Having discussed the five tournament favorites, one of whom won’t even enjoy his own quarter, we turn our lens towards the group of players who might produce a slightly unexpected champion or champions.  Once again, this article breaks down each challenger into causes for confidence and causes for concern.  You might find one or two surprises in the list!

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1)       Andy Murray:

Causes for confidence:  Improving his performance at the All England Club with each successive year, Murray has embraced rather than shrunk from the fanatical support of championship-starved British fans.  Among his most charismatic career performances were five-set wins over Gasquet in 2008 and Wawrinka in 2009.  At the Australian Open, his run to the final witnessed more aggressive tennis than we’re accustomed to seeing from him as he shredded Isner and smothered Nadal.  Murray’s all-court prowess and outstanding movement should assist him on a surface where agility can be a crucial weapon.

Causes for concern:  Deflated by his Australian Open loss to Federer, the Scot has since failed to reproduce the level of conviction that he demonstrated during that fortnight.  His second serve remains a liability that aggressive returners can regularly punish on a fast surface, especially since he continues to struggle with his first-serve percentage.  During his four-set semifinal loss to Roddick in 2009, his reliance on counterpunching rather than shotmaking proved the principal difference in a match closer than the score suggested.  Moreover, he has failed to win a set in either of his Slam finals; if he faces Federer again, would he really do betterer?

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2)      Robin Soderling:

Causes for confidence:  Finally snapping a career of futility against Federer, Soderling duplicated his Roland Garros finals appearance with outstanding serving and ball-striking.  Don’t expect the pride of Sweden to be intimidated by the posh surroundings of Wimbledon any more than he was intimidated by Nadal and Federer in Paris the past two years.  More than any other player in the draw, he possesses both the physical and mental attributes to overcome any opponent on the grandest stages.  If any of his important matches are played with the roof closed, Soderling should welcome the controlled conditions, which would help him to time his high ball toss.  His serve should allow him to hold with minimal ado on most occasions, while his balanced groundstroke game allows him to pulverize the ball from forehand and backhand, an important advantage over opponents who will lack time to run around their weaker wing on this surface. 

Causes for concern:  Tall and gawky, he’s not overly comfortable with the low bounce on grass.  Although his skills at the net are consistently improving, he seems oddly uncomfortable with overheads, a shot that he’ll need at Wimbledon.  Even after his 2009 breakthrough, the Swede remains vulnerable to the early, head-scratching lapse, as was demonstrated by his first-round loss in Australia.  Dragged to five sets in both of his Roland Garros semifinal wins, he entered both of his finals there without the energy requisite to sustain the level that he had produced throughout the rest of those fortnights.  Soderling will need to win his best-of-five matches more efficiently in order to claim his first Slam title. 

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3)      Novak Djokovic:

Causes for confidence:  Although he labored through much of the spring with allergies, the Serb exceeded our expectations by coming within a set of the Roland Garros semifinals.  He has won his last three meetings with Nadal, reasserting his relevance in a rivalry that had become deceptively lopsided after a series of clay-court battles.  Like Soderling, he can strike clean winners from both sets of groundstrokes and is improving his talents at moving forward.  A semifinalist here in 2007, Djokovic has reached finals at both Queens Club (2008) and Halle (2009).  Excelling at redirecting the ball, the Serb should be able to wrong-foot his opponents on a surface that permits little reaction time.  Tall but not towering, he also handles low balls more comfortably than the two players who precede and follow him on this list.

Causes for concern:  Still a work in progress, his once-potent serve has lacked its sting for most this season, which will prevent him from holding with the ease of a Federer, Roddick, or even Soderling.  Djokovic’s movement on grass remains suspect, leading to frequent stumbles in the past several years.  In contrast to his head-to-head record with Nadal, his rivalries with Federer and Roddick have tilted distinctly in the direction of those veterans, at least one of whom he probably would need to defeat en route to the title.  Since winning the 2008 Australian Open, Djokovic has failed to reach a Slam final at nine consecutive majors and has suffered fitness-related issues at several of them.  Not the most resilient competitor, he might well retire when any serious adversity strikes.

