June 23, 2013

Wimbledon Preview: Cinderella Stories

If it's going to happen anywhere, it's probably going to happen at the All England Club -- year after year at Wimbledon we've seen unknown players emerge as the sport's newest stars. And while the favorites will certainly have the upper hand at the season's next Grand Slam, there's still plenty of room for up-and-comers to cause a little bit of trouble. So let's take a look at who not only could cause the biggest upsets in the draw, but also have the potential to put together runs that really put them on the radar.

The MenThe Women

The Men

First Quarter

Top seed and 2011 champion Novak Djokovic and 2010 finalist Tomas Berdych are slated to meet in the quarterfinals here, but that's not necessarily set in stone. Both open against barely unseeded players -- Nole against Florian Mayer who, last year, made the elite eight, and the Czech against world #35 Martin Klizan -- and could be tested early. Still, the experience of these champions on the big stage should be enough to get them through early rounds.

But other players have a big opportunity in this section -- Eastbourne champion Feliciano Lopez opens against Gilles Simon in a rematch of the Aegon final and, if he's able to keep momentum on his side, might not only be able to repeat, but also get in a couple more wins here. And Ryan Harrison, long held up as the next big thing in American tennis, has had a couple of close calls at being a Slam Cinderella. He's had the bad luck of facing a top ten player during his first two matches in six of the last nine Majors, and this time is relatively lucky to be dealt world #27 Jeremy Chardy in his opener. If he gets in a few big wins he could finally have the break we've been waiting for.

Also in this section of the draw is surprise 2011 quarterfinalist Bernard Tomic. He did win his first career title in Sydney this year, but has since fallen out of the top sixty and is gaining more headlines because of his father's off-court antics. It'll be interesting to see if he can rise above, or if he'll be the latest to suffer for the sins of a parent.

The Cinderella Quarterfinal: (21) Sam Querrey vs. Feliciano Lopez

I wanted Sam to get this far in Australia, too, and he fell short there too. But he has had some of his best Major results in London -- as well as a title at Queen's Club. If he survives an opener against Tomic, he might just get the confidence he needs to put together a run here.

Second Quarter

Andy Murray arrives at Wimbledon this year, not only a Grand Slam champion for the first time in his career, but also an Olympic Gold medalist, and having added another title at Queen Club, he's riding a pretty nice streak as he heads to his homeland. He opens against Benjamin Becker, a man he beat fairly handily in London, and the first seed he should face is world #29 Tommy Robredo. But Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, his likely quarterfinal opponent, has made the semis his last two trips here, and may not be willing to relinquish his claim to the final four.

Still the road may not be that easy. Tsonga faces a first round match against last year's semi-Cinderella David Goffin, who's now trying to end a four-match losing streak at the Majors. Viktor Troicki, meanwhile, is coming off a nice run in Paris, and could get the upper hand over compatriot Janko Tipsarevic, while Ernests Gulbis, having won a second title in Delray in March, might finally be ready for his Slam breakthrough. And players like Fernando Verdasco, who made a nice run to the Eastbourne semis, and 's-Hertogenbosch semifinalist Xavier Malisse -- who are, unfortunately, meeting in the first round -- would both like to keep their momentum going at the All England Club.

But maybe the biggest surprise will come from a man who once spent half a day playing here and didn't even get out of the first round. Nicolas Mahut is coming off a huge win in Den Bosch -- his first career title -- having contested his third final on grass. Seeming to have rebounded from that marathon better than eventual winner John Isner, he could easily win his first few rounds -- and slated to meet Murray in the third, he should bring with him the confidence that helped him get a win over the world #2 last year at Queen's Club.

The Cinderella Quarterfinal: (20) Mikhail Youzhny vs. Marcos Baghdatis

Youzhny was once a semifinalist in New York and Baghdatis, you might remember, came in second in Melbourne seven-and-a-half years ago. They've come a bit down from those highs of late, but the Russian did put up a fight to make the Halle semis and Baghs, well, I just want to believe his eleven match losing streak is about to end. Both men are probably past their prime, but Cinderellas can come from anywhere, so why not from the archives?

Third Quarter

The Brits might be watching the Murray quarter most closely but this is the one where sparks can really fly. Defending champion Roger Federer could meet long-time nemesis and reigning French Open titleist Rafael Nadal in the quarterfinals -- the first time that's happened...ever. The two men who've ruled the sport for the better part of a decade have played twenty of their thirty matches in a final, and the fact that only one of them can make the final four seems, well, wrong. And even though one of the favorites has to go home earlier than he'd like to, a couple other guys could cause trouble before even that.

Last year's giant-killer Lukas Rosol is in this quarter, but this year wouldn't meet Rafa until the quarters. It'll be a tough road for him to get quite that far, but surrounded immediately by a bunch of clay court specialists, there's no reason to believe he won't at least be able to improve on his 2012 run. Elsewhere, Queen's Club semifinalist and 2002 champion Lleyton Hewitt will try to improve on his first round showing from last year, but with an opening match against pink-hot Stanislas Wawrinka, it might be tough. And the other marathon man John Isner, coming off a opening round loss in 's-Hertogenbosch kicks off at the All England Club with a rematch against Evgeny Donskoy, the man who beat him there. He continues to struggle closing out matches, though, and on the grounds of his most famous performance yet, it could be hard to turn things around.

