July 7, 2021

And Then There Were Eight...

Things are getting serious now.

The first Wimbledon in two years has given us plenty of storylines, from the emergence of young, sharp talents, to a couple guys chasing history at the All England Club. But the trophies are now within reach -- just two wins away for the players still standing -- and there's a lot on the line for every one of them.

The Men

Novak Djokovic hasn't seemed at all fazed by the high stakes that are following him into this tournament. With wins already at the Australian and French Opens this year, he's the heavy favorite to win the Grand Slam -- all four Majors in a calendar year -- something no man has done since 1969. And with the Olympics later this month, he could even match Steffi Graf's ultra-rare feat of the Golden Slam. But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, he's also just two match wins away from equalling Roger Federer's and Rafael Nadal's record twenty Major titles -- (getting ahead of myself again) a record he could very well claim all by himself by year-end. And with all that on his shoulders, he's still been super dominant, winning his last fifteen sets and extending his streak at the All England Club to 21 straight match wins. With far more experience at this stage of play than any of the other men remaining, it's hard to see anyone stopping him before the week is up.

The first man who gets to try is Denis Shapovalov, who reached his first Major semifinal with a five-set win today over Karen Khachanov. The Canadian, whose previous best run at Wimbledon was the second round back in 2018, had to skip Roland Garros with a shoulder injury, but came back fighting strong, making the semis at Queen's Club and here beating two-time champion Andy Murray and eighth seeded Roberto Bautista Agut, both in straight sets. Does he stand a chance against the world #1 and #GOAT๐Ÿ contender? Well, with a 0-6 record against Djokovic, it's going to be hard. But here's hoping we at least get to see him put up a fight.

But the real opportunity may lie in the bottom half of the draw, where Matteo Berrettini is currently riding an impressive 10-0 record on grass -- he's 21-2 since 2019. The Queen's Club champion has had a pretty nice run to his second Slam semi, dropping sets only to Guido Pella -- who, you might have forgotten, made the final eight at Wimbledon in 2019 -- in his opener and to Felix Auger-Aliassime -- who, you probably remember, stunned Roger Federer last month in Halle -- in Wednesday's quarter. I've admitted I had doubts about his sustainability after that stellar 2019 season, but he has more than proven me wrong, and with more wins than all but four men so far this season, he may be in good position to make his first Major final.

But he still has to get past Hubert Hurkacz, who's turned his season around in a big way over the last ten days. After a breakthrough run in Miami, where he beat Stefanos Tsitsipas and Andrey Rublev -- not to mention Shapovalov -- on his way to the title, he went radio silent, losing five straight matches between Monte Carlo and Halle. I thought for sure he was heading for an early exit when he drew Lorenzo Musetti in the first round, but not only did he win, he went his first three matches without dropping a set. That streak finally ended against second seed and Mallorca titleist Daniil Medvedev, but he survived that challenge and then rallied for a stunning straight-set win over eight-time champion Roger Federer earlier today. This semi run is by far his best showing at a Slam -- his previous high bar was the third round here in 2019 -- but so far he's shown no signs of nerves. Could he keep his run going even further? Well, he does have a win in his only match against Berrettini, and something tells me these two are going to leave it all out there.

The Women

The ladies' draw has had its own share of surprises, but one thing has gone according to plan -- #1 seed Ashleigh Barty continues to prove her ability on any court. Though her French Open defense was cut short due to injury, she rebounded well when she hit the grass. Dropping just one set in her first five matches to sentimental favorite Carla Suรกrez Navarro in the first round, she's made it to her third Major semifinal, and first here, in top form. But while she did face off against the newest Major champion in the fourth round, for the most part, she hasn't been truly tested -- the average rank of her opponents has been #76, #91 if you don't count Barbora Krejcikova, who was playing her first Wimbledon singles main draw. She's going to have to up her game now that we're really down to the wire.

After all, her next match is against 2018 Wimbledon champ Angelique Kerber who, after a title in Bad Homburg, is running a ten-match win streak on grass. At #28 in the world, she may be the lowest seed remaining, but she's by far the most accomplished on these courts, having made at least the semis three times before. She's had a couple close calls already this event, enduring a three-plus hour battle against a surprisingly spry Sara Sorribes Tormo in the second round and battling back from losing the first set to Aliaksandra Sasnovich, the woman who benefited from Serena's retirement. But she's been on point in her latest matches, beating both Coco Gauff and Karolina Muchova in straight sets. She's split her last four meetings with Barty, the most recent of which was nearly three years ago, but she might just be able to get the advantage in this one.

Meanwhile in the bottom half of the draw, second seed Aryna Sabalenka has ended her Major curse in resounding form with a ticket to her first Major semifinal. The 23-year-old, one of my favorites to win the French, had only won one main draw match here before this year, and that was back when she was a qualifier in 2017. I didn't give her much chance at changing that after a weak lead-up season, but she's been able to overcome a few challenges at the All England Club. Down a set early to wildcard Katie Boulter and pushed to a third by Paris Cinderella Elena Rybakina, she's been able to persevere, and against Ons Jabeur -- who, by the way, beat three Major champions in a row on her way to the quarters -- she was able to come out on top. You have to like her chances at making that maiden final, as long as she's able to keep keeping her cool.

But the big surprise in the women's draw has to be Karolina Pliskova, whose #8 seed -- and #13 ranking -- feels a lot higher than what she's been delivering. Though she did make the final in Rome -- which she lost in a double bagel -- she'd been otherwise pretty lackluster this year, losing more matches than she'd won on the season. I thought for sure she'd get a run for her money in the first round against surprise French semifinalist Tamara Zidansek and had my money on Berlin champ Liudmila Samsonova in the fourth. But she's gotten through her first five matches without dropping a set -- the only player left who's done that -- and is in the Wimbledon semis for the first time in her career. Like Barty, she hasn't faced the highest-ranked opponents, so playing Sabalenka could be a shock, especially as she's lost both their previous matches. But perhaps her familiarity with play on this stage will be an advantage, and maybe she'll be the one to prove us all wrong.

We shouldn't be surprised that after such a long absence (absense?) from these courts we should get such big play from every corner of the draw. We might not have picked all these guys and gals as the last ones contending for the title, but there's no doubt that each of them deserves to come away with one more win.

And with so much history on the line, it's going to be exciting to see which ones are able to pull it off.

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