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4)      Marin Cilic:

Causes for confidence:  At the Australian Open, his semifinal run included gritty, dramatic five-set wins over Del Potro and Roddick that demonstrated the Croat’s precocious maturity.  Explosive serves generally are rewarded at Wimbledon, and Cilic volleys more competently than one would expect from a tower of power.  If he should confront Nadal or Roddick, his recent wins over both of those sterling grass-court artists would inject him with a valuable confident boost.  Finally, the Croat’s tranquil, reserved character seems to suit the quiet atmosphere of Wimbledon; that observation might sound superficial, but Slam champions often have matched the personalities of their most successful majors.

Causes for concern:  After Del Potro’s injury, Cilic effectively has become an ATP surrogate for his equally lanky, equally powerful contemporary, and the continued anxiety over the Argentine’s absence indicates how (un)successful that impersonation has proved.  Since that semifinal run in Australia and two minor early titles in Chennai and Zagreb, he has struggled to win consecutive matches at most tournaments.  His loopy backswing on the forehand is too elongated for the grass, so he could mistime that shot at crucial moments when tensions creeps into his mind.  Also note that his Argentine alter ego fell In the second round here last year despite an equally imposing serve and equally commanding baseline arsenal. 

Familiar names to discount:  Falling to Benjamin Becker at his comeback tournament in Halle, Nikolay Davydenko possesses a game antithetical to grass, with a suspect serve and ghastly volleys.  A definite threat in more propitious circumstances, the still-injury-addled Jo-Wilfried Tsonga retired from Roland Garros and probably won’t be in peak condition at Wimbledon.  Much more comfortable on clay than grass, the Spanish veterans Fernando Verdasco and David Ferrer probably won’t reach the second week unless they find themselves in a particularly accommodating section of the draw.  Neither player entered a grass-court prep, which suggests their lack of commitment to the surface.

And now for the ladies:

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1)      Kim Clijsters:

Causes for confidence:  As of this writing, she’s lost exactly three games in four sets at the Eastbourne tournament, demonstrating an immediate return to form after the foot injury that forced her to miss most of the clay season.  In fact, that absence could be a blessing in disguise, for Kim largely avoided the awkward surface transition endured by most of her rivals.  Following Dementieva’s withdrawal, Kim is seeded 8th at the tournament and will be able to play herself into form before tackling one of the Williams sisters.  Among the key barometers of a player’s potential to win Wimbledon is her success against those Americans.  Since her comeback, Clijsters has compiled a 3-0 record when she’s confronted Serena or Venus (excluding an exhibition match at Madison Square Garden).  Famous for her “splits,” she excels at tracking down low balls and can transition from defense to offense more adroitly than anyone in the WTA, two key traits on the grass.  Although her serve lacks the sheer power of the sisters, it generally provides a sturdy, reliable component of her game, deserting her only when she plays the woman below. 

Causes for concern:  After winning an emotional second Slam at last year’s US Open, Clijsters has only sporadically justified the immense expectations that then loomed above her head.  In Australia, she endured the worst loss of her career in the third round, while her Indian Wells campaign ended prematurely against the admittedly surging Alisa Kleybanova.  Somewhat surprisingly, Wimbledon historically has been her least successful major, and she hasn’t appeared at the All England Club in 2006.  An ambitious upstart might have a chance to destabilize her in an early round before she settles into a rhythm.  Not as much of a first-strike player as the Williams sisters, Clijsters prefers to work her way through rallies, but grass points tend to prove more arhythmic than fluid.

