June 23, 2015

2015 Wimbledon: Ten to Watch

Even with that extra week between the end of the French Open and the start of Wimbledon, it still doesn't quite feel like enough time to really prep for another Major. But here we are on the verge of perhaps the biggest fortnight in tennis and you know all the stars will be out swinging.

But as always, it's not just about the players who ultimately walk away with the trophies -- some who seem far removed from their career bests and even those who haven't yet come close to their peaks also have a lot on the line at the All England Club. And whether they're out to recapture former glory or shake up the draws with some of their first big wins, all of these guys and gals might deserve a little extra notice over the next few weeks.

And maybe a couple will defy expectations in London and surprise us all.

The Women

Eugenie Bouchard

Oh, Genie, Genie, Genie. How high our hopes were for you! Last year's breakthrough runner-up at the All England Club was riding a massive wave of success on the way to her first Grand Slam final, but has slowed down significantly since. Already this season she's lost her opening match at seven events, including a stunning defeat by Kristina Mladenovic in her Roland Garros first round. On grass where she should be more comfortable -- the young Canadian won the Juniors championship here in 2012 -- she hasn't fared much better. As the top seed in Den Bosch, she couldn't win a match, dropping to an admittedly tough Yaroslava Shvedova in three sets and lost her opener again to giant-killer Kristina Mladenovic in Birmingham. She did win her opener in Eastbourne this week, but if she manages to keep going, it'll mean a lot of match play before she makes a similar run in London. Now ranked #12 in the world, ironically not far from where she was at this time last year, she has a decidedly different momentum profile than she had in 2014. While an even further fall after this event might be her most measurable problem, it seems even more important she gets her game back together soon and proves her meteoric rise last year was no fluke.

Agnieszka Radwanska

The former world #2 has been struggling herself the last few months. Also a finalist at the All England Club, what seems like ages ago now, the long-time fan favorite is at her lowest ranking in years. Though she started off the year with a huge win over Serena Williams in Hobart -- her only one in nine meetings -- she's really struggled since, dropping points from Indian Wells and falling in the first round of the French Open, notching her earliest Slam exit since 2009. Aga started to get her game back together on grass though, riding her top seed to the semis in Nottingham, losing to a strong Monica Niculescu, and dropping just two games in her Eastbourne opener. She's under slightly less pressure than Genie this fortnight in London, having been ousted relatively early in the fourth round last year. But at the Major where she's seen by far her biggest success, this could be the best opportunity she has to put herself back on the map.

Dominika Cibulkova

The former top ten player has fallen a bit since reaching her only Grand Slam final to date, falling early in Brisbane and Sydney and just reaching the quarters this time in Melbourne. She missed a lot of action in the spring, undergoing foot surgery in March, and skipped the French Open which pushed her ranking well out of seeding territory. But she made a winning start in Eastbourne, dropping just four games in her opening round and then stunning French Open finalist Lucie Safarova on Tuesday. Domi's had success at Wimbledon in the past, too -- in 2011 she beat then top seed Caroline Wozniacki in the fourth round -- and though at her (hopefully temporarily) depressed ranking she could face a big favorite earlier during her run at the All England Club, she's more than capable of holding her own against the sport's elite and, if she gets a good draw, could end up dealing out more than a few on-paper upsets.

Ana Konjuh

It's not just about those looking for redemption, of course, and the much more interesting stories at any Major are of those players who're able to outshine expectations. Perhaps this year, it's Konjuh's turn. The seventeen-year-old Croat hasn't had a lot of experience on Tour, but has had some of her best results on these grounds -- she made it all the way to the Girls' final a few years back before losing to Bouchard and, as a qualifier in 2014, managed two tough wins en route to the Ladies' third round. Now ranked #55 in the world, she's playing just her second Slam without having to qualify but is coming off her first WTA title on the grass of Nottingham, where she beat two seeds -- Casey Dellacqua and lawn specialist Alison Riske. One of my players to watch this year, young Konjuh may have the best opportunity to make a statement here than she has on any other big stage, and with the momentum she's got now, she could just do it.

Katerina Siniakova

The nineteen-year-old Czech hasn't had as much experience on the big stages -- after all this will only be her fourth Major main draw, and she's only won one match so far. But the nineteen year old has scored some impressive wins over the last year, reaching the semis in Moscow last year as a qualifier, and beating 2014 Wimbledon Cinderella Barbora Zahlavova Strycova in Prague and always tough Kristina Maldenovic in Rome. Most recently she pulled off a solid win over recent Roland Garros semifinalist Andrea Petkovic in Birmingham, losing to eventual champion Angelique Kerber in the quarters. Just off a career high ranking at #67, she's still got plenty of room -- and time -- to grow, but everyone has to have that first breakthrough and there's no reason this can't be hers.