The Cinderella Quarterfinal: (11) Stanislas Wawrinka vs. Radek Stepanek

The Swiss has been having the best year of his career so far, and though he was stunned in the Den Bosch final by Nicolas Mahut, he's proven he's able to put together more than a few big wins. He's made the quarters of the three other Grand Slams, but hasn't yet made it out of the fourth round here -- with the success he's been having, he might just be able to turn that around now. And Stepanek, well off his career high ranking in the top ten, has actually made the quarters here once before. The favorites in his immediate section of the draw are clay-court specialist Nicolas Almagro and possible one-hit wonder Jerzy Janowicz, so there's no reason he can't be the one sneaking through the first week of action.

Fourth Quarter

This is uncharted territory for David Ferrer -- he's carried a fourth seed at a Slam before, but I don't think it's ever happened when all four of the big boys are playing, and certainly never having the experience of playing in a Major final. Pressure will be on him and eighth-seeded Juan Martin Del Potro, who skipped the French Open due to illness, to get back in the thick of things. But neither has too much to worry about in early rounds -- the biggest threat is to DelPo who might face 2009 "Cinderella" Jesse Levine, ranked #112, in the second round.

Still, with a lack of true grass court players in this section there's a lot of potential to break through. Last year's standout Philipp Kohlschreiber will look to defend quarterfinal points, but could get challenged early by Eastbourne semifinalist Ivan Dodig, who big be able to ride his momentum to another couple wins. And players like Michael Llodra, a fourth rounder at the All England Club in 2011, or Denis Istomin, who opens against Andreas Seppi, a winner of just a handful of matches here, have plenty of opportunity to shake things up. And low seed Grigor Dimitrov, a hair of a career high ranking, has beaten top stars like Janko Tipsarevic and Novak Djokovic this year -- there's a lot of hype around him, of course but he has yet to make a statement at a Slam, and this might be his best shot.

The Cinderella Quarterfinal: (17) Milos Raonic vs. (12) Kei Nishikori

The Canadian, with his big serve and power game, should be a shoe in at Wimbledon, but he's never made it past the second round here and lost his opener at the Aegon International to Dodig this past week. He's made the second week of a Slam a couple times, but since his breakout in Australia back in 2011, he's been hard-pressed to recapture that euphoric state -- it would be nice to change that now. And Nishikori, suddenly ranked just outside the top ten, has only made it out of the first round once in London. If he can harness the talent we know he has in him -- he stunned Roger Federer in Madrid -- he might be poised to have that epiphany.

The Women

First Quarter

The way she's playing, it's hard to imagine anyone getting in the way of Serena Williams -- even though she's slated to meet Sam Stosur, the woman who crushed her during the 2011 U.S. Open final, in the fourth round, and Angelique Kerber, winner of their Cincinnati quarter last year, she shouldn't have much trouble as she tries for another Wimbledon crown. But that's the point of this exercise, so let's look at where we could see some surprises anyway.

Francesca Schiavone is unseeded at the All England Club this year, as is Julia Goerges -- both, though, have shown their ability to cause trouble on the big stage, and could give early round opponents a run for their money. And up-and-comers like Laura Robson, Cinderella of last year's U.S. Open, and Urszula Radwanska, both in the relatively weaker bottom half of this section, might be able to take advantage of the opportunity.

Still, they should watch out for Kaia Kanepi, a quarterfinalist here in 2010 -- she's struggled to come back from injury, but did win a title in Brussels last month, and beat seeded Klara Zakopalova in the French first round. And American Alison Riske has yet to win a match at a Major, but she did make a nice jump up the rankings after making a run to the Birmingham semis -- she beat grass-court stars Sabine Lisicki and Tamira Paszek on the way. She opens against inexplicably seeded Romina Oprandi, so it wouldn't be hard for her to finally get a win when the pressure's on.

The Cinderella Quarterfinal: Elena Vesnina vs. Bethanie Mattek-Sands (both unseeded)

After six failed attempts in finals, Vesnina finally broke the seal with a win in Hobart and proved that was no fluke when she took out former #1 Ana Ivanovic and 2011 French Open champ Na Li on her way to the Eastbourne title. She's been a doubles runner-up here too, so she certainly knows how to win. And BMS, having started the year at #173 in the world thanks to a long battle with injury, is now near top-fifty after a fourth round appearance in Paris. She too is more decorated on the doubles court, but with a first round match against recently quiet Angelique Kerber, she shouldn't be counted out on the singles side.

Second Quarter

Two-time semifinalist Victoria Azarenka seems to have bee a little quiet recently, but that doesn't mean she's still not a force on this surface. The first seed she's set to face is world #30 Alize Cornet, and she should have no trouble dispatching the threat. 2011 champion Petra Kvitova has a bit of a tougher task, with Ekaterina Makarova, a winner once in Eastbourne, lurking in the third round. But neither lady's fate is set in stone yet.