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 2)      Justine Henin:

Causes for confidence:  Creating immediate headlines upon her return, Henin reached the finals of her first two tournaments and severely tested Serena in their Melbourne championship match.  After the end of her Roland Garros winning streak, she’ll perhaps bring a little less pressure to the next major, for which her comeback has been specifically designed.  We liked her decision to enter the weaker event in the Netherlands rather than Eastbourne, since accumulating grass practice is more important for her than confronting top-level foes at this stage.  Despite her diminutive frame and erratic serve, Henin has hovered painfully close to completing the career Slam, falling one set short of the title in 2006 and one set short of the final in 2007.  Justine can showcase her exquisite volleying skills here more than anywhere else, while her recently inconsistent groundstrokes will be less frequently exposed than on slower surfaces because of the shorter points that it encourages.

Causes for concern:  Ever a note of caution, her coach Carlos Rodriguez recently minimized Henin’s chances to capture the title this year.  Although this surrogate parent has inaccurately underestimated her in the past, we agree that her game and especially her serve requires more refinement before she can overcome the Williams sisters.  Since Australia, this much-hyped comeback has produced a few excellent results (Miami semifinal, Stuttgart title) and a few unsightly catastrophes (Indian Wells second-round loss, Madrid first-round loss).  Without the buffer created by a higher seeding, she might be compelled to defeat an additional high-quality opponent or two during the fortnight, probably too great a strain for the fragile Belgian.  Also of note is her poor head-to-head record with Venus, who has enjoyed much more success against her than has her younger sister.  Henin reportedly lost her 2007 semifinal with Bartoli in order to avoid facing the elder Williams in the final; whether true or not, that statement underscores the mental disadvantage that she would bring to a potential clash.

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3)      Maria Sharapova:

Causes for confidence:  Following an elbow injury incurred at Indian Wells, Sharapova rebounded solidly to win Strasbourg, threaten Henin at Roland Garros, and reach the Birmingham final.  From clips of her week at the grass prep emerge a fluid service motion that brought more power and precision to her delivery than has been witnessed during most of her comeback.  The only former Wimbledon champion in the draw outside the Williams sisters, Sharapova allegedly considers this fortnight her favorite time of the season and will profit from the truncated points on grass, which reward her trademark model of first-strike tennis.  She can pound winners from anywhere on the court to anywhere else on the court; recently, the once net-averse Russian also has revealed a greater willingness to move forward in order to finish points, essential on grass.  Although she has struggled in her last several meetings against the Williams sisters, most of those lopsided losses occurred when she was struggling with her shoulder injury or just recovering from it.  If she can survive the first few rounds, the confidence that she acquired from a strong week in Birmingham will mount higher, inspiring her to unleash her high-risk game with ever greater conviction as the tournament progresses.

Causes for concern:  Despite winning two tournaments in 2010 and reaching the final of a third, Sharapova has yet to defeat a top-20 opponent this season.  In the Birmingham final, she never found her highest level against Li Na and could not or would not problem-solve in mid-match, suggesting that she might not survive a bad day against an aggressive adversary.  Since capturing the 2004 Wimbledon crown, Maria’s increased height has decreased her ability to handle low bounces.  Never the most agile mover, she often lacks the time to plant her feet before her bone-crushing groundstrokes, which reduces her control over these high-precision missiles on grass.  Her 2008 and 2009 Wimbledon campaigns abruptly halted with startling second-round losses to two players whom she should have overpowered:  Alla Kudryavtseva and Gisela Dulko.  Not since 2006 has she reached the quarterfinals at the All England Club, and she has reached only one quarterfinal in her last seven majors after winning the 2008 Australian Open. 

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4)       Samantha Stosur: 

Causes for confidence:  A more dominant server than anyone in the WTA not named Williams, the Australian should hold frequently and comfortably while exploiting numerous opportunities to display her excellent net skills.  At Roland Garros, Stosur proved that she could win tightly contested matches against the most talented, battle-tested competitors at the most prestigious tournaments.  Her still-accelerating surge has witnessed very few of the maddening lapses that once cost her on grass, and she possesses the maturity to cope with the pressures of Wimbledon.  Unless she finds herself in an especially fearsome section of the draw, Stosur’s excellent fitness and efficient style should enable her to reach the second week with minimal ado and with ample energy conserved for the marquee rounds.  Like Soderling, she may be better physically and mentally equipped to ambush one of the Wimbledon favorites than anyone else in the draw.

