June 19, 2014

Wimbledon: 10 Things I Want to See

I know what you're thinking: "Oh my God, didn't we just go through this? We're barely a week out from the French Open and we're already gearing up for another Grand Slam?!"

I promise -- next year, we'll have a little more time to catch our breath between Roland Garros and Wimbledon, but 'til then let's gear up for another rundown of things I'd like to see over the next fortnight. Now I'm not promising anything, but my top two wishes for Paris did come true. So maybe -- just maybe -- I'll have as good, or even better luck this time around, and hopefully you'll be just as excited by that action as I will be.

So, here we go! Fingers crossed...

10. Rafa makes it past the second round

Now this should almost be a given -- for a man who ranks #1 in the world, has made twenty-seven Major quarters, is second on the all-time list of Grand Slam singles titleholders and claims two trophies here himself, early rounds -- even at an event like this -- shouldn't require much effort.

We know, though, that that's not always the case -- uber-champions like Serena Williams, Roger Federer and Maria Sharapova have all fallen in the first week before, across the four Majors, and not always to top players. And Nadal -- well, two years ago he crashed out in the second round to then-#100 Lukas Rosol in a season-ending shocker and went one better worse in his 2013 return, losing his opener this time to world #135 Steve Darcis. So despite an otherwise impressive 36-9 record at the All England Club, his eighty percent win rate here is actually worse than at any other Slam.

And frankly, I'm a little worried about this one -- despite his top ranking, he was only given the second seed, and he's had little match play on grass this year, and not by choice. Days after leaving Paris he made the trip to Halle and crashed out in his opener to wildcard Dustin Brown. That might be a red flag -- in the years he's reached the final at the All England Club he's made at least the quarters of a warm-up event. But hopefully he'll be able to buck tradition and turn his luck on grass around -- it's been a while since he's shown what he can do on this surface, and now's as good a time as any to remind us how he won that career Grand Slam.

9. Sabine Lisicki reaches the quarters -- at least

Did you forget Lisicki was runner-up here last year? I almost did.

But let's all remember this is by far the German's best Slam, and likely her favorite. Back in 2009 when ranked just #41 in the world, she reached the quarterfinals with wins over Svetlana Kuznetsova and Caroline Wozniacki in the process. She was even more of an underdog two years later, coming back from injury, but made it all the way to the semis where she ultimately fell to Maria Sharapova. She avenged that loss the next season, though, and last year took out both 2012 finalists Aga Radwanska and five-time titleist Serena Williams on her way to her first -- and so far only -- Major championship match.

Lisicki's been a little quiet this year, though -- her best performance has been a third-round showing in Madrid -- and she's battling her health again. She retired during her second match in Paris with a wrist injury and subsequently pulled out of Birmingham. Hopefully the couple weeks' rest will be enough to recover -- the twenty-four year old has way more talent than her recent results and ranking suggest, and it would be great to see her finally rewarded for it.

8. An American has a breakthrough

This country has been looking for its Next Big Thing Slam after Slam, and while players like John Isner and Sloane Stephens certainly have had the most consistent success, it sure would be nice to see a little more depth in the U.S. field. And for whatever reason, it feels like Wimbledon, more than the other Majors, is the most likely venue for that to happen.

On the men's side Steve Johnson might be our best hope -- just off his peak ranking of #63 in the world, he's actually the second best American on the ATP Tour. He's certainly more of a hard court player -- he reached the third round of the U.S. Open a few years back and beat Tommy Haas and Feliciano Lopez on his way to the Delray semis this past February -- but he did put up a fight in the Halle quarters and got in another match win in 's-Hertogenbosch. Patrick McEnroe picked him as a dark horse for Roland Garros, which might be giving him a little too much credit, but with five first round losses at his last six Slams, he should at least pull himself together enough for a couple big match wins at a Major.

Madison Keys is also due for a breakout performance -- the nineteen-year-old got a couple Slam match wins last year and, despite a middle-of-the-road #47 ranking, she's had some solid results this year. She's one of a handful of players to beat Simona Halep this year, riding that momentum to a semi in Sydney, before upsetting Alison Riske and former world #15 Julia Goerges in Strasbourg. She's never done much at a Major, though, but after stunning former world #1 Jelena Jankovic and defending champion Elena Vesnina in Eastbourne this week, she could be ready to change that. And any success here could put her further on the path to take over the reins of U.S. tennis when the time comes.

7. A grass-courter steps up to the plate

Both these guys have shown some promise on Tour, but neither has much hardware to show for their efforts. Meanwhile a couple players who first joined the winners' circle with trophies on grass have an opportunity to finally parlay that into results on a big stage.