Twentieth seed Kirsten Flipkens seems happy to take over the reins in Belgian tennis -- she made the fourth round in Australia and is coming off a runner's-up finish in Den Bosch. And countrywoman Yanina Wickmayer used to be a near top-ten player. Having beaten Kvitova and 2012 quarterfinalist Maria Kirilenko in Eastbourne, she might be able to get some of that momentum back this fortnight. Sofia Arvidsson, on the other hand, has had less success of late, but having ended last season with wins over Kirilenko, Marion Bartoli and Lucie Safarova, she could have a great opportunity here to turn things around.

The Cinderella Quarterfinal: (16) Jelena Jankovic vs. Garbine Muguruza

The former #1 has been mounting a bit of a comeback recently, making the quarters in Rome and Paris and the semis in Nürnberg, and could continue that run here. And the little-known teenager, winner over Mona Barthel and Dominika Cibulkova in Den Bosch, seems to know how to pull off some big wins. She should face Makarova in the second round and Kvitova a match later, but if she can keep her wits about her, there's no reason she shouldn't thrive.

Third Quarter

2004 champion Maria Sharapova wasn't able to defend runner-up points last year, or the title she won at Roland Garros, but she's still an intimidating 36-5 on the year -- and only one of those losses came to someone other than Serena Williams. Though she's slated to meet 2007 finalist Marion Bartoli in the fourth round, the Russian's more consistent play should make her the one to beat in this section.

But again, there's lots of opportunity for surprises. Melanie Oudin made the fourth here four years ago and, though she wasn't able to defend a title in Birmingham, she has beaten Sharapova, her potential second round opponent, before. And players like Andrea Petkovic, Donna Vekic and Jamie Hampton -- all finalists at events since the French Open and all in a section where top seeds, clay court specialist Sara Errani and still-struggling Eastbourne semifinalist Caroline Wozniacki, are easily beatable here -- could really shake up the draws if they want to.

The Cinderella Quarterfinal: Petra Cetkovska vs. Lucie Hradecka (both unseeded)

Cetkovska made the fourth round here in 2011 and went on to make the final in New Haven. She's fallen a bunch in the rankings, but with an immediate draw that features less-accomplished players, she certainly has an opportunity again this year. And doubles specialist Hradecka, a wildcard at the All England Club, has the kind of serve and power game that should make her a force on this court. She's never gotten out of the singles' first round, but was a doubles finalist last year, and with Fed Cup teammate Lucie Safarova the first seed she's set to meet, she might have a chance to change that.

Fourth Quarter

I fear for last year's runner-up, Agnieszka Radwanska, I really do. She started the year 13-0 and won two titles Down Under and, though she made the quarters both in Melbourne and Paris, it seems like she lost a bit of a step and fell in the Eastbourne first round to eventual finalist Jamie Hampton. She has a couple easy early matches, but could be tested by the end of the first week, and with Na Li, struggling yes, but still the leader in their 6-4 head-to-head, as her scheduled quarterfinal opponent, I worry the Pole may drop a bunch of points at the end of this fortnight.

There are plenty of other threats in this section, too. 2010 semifinalist Tsvetana Pironkova clearly knows how to win here and, though her ranking's dropped a bit, was able to make the quarters in 's-Hertogenbosch. And both 2009 Birmingham champ Magdalena Rybarikova and Monica Niculescu, a fourth rounder at the U.S. Open once, have talent that belies their relatively low rankings. Neither have done well here in the past, but with some wholly winnable early rounds, that could change this year. And up-and-comers like eighteen-year-old Madison Keys and Osaka champion Heather Watson, who sadly meet in the first round, might have what it takes to finally put together a big Major run.

Daniela Hantuchova, meanwhile, made the quarterfinals here way back in 2002. She retired from her first round in Den Bosch, but is coming off an impressive title in Birmingham. She's got a winnable opening match against Klara Zakopalova and there's no reason she shouldn't translate an early win here to greater success. And Simona Halep, who won her first and second career titles over the past two weeks is in the same section of the draw. The 2008 Juniors champion at Roland Garros may be better known for her performance on clay, but after taking the crown in Den Bosch, she might have proven herself more of an all-court player.

The Cinderella Quarterfinal: (11) Roberta Vinci vs. (13) Nadia Petrova

There is so much opportunity in this quarter for underdogs to shine, I wonder if they'll all tire themselves out after the first week -- so I'm giving the edge to two veteran grass court players. Vinci won the 2011 title in Den Bosch and made the fourth round here last year. At a career-high singles ranking, she's also half of the #1 doubles team in the world and could cause a stir here. The Russian, meanwhile, is a two-time quarterfinalist already at the All England Club. Though she's known for her spotty play, she's also never one to be counted out and might be up for making one more big statement here.

Of course, it won't be easy for any of these players to prove they have what it takes to be the standouts at this year's Wimbledon, but if dreams can come true anywhere, it certainly seems like they can do so at the All England Club. They have, after all, for so many before this. But what's important is not so much what these players are able to do this fortnight, but how they hold onto it for the weeks and months to come.

After all, no Cinderella wants to leave the ball at the stroke of midnight. And some of these players have a great opportunity to cement themselves as tennis royalty for a very long reign.

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