The Men

Milos Raonic

Bouchard isn't the only Canadian with a lot on the line at the All England Club. The world #8, who arguably got a slightly earlier start in his rise to the sport's elite, made his only Grand Slam semifinal to-date here last year and earned his first non-alternate ticket to the ATP World Tour Finals. He started this year off strong too, barely losing to Roger Federer in the Brisbane final and then putting up a fight against eventual Melbourne champ Novak Djokovic Down Under. Raonic had to take a little break in the late spring, though -- foot surgery kept him out of the French Open -- but he got back on court last week and, though he dropped sets in early rounds, did manage to make the quarterfinals at Queen's Club. It might not be quite the result he wanted heading back to the Major where he's had the most success, but we know better than to count him out. Last year, after all, he lost the only match he played on grass before heading to London and got right back to work at the All England Club. It might be a little tougher this time, on the recovery trail and all, but he could still pull off a few surprises.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga

It's been a few more years since the fiery Frenchman reached the semis at Wimbledon, but it might not be that big an ask to see him get back. He is, after all, coming off a surprise final four showing at Roland Garros where, at #15 in the world, he beat two top five players and managed to take a set off eventual champion Stan Wawrinka in the process. That's quite impressive for a man who'd only played five events so far this year -- sidelined with an arm injury, he'd skipped the Australian Open and didn't get started on the season until late March. He's scored some big wins here, too, notching an upset over David Ferrer and stunning Roger Federer in five sets in 2011. Of course, he'll have some challenges -- an abdominal strain he suffered in Paris forced him out of Nottingham this week -- but he seems to do his best when little is expected of him. Ranked just inside the top twenty during that miracle year, and at #12 now, if he is recovered he could certainly catch a couple of the favorites off guard again.

Nicolas Mahut

Tsonga's compatriot hasn't had quite as much success during his long history at the All England Club, but despite a losing record at this event he's probably spent more time on court than many others out there. And even though he's only made it out of the second round in London once in his last nine appearance, he's actually done better on this surface than he has anywhere else -- all three of his titles, each won after his thirtieth birthday, have come on grass and he has an impressive sixty-three percent win rate overall. Just a few weeks ago as a qualifier in 's-Hertogenbosch, he scored wins over 2014 breakout Roberto Bautista Agut and comeback star David Goffin to pick up his latest trophy. He's now back at a respectable #65 in the world, significantly better than the triple digit ranking he had at the start of the year, but could be in a position to outperform his position. And maybe, even at this late stage of his career, he could finally make his first big run at a Slam.

Alexander Zverev

The eighteen-year-old German, on the other hand, is making his first ever appearance in a Major main draw, having lost during qualifying rounds in his last three attempts. He did reach the Boys' final at the French Open in 2013 back and he took the Juniors' title in Melbourne last year, though, and at his best ever ranking, he'll finally get his shot to play with the big guys. While he's mostly clocked time on the Challengers' circuit in his short career, he has been able to get in a few punches on the main Tour over the last few weeks -- he took sets off Viktor Troicki and Ivo Karlovic at warm-up events and finally scored a true upset this week with a win over veteran Thomaz Bellucci in the Nottingham second round. Still ranked well outside the top fifty, he could very well get dealt an unlucky draw from the get-go, but like with any young buck looking for his first big break, he'll have to start somewhere. And, as they say, there's no time like the present to do exactly that.

Lleyton Hewitt

On the very other end of the spectrum is a man who, far from playing his first Wimbledon, is actually playing his last. The veteran Australian, who will retire next year in Melbourne, received a wildcard entry into the main draw as part of his farewell tour. With just one win on the year and a drop out of the double-digit rankings, it's hard to expect him to do too much damage this year. Still he carries quite a legacy at the All England Club -- the 2002 champion is the only man in the field outside the Big Four who's ever made a dent at the All England Club. And, even though he hasn't made it past a Major fourth round since 2009, you can never count him out -- on his third shot in the Newport final, last year he finally walked away with the title, and earlier in the season defeated Roger Federer for the Brisbane crown. Besides, champions like Hewitt seem to get a second wind at the end of their careers -- Andy Roddick, you may remember, put up a more than admirable performance when he announced his retirement at the 2012 U.S. Open. And I expect the former world #1 will make a similarly valiant attempt to savor his last moments on these courts.

Of course the top seeds will be out in full force at the All England Club over the next two weeks looking to squash any potential these guys have. Be sure to check back in a few days for my full preview of what to expect in London this year -- something tells me that it could be even more exciting than usual!

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