Magdalena Rybarikova has hung around the mid-double digits in the sport for years, and while she has picked up a handful of hardcourt titles during her career, her first trophy came in Birmingham five years ago. Still, somewhat surprisingly, in her six appearances in the All England Club's main draw, she's never won a match. She seems to be getting her act together this week, though -- unseeded in Den Bosch, she's already bean French Open semifinalist Andrea Petkovic, and stands a good chance against Annika Beck in her quarterfinal today. She's still out of seeding territory at Wimbledon, but depending on how the draws shake out, she could present an early threat to some of the favorites.

Thirty-two year old Nicolas Mahut made his first splash on Tour a little later than most, but captured his first career trophies just last year, both on grass. Of course he's most known for that epic loss at the All England Club a few years back, but he spent more time on this surface in that one match than most players in the field ever have, so he's certainly got experience on his side. He's actually won a solid sixty-plus percent of his matches on the lawn, and though he's the on-paper underdog against 2014 standout Roberto Bautista Agut in his quarterfinal today, he might just be able to pull off the win and keep on going.

6. Half the semifinalists play their Final Four debut

This is really a variant of a wish I have at every Slam -- for someone to have a breakthrough on a big stage, surprise a couple the favorites and maybe make a new name for themselves that lasts a little past the end of this fortnight. And after the Wimbledon we saw last year, there's plenty of opportunity for anything to happen.

Alison Riske hasn't yet had a lot of luck at the Majors -- the twenty-three year old notched a career-best fourth round showing in New York last year -- but she's a two-time semifinalist on the lawns of Birmingham and comes to London just a shade off her career high ranking. She lost her opening round in Eastbourne, but put up a good fight against a tough Angelique Kerber, and with wins over players like Elena Vesnina and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova this year, she could be ready to finally make a splash when it counts.

Slightly -- and only slightly -- more tested is Barbora Zahlavova Strycova, who defeated three seeded players on her way to the Birmingham final last week. More known for her doubles results -- she has seventeen titles in the paired discipline versus just one in singles -- the Czech's run was by far her best performance at a Premier-level event, and pushed her nearly twenty spots up the rankings. Like Riske, she's never had great showings at the Majors, and she might have lost some momentum after a first round loss in 's-Hertogenbosch, but two of her three third round showings have come at Wimbledon, and she could go a little further this time around.

Alejandro Falla also broke his streak this week, falling to Jurgen Melzer at the Topshelf Open immediately after his Cinderella run in Halle. But the veteran Colombian has had some success at the All England Club before -- in 2012 he opened with a win over marathon man John Isner, and a couple years before that he was up two sets on defending champ Roger Federer in their first round. He's only once made the fourth round of a Major -- in Roland Garros back in 2011 -- but it's never too late to change that history.

World #9 Milos Raonic is, on paper, the most likely of this group to meet these expectations, but somewhat surprisingly he seems to keep falling short, especially on grass. Despite a game that's been likened to that of Pete Sampras, he's actually lost more on this surface than he's won, and he's coming off a opening round loss to Peter Gojowczyk in Halle. His performance at Wimbledon has been even more lackluster -- even with his big-service game and consistency at the top of the sport, he's lost in the second round here three years in a row. He did finally break the second week seal in Paris though, reaching the quarters before losing to Novak Djokovic, so he might just have the confidence to live up to his potential.

5. A former Cinderella gets back to the ball

But as great as it is to see new faces get in the mix at the Majors, you really want to see players carry success into subsequent years. And this can be difficult for a variety of reasons -- a loss of adrenaline, sidelines for injury, etc. -- I'm hoping a couple athletes who've gone farther than we expected in the past make another run this time around.

Maria Kirilenko is probably the longest shot of this group, not because she doesn't have the potential to repeat her 2012 quarterfinal run, but because she's struggled to come back from a knee injury that took her out of the Australian Open this year. She's only played a handful of matches at all this year, winning a single one in Madrid before withdrawing, and this week bowed out of her Den Bosch opener against qualifier Mona Barthel. She's now ranked #87 in the world, a far cry from her peak in the top ten about a year ago. But she's had some of her best results on these courts -- she was also an Olympic semifinalist that year -- and with virtually nothing to lose this go-round, she might be able to really shine.

Kirsten Flipkens, the 2003 Girls' champion here, saw her best main draw results a little more recently, sneaking into the semis at Wimbledon just last year with wins over a resurgent Flavia Pennetta and former champion Petra Kvitova. She's lost eleven first round matches since then, though, and fell Wednesday in her attempt to defend finalist points at 's-Hertogenbosch. It would be great to see her regroup over the next few days, if only to prove last year's run was no fluke.

