It seems like only a week or so ago that Schiavone was ingesting particles of crushed brick and Nadal was crying softly into his towel.  Well, it was only a week or so ago.  Nevertheless, another Slam looms on the history-laden lawns of Wimbledon, which means that another preview is straight ahead.  We start at the top with the tournament favorites, profiling causes for confidence and concern in each of their individual circumstances.

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1)       Roger Federer:

Causes for confidence:  There are six of them, shining in gold on some mantle in Switzerland or Dubai.  But beyond his spectacular 47-1 (one walkover) record at the All England Club since 2003, one can look to the ideal fit between the grass and Federer’s aging playing style, which delivers just as much power and artfulness as it ever did while fading a little in consistency.  On the green lawns of Wimbledon, fewer shots are required to win points than at most other tournaments.  Often not exhibited elsewhere, his superlative net skills still thwart all but the most challenging passing shots.  Federer’s loss to Hewitt in Halle shouldn’t be overestimated, for those tournaments have long since ceased to wield an impact upon his legacy and rarely inspire the level of performance that he achieves at the majors.  Moreover, the resurgence of a certain Mallorcan and the loss of his #1 ranking should have infused Roger with fresh motivation to prove that he’s still the best of the sport’s past, present, and future.  During his pedestrian post-Australian performances, motivation seemed the major ingredient that was lacking. 

Causes for concern:  Nadal’s return comprises a mixed blessing, for he holds a distinct mental edge over Roger in their rivalry and would force him to battle memories of 2008 should they meet in the final.  Casting a broader shadow is the much-discussed trend among players who have endured endless years of futility against Federer (Davydenko, Soderling, Berdych, Hewitt) only to break through in recent months.  Despite the burden of an 0-for-life record, these talents proved that the GOAT “has two arms and two legs, like anyone else,” as Hewitt wryly put it; others may take note and approach the Swiss with greater confidence earlier in the draw.  Federer escaped a flat Australian quarterfinal against the dangerous Davydenko, but he couldn’t escape a flat French quarterfinal against the even more dangerous Soderling.  Keep an eye on whom he draws in that round at Wimbledon.

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2)      Rafael Nadal:

Causes for confidence:  The only player to defeat Federer at the All England Club since 2002, Rafa proved that he can adjust swiftly from clay to grass when he completed the “channel Slam” in 2008.  For the third time, he won the French Open without dropping a set and gained an immense psychological boost by dominating last year’s nemesis, Soderling, in the final.  Following a quarterfinal loss at Queens Club, he wisely headed home to Mallorca to refresh himself before what likely will be an emotionally taxing fortnight.  The Spaniard plans to work on his backhand, serve, and grass movement during that time, accurately pinpointing the three elements of his game that require particular attention at this juncture in the season.  Once again a fearless competitor, he possesses more than enough tenacity to weather the ebbs and flows of a brilliant but erratic shotmaker.  And he has nothing to lose because he withdrew from the event last year; therefore, he will feel unburdened by the pressure of defending his title.  As in the past, Federer represents the favorite and the target towards which Nadal aims himself, and he tends to prosper most in this familiar dynamic.

Causes for concern:  During his brief visit to Queens Club, Rafa looked oddly tentative for a player who had just won his seventh major.  Framing overheads, botching drop shots, and crashing into the net, he displayed a timing and focus several notches below his exquisite best.  The quarterfinal loss to Lopez reminded observers that he remains vulnerable on fast surfaces to staccato playing styles that disrupt his rhythm.  If a Roddick or a Tsonga finds peak form while Nadal endures a mediocre day (by his lofty standards), they might hustle him out with a barrage of electric serves and first-strike tennis before he has time to settle into the match.  But it’s much easier said than done.

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3)      Andy Roddick:

Causes for confidence:  Three times the American has reached the final Sunday at Wimbledon, and three times he has watched a dapper Federer saunter into the winner’s circle.  Nevertheless, Roddick came excruciatingly close to winning last year’s history-making clash; even before the break points that he failed to convert in the seventeenth game of the final set, he led by 6-2 in the second-set tiebreak after having won the first set.  If he had converted one of those four points, two of which were on his massive serve, Federer would have been forced to face a two-set deficit and his demons from the previous year.  Understandably shaken by this painful loss, Roddick didn’t recover until early this year, when his Indian Wells runner-up appearance and Miami title illustrated his presence as a threat anywhere other than clay.  If he can work his way into tiebreaks, he’ll have a chance against anyone on a surface as serve-friendly as Wimbledon.  Also, don’t forget what Nadal accomplished in 2008 after losing a five-set final to Federer in 2007.  Time may be running out on Roddick’s attempt to capture that second Slam, but that knowledge should only infuse him with valuable urgency.