Causes for concern:  Whereas the red clay allows her time to run around her backhand and set up her much more powerful forehand, the grass will force Stosur to hit a greater percentage of balls from her weaker side.  An effective first-strike player can pin her into that corner, draw defensive replies, and move forwards to take control of the point.  After reaching the semifinals in Paris last year, Sam proved unable to translate that momentum into a deep run at the All England Club, falling to the less than formidable Ivanovic in the third round.  In Eastbourne this week, she struggled to put away Daniela Hantuchova, not a name in the vicinity of the contenders’ circle despite a faint resurgence.  And the mental repercussions of her disappointment in dropping a highly winnable French Open final may stall her momentum for the next few tournaments until she regroups.

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5)      Li Na:

Causes for confidence:  En route to the Birmingham title, Li overcame a determined challenge from the dangerous Aravane Rezai before dominating Sharapova with expert returning and ingenious angle construction.  Among her crucial early breakthroughs was the debut Slam quarterfinal that she achieved at the 2006 Wimbledon, where she defeated Kuznetsova and the then-imposing Vaidisova.  Earlier this year, she not only recorded her first Slam semifinal appearance at the Australian Open but defeated Venus in the quarters before dragging Serena into two tiebreaks in the semis.  Li has fallen to the eventual champion in each of her last three majors, so an outstanding performance is required to defeat her.  Although she retired from her Eastbourne opener with a  thigh injury, one shouldn’t worry greatly about her fitness for Wimbledon, since the 2006 performance followed a similar retirement in the Netherlands oon the previous week.  Her ultra-aggressive but balanced style should find a comfortable fit with the grass, where dogged retrievers will find fewer answers to her sparkling down-the-line groundstrokes.  Having defeated virtually every player of consequence in the WTA, the Chinese star will bring an immense supply of fearlessness to the court and almost always rises to the occasion against the competition. 

Causes for concern:  On the other hand, Li often sinks to the level of lesser competition, enduring numerous losses to players well below her talent level in tournaments such as Indian Wells and Miami.  It’s almost impossible to predict how she will play from one day to the next, while her game possesses very little margin between the sublime and the ridiculous, between which she can veer multiple times in the same match.  Furthermore, the Chinese veteran has developed into a Soderling-like upset artist more than a consistent trophy contender; Birmingham represented just her third career title, far fewer than her talent should have earned her by now.  Last Sunday, Li commented that she would have been too excited from her win over Sharapova to play another match.  She’ll need to guard against that sort of victory hangover should she aspire to hold the Venus Rosewater Dish two weeks from Saturday.

Familiar names to discountGifted with far too little power to accomplish a significant run at Wimbledon, Jelena Jankovic should win some matches but will be outslugged sometime around the middle weekend.  Remarkably, the tireless Serb didn’t play a single preliminary tournament.  Still reeling from an ankle injury suffered at Charleston, Caroline Wozniacki dropped her Eastbourne opener to Rezai and must be looking forward to the post-Wimbledon break.  Francesca Schiavone will be more than content to bask in the aura of her Roland Garros crown, while Svetlana Kuznetsova has yet to reach a quarterfinal in 2010.  Despite a semifinal run last year, Dinara Safina will be fortunate to win more than a match or two; she’s lost five in a row, including her Netherlands opener, and is adjusting to a new coach.  We were planning to place Victoria Azarenka in this category after her horrific, injury-plagued clay season; following her win over Radwanska in Eastbourne, though, we suspend judgment until after her intriguing quarterfinal there with Clijsters. 

***

Nine challengers later, we’ve concluded this lengthy second article in our series of Wimbledon previews.  Tomorrow, we return to profile the snakes in the grass:  dark horses who won’t bring home the hardware but will throw all of their efforts into spoiling the fortnights of those with title ambitions.  Who plans to crash the party?  Answers to come…

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