There were a couple Cinderellas to choose from on the men's side last year, but Jerzy Janowicz's performance so far this year makes him less likely to repeat. Instead I'm watching Fernando Verdasco, who, while ranked outside the top fifty, took a two-set lead over Andy Murray in last year's quarterfinal. After a title in Houston and a fourth round in Paris, he's at his highest ranking in almost two years. And if he can keep the momentum he gathered in Den Bosch -- he's got a winning 6-2 record against today's quarterfinal opponent Jurgen Melzer -- he could make another run here too.

It's been a little longer since Bernard Tomic had his miraculous quarterfinal run at Wimbledon -- he was a qualifier in 2011 when he beat Nikolay Davydenko and then-#5 Robin Soderling in London. Now, though, with a 5-6 record on the season before this week, he's at his lowest ranking since then, #82 in the world. He might be ready to come back though -- he only made the second round in Eastbourne, but took top seeded Richard Gasquet to three tight sets. He still has his best record on grass, too, so if there's any Major where he'll see his comeback, this one's it.

4. The defeated get redemption

There's one good thing about the quick turnaround after the French Open: top stars who walked away in the early rounds with their tails between their legs -- and there was certainly plenty of that this year -- have an immediate opportunity to erase those memories with a deep run at another Major. And I'm hoping some of the guys that dropped early at Roland Garros are able to get momentum back on their side.

It's been a tough couple months for Mikhail Youzhny -- though still ranked in the top twenty, the veteran Russian has compiled a weak 7-11 record on the year, and after barely making it out of the first round in Paris, he fell in four to Radek Stepanek a match later. Clay's not traditionally his best surface though, so he's got much better prospects on the lawns of England. Though he lost his opener last week in Halle -- a slightly worse result than his runner-up finish in 2013 -- he has made at least the fourth round at Wimbledon eight times before. That makes this his most consistent Slam and possibly the best opportunity he has to turn his season around.

Stan Wawrinka has an even tougher ask -- with a 17-19 record on the grass, this is actually his worst surface. He's lost his opening match at the All England Club five times, including on his most recent two trips here, probably why he was only granted a fifth place seeding -- two spots below his rank. To be fair, those losses came to more-than-solid players -- then-#35 Jurgen Melzer in 2012 and 2002 champ Lleyton Hewitt last year -- but only one of his wins came over someone ranked in the top fifty. After the newly-minted Grand Slam holder failed dramatically to defend quarterfinal points in Paris, he's got to prove he's no one-hit wonder. He got a couple match wins in his London semi run last week, but he'll need to up his game if he's gonna do something big this fortnight.

Roberta Vinci may have a slightly better shot at redeeming herself than these two gentlemen. While the Italian did manage to reach the doubles final at Roland Garros, she didn't come close to realizing her potential in the singles draw and, much as I'd feared, crashed out in the first round. But she's historically been a decent grass court player, reaching the fourth round at Wimbledon the last two years and even picking up a title on the surface three years back. She lost her opener in Eastbourne this week, so clearly troubles persist, but this might be the best surface for her to turn things around.

But perhaps the player I'd most like to see do something big at Wimbledon is former world #1 Caroline Wozniacki. Yes, I was hoping for a resurrection in Paris, but circumstances being what they were, that was not in the cards and she couldn't manage to get past Yanina Wickmayer in her opener there. But I hold out hope that she'll bounce back stronger now -- not just because her game is much better than what she's shown us the last few months, but also because her ex deserves to see her not only succeed, but triumph. This will be a hard venue for her, though -- it's the only Slam at which she hasn't made the quarterfinals, and she's run into some tough opponents early the last two years -- but that would make her victory so much sweeter. But she's notched some big wins in Eastbourne this week, taking out both Sam Stosur and Sloane Stephens already, and, with a quarterfinal meeting against still-rising Camila Giorgi, she has plenty of opportunity to go further. And I'm betting I'm not the only one hoping she does so.

3. Two first-timers take home the trophies

This might be asking for a lot, but we've already had one virgin win a Major this year and two more reach the finals. Would it be that big a stretch to go a little further?

It's already pretty unlikely we'll see a defending champion repeat in the first place -- 2013 women's champion Marion Bartoli, after all, retired from the sport just weeks after claiming her only Slam last July, and Andy Murray, who surprisingly did make the Roland Garros semis earlier this month, suffered two long five-setters to get there and then failed to defend the Queen's Club title, falling in his opener to doubles specialist Radek Stepanek. And while Novak Djokovic, Serena Williams and other former winners certainly lead the rest of the field, they're also capable of being surprised. And more than a couple contenders vying for that spot.

