Kvitova's, but after her shocking first round loss at Roland Garros, look for her to come out swinging -- and angry. That probably won't bode well for Sara Errani, the next highest seed in Serena's half of the quarter and her potential fourth round challenger, but then again the French Open finalist might want to prove her run wasn't a fluke and improve on her dismal 's-Hertogenbosch showing.

There are a couple places here too where we might see some big surprises. Yaroslava Shvedova, a doubles champion here in 2010, made the quarters in Roland Garros as a qualifier and is now ranked #65 in the world. She's in the same portion of the draw as Lucie Safarova and Errani, so could take advantage of non-lawn players. And Klara Zakopalova, a semifinalist in Eastbourne, might give thirteenth seed Dominika Cibulkova a fight in their first round. The Slovakian seems to be getting her groove back, but she's been spotty at times this year and might be an easy pick for her opponent.

Who'll survive? It seems inevitable Kvitova and Serena will be the ones playing in the quarters, and with so much on the line for both it's sure to be a good fight. I'll give this one to Serena, but it'd be nice for the Czech to put up a big fight.

It'll be a long road for any of these guys or girls to make the final, but the draws have shaped up to provide plenty of opportunity for any underdog to make a statement. The favorites will be out in full force to either reclaim or defend their titles from years past. But if the past few weeks have taught us anything, it certainly looks like even the ones most comfortable at the All England Club might not be as safe as they once were.

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