Causes for concern:  Who is Dudi Sela?  No Wimbledon title threat by any means, he not only defeated Roddick at Queens Club but managed to win a tiebreak from him.  Beyond this disconcerting result, one should remember that last year’s runner-up will enter this year’s tournament a bit rusty, having played only five competitive matches (two tournaments) since Miami.  A talented sharpshooter like Gasquet might have a chance against him in the early rounds if he starts a little flat, so keep an eye on his draw.  Finally, the American probably would need to defeat both Federer and Nadal in order to win the title.  Only Del Potro has toppled the top two at the same Slam during this era of their greatness, while as fierce a competitor as Soderling has failed on both attempts.

And now for the ladies:

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1)       Serena Williams:

Causes for confidence:  As long as line judges don’t interfere, she continues to win the only tournaments that matter to her.  The pomp and circumstance of the All England Club require a special type of champion who can adeptly handle the moment, and Serena fits that profile distinctly better than anyone in the WTA (just consider her 12-3 record in Slam finals).  After a typically underwhelming clay season, she’ll feel especially determined to produce a typically scintillating performance at Wimbledon.  Although Serena might not admit it, Wimbledon offers her a compelling opportunity to prove once again that she’s the best player in the family.  She trails her sister five titles to three here while leading the intra-Williams competition at all of the other Slams; if she can close that gap to one, she’ll charge ever closer to undisputed family bragging rights.  Should she meet Venus in the final for the third consecutive year, one senses that she is slightly better equipped mentally to play her sibling than is her older sister.  Although their overall head-to-head is very even, Serena possesses a pronounced edge at the Slams.

Causes for concern:  Playing just two tournaments outside the clay season, Serena missed her favorite non-Slam in Miami with a severe knee injury.  A recurrence of that issue could hamper her on a surface where the low bounce renders knee mobility imperative.  Probably able to compensate for any injury against the rank-and-file of the WTA, Serena might not be able to overcome it when she confronts a top-drawer opponent (Henin, Clijsters, Venus, etc.) in the second week.  At the 2007 tournament, Henin showed little mercy to the battered American during their quarterfinal, ruthlessly targeting a backhand that she couldn’t strike with authority.  Moreover, her loss at the French Open sounded a startling note of vulnerability, for an opponent much less experienced on major stages outplayed the world #1 deep in a third set.  How often have we seen that narrative unfold in past majors?

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2)      Venus Williams:

Causes for confidence:  Owning just one fewer Wimbledon than Federer, the elder Williams plays a notably higher level of tennis on grass than on other surfaces.  Her serve penetrates the court with unparalleled vigor, sometimes allowing her to hold serve without hitting groundstroke, while her often wayward groundstrokes generally click at crucial moments.  Again like Federer, she has preserved her power as her consistency has steadily declined, but not many of those bludgeoned forehands will return at the All England Club.  Winning the same two titles this year as she did last year (Dubai, Acapulco), Venus additionally reached two finals in Miami and Madrid.  The seven-time major champion remains a steady, unruffled competitor, who doesn’t panic when her baseline missiles misfire as do many of her rivals.

Causes for concern:  At her previous Slam in Melbourne, the world #2 looked fairly convincing through four rounds but then skidded off the rails completely in the quarterfinals against Li Na, also not at her best that day.  Venus has few alternatives when her high-power, high-precision game doesn’t find lines and corners, and her flat strokes travel through the court with little margin; on a dismal day at Roland Garros, she couldn’t or wouldn’t adapt her game to solve Petrova.  After an impressive run to the Madrid final, furthermore, Serena’s sister faltered against Rezai in a situation when she was the clear favorite.  While most of her contemporaries (outside her family) respect her too much to threaten her at her favorite tournament, a brash upstart from the Frenchwoman’s mold might be able to unflinchingly attack her.

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We return tomorrow with part two of the preview:  the Wimbledon challengers.  Who can break the triangular Federer / Nadal / Williams stranglehold on this coveted crown?  Answers to come…

 

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