There are plenty of ladies who could realize this dream -- French Open runner-up Simona Halep won one of her first career titles on the surface less than a year ago while 2012 finalist Agnieszka Radwanska may not have won a title yet this year, but still has by far her best record at this Slam. Still you gotta like the chances of 2012 Juniors champ Eugenie Bouchard who, at this time last year, was ranked outside the top fifty and had only won one match at a Major. Yes, her run in Melbourne was largely luck -- the highest ranked player she faced before the quarters was #68 Lauren Davis -- but she more than backed it up with wins over Angelique Kerber and dark horse Carla Suarez Navarro on her way to the Paris semis. She had a surprising first round loss in Den Bosch this week, but maybe a little rest before heading over to London is just what she needs to do something big.

It'll be a little harder for a man to penetrate the Slam stranglehold of the ATP stars -- only nine different players have made the last twenty Grand Slam finals compared to sixteen different women, and just five men have combined to win all those trophies. Still there are a couple guys who could make an impact -- Tomas Berdych has reached the final here before and Kei Nishikori has managed some big wins already this year. But my little-less-dark horse has to be Grigor Dimitrov, who's made my "10 Things" list twice already this year. The 2012 Juniors champ at the All England Club finally made the second week of a Major in Australia and is fresh off his first grass court title at Queen's Club. If he keeps up his momentum, I wouldn't be surprised to see him make a real play for this title.

Of course, if either of these two meet their potential this fortnight, my top two wishes can't possibly come true...

2. A ten year reunion in the ladies' final

A full decade ago a seventeen-year-old Maria Sharapova, ranked just fifteenth at the time, stunned practically the entire world when she defeated the top seed at Wimbledon, two-time defending champion Serena Williams, and claimed the first of her five Grand Slam trophies.

On the ten year anniversary of that fateful day, wouldn't it be great to see a rematch?

Of course, these two have seen each other plenty since, but the Russian has won just one of their fifteen subsequent meetings -- in fact, she's only taken a single set off Serena since 2010.

This time I want to see a battle -- and, truth be told, I wouldn't mind the same scoreline we got in 2004.

Sure, even beyond the head-to-head record, Serena is the favorite -- the top seed holds five trophies here and, if history is any indication, she'll likely take out aggression from her early loss in Paris on all her opponents the rest of the year.

But she's certainly fallible, too, and if Maria makes the final -- as the fifth seed, she could meet Williams as early as the quarters -- she might be able to take advantage of that. Since her injury-induced second round exit last year, she's put together a solid 31-7 record and now leads this year's race to the season-ending championships. She's healthy, should have tons of confidence after her French run, and will be eager to end a long stretch of losses to her rival.

And if you remember how many streaks have already come to an end this year, there may be no better time to do it.

1. A six year reunion in the men's

Yeah, I wish the numbers rounded out a little better here too, but it's been a while since one-time arch-rivals Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal met for a Major title, and I won't stand on formality. As happy as I am to see new stars rise in this sport, sometimes I long for days of yore, and Wimbledon, more than any other Slam, is the place where you expect to see tradition upheld.

Of course it's gonna be tough for either of these guys, to say nothing of both, to reach finals weekend -- they've each had their troubles here recently, and Roger, despite his seven titles here already, hasn't even played for a Major title since 2012. But I'm holding out hope for Rafa, and Fed did just capture his seventh title in Halle. Neither is ready to walk off into the sunset yet, and hopefully they'll put together at least one more big campaign here.

It's probably too much to ask for these guys to put up the kind of battle they used to -- their 2007 and '08 Wimbledon finals combined for more than nine-and-a-half hours of court time, but five of their six most recent meetings have been decided in straight sets, mostly going in Nadal's favor. But there's no reason that on this surface, under these circumstances, these two can't keep us on the edge of our seats for a few hours Championship Sunday. And, as much as I usually root for Rafa, a win by the veteran sure would be sweet after the drought he's had recently. So it would only be fitting that it comes against the man who's proven his foil so many times before.

As usual, for some of my wishes to come true in London, others obviously cannot. But as much as a couple of these seem like long shots, some crazy things have happened at Wimbledon before -- and at all the Slams, in fact this year -- so there's no reason to believe even the most far-fetched are well within reach.

But there's plenty more stuff sure to catch our attention over the next fortnight, so be sure to check back later this week for a full preview of Wimbledon 2014. And in the meantime, let me know what you're hoping to see this year at the All England Club.

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