As players and fans anxiously await the Wimbledon draws, we turn our lens towards the snakes in the grass:  dangerous lurkers who won’t hoist the trophy but from whom the top competitors hope to keep their distance.  Often quirky and typically opportunistic, this group spans a spectrum from grizzled veterans (only figuratively grizzled, in one case) to surging newcomers eager to brand their imprint onto the pristine lawns of the All England Club.  Ladies, gentlemen, and Jelena Jankovic, meet your Wimbledon dark horses:

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1)       Tomas Berdych:  Much like his fellow ball-bruiser Soderling, Berdych appears to be finally capitalizing on his vast talents after a lengthy stretch of underachievement.  Winning both lopsided matches and nail-biters on the North American hard courts this spring, he signaled an awakening that extended to his first career Slam semifinal in Paris.  Surprisingly sturdy in tense situations, the Czech led Soderling by two sets to one before fading; again like the Swede; his massive serve-groundstroke combinations will prove even more difficult to retrieve on the grass than on the red clay.  Berdych lacks the depth of experience to win a major at this stage, but his shotmaking might bedevil counterpunches like Murray, one of his Roland Garros victims.

2)      John Isner:  In the absence of the injured Karlovic, this burgeoning American becomes the leading attraction among the ace artists.  Maturing more swiftly than one might have expected, he defeated Roddick at last year’s US Open, threatened Nadal at Indian Wells, and has won a set from Federer in the past.  The sprightly surface at the All England Club always rewards monster servers, who count on bombing their way into tiebreaks and taking their chances there.  Although it’s hard to imagine Isner winning three sets from either of the top two at a Slam, he spells trouble for virtually anyone else who might cross his path in the earlier rounds.  Unlike many other towering servers, his fitness has proved solid in the best-of-five format.  The near-impossibility of breaking Isner’s serve places extreme pressure on his opponent’s shoulders to hold with equal consistency and maintain a high level of focus when any opportunity arises.

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3)      Lleyton Hewitt:  A year ago at Wimbledon, Hewitt upset Del Potro and nearly outdueled Roddick in a five-set quarterfinal.  Just days ago in Halle, he demonstrated his undimmed competitive willpower by rallying from a first-set deficit to inflict Federer’s first grass-court loss against someone other than Nadal since 2002.  A former Queens Club champion, the Aussie possesses the quick reflexes, crisp footwork, balanced baseline game, and mental resilience to reach the second week if his draw proves kind…or perhaps even if it doesn’t.  Too battle-worn now to reprise his 2002 title run, Hewitt should test the consistency and resolve of higher-ranked but less experienced, more erratic sluggers.

4)      Sam Querrey / Mardy Fish:  The last two men standing in an upset-riddled London draw, both Americans possess the mighty serves that could carry them deep into fast-court majors.  In particular, Fish’s skill in serve-and-volley tactics should have enabled him to wreak havoc at Wimbledon before now.  Maturing more slowly than Isner, Querrey has won three titles this season, more than anyone not named Nadal.  Nevertheless, his hitherto pedestrian performances at the All England Club force us to temper our expectations with caution.  It’s a long way from Memphis, Belgrade, and even Queens Club to the All England Club.

5)      Ivan Ljubicic:  Rapidly receding into the mists of time at the start of this decade, the Croatian veteran resurfaced explosively at Indian Wells, where he won three consecutive tiebreaks in his last three sets of the tournament.  That skill will serve him well at on the most tiebreak-friendly surface of all, while his elegant net play will enable him to capitalize upon weak returns by finishing points quickly at the net.  Having met Querrey and Jurgen Melzer (perhaps a slight dark horse himself) in previous Wimbledon openers, his draws have been rather unfriendly in the past.  If he finds himself in a comfortable section with time to settle into a serving rhythm, though, he could emulate his compatriot Karlovic’s feat last year with a few moderately unexpected upsets.

6)      Mikhail Youzhny:  Reaching the second week of Wimbledon five times, the streaky Russian emerged this year from a lengthy journey through the tennis wilderness.  Could 2010 be the year that he finally reaches a quarterfinal after five fourth-round losses, in one of which he led Nadal by two sets to none?  His relatively mild serve will comprise a considerable disadvantage against opponents who can win shoals of short points with the shot, but his deft touch, lithe movement, and expert transition game fit the profile of a grass-court threat.

7)      Ernests Gulbis / Feliciano Lopez?  The toast of the ATP after electrifying performances against Federer and Nadal in Rome, Gulbis became mere French toast when he retired in his first-round Roland Garros clash with home hope Julien Benneteau.  Recovering from that injury, he enters Wimbledon without any grass-court preparation but has often excelled without extensive practice.  Retiring from Eastbourne with a shoulder injury, the 2008 quarterfinalist Lopez could exploit his lefty serve and agile volleys on grass should his health return in time; his game suits the surface more than any other Spaniard outside Nadal.

And now for the ladies:

1)       Nadia Petrova:  In two of her last three tournaments, she has defeated the Williams sisters.  In her last two majors, she has reached the quarterfinals behind at least one significant upset (Clijsters, Kuznetsova in Melbourne; Venus in Paris).  A former quarterfinalist at the All England Club, the highest-ranked Russian beyond the absent Dementieva might repeat that result behind her overpowering serve.  Exposed on slightly slower surfaces, her inconsistent groundstroke game might not cost her as much on grass, where she will be able to end many points after three or four shots.  Adroit on the doubles court, Petrova has displayed more comfort moving forward than many of her rivals.  Her 2-and-0 loss to Makarova in Eastbourne certainly startled most observers, yet we have learned to always expect the unexpected from Nadia, for whom one week doesn’t necessarily trickle into the next.

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2)      Victoria Azarenka:  Her health remains uncertain after a nagging hamstring injury undermined her entire clay season.  Reinvigorating last year’s quarterfinalist, however, is a stirring Eastbourne run past Radwanska and Clijsters, who had conquered her twice in the past year.  Whether or not the Belarussian can ride the momentum to a title at that seaside event, her competitive energy looks more vigorous and more positive than it has since February.  While she lacks an adequately imposing serve to win the title at this stage, Vika can play first-strike tennis with almost anyone and crack clean winners from behind the baseline on both sets of groundstrokes.  Unless a bold returner exposes her second serve or a crafty veteran unlocks her temper, the world #15 might well overthrow a more prestigious opponent or two.

3)      Aravane Rezai:  Bursting onto the scene in Madrid, the pugnacious Frenchwoman underwhelmed in Paris but regrouped on the Birmingham grass, where she dragged eventual champion Li Na into a third set.  This week, she ambushed top seed Wozniacki in Eastbourne before retiring against the next player in this list.  One of the fiercer competitors in the WTA, the diminutive Rezai punches far above her weight and holds serve more regularly than one might imagine.  Brash and unintimidated by any environment, she’s unlikely to crumble under the pressure of the All England Club, where her compatriots (such as 2007 finalist Marion Bartoli or 2007 semifinalist Richard Gasquet) typically have fared better than at their home major.

4)      Martinez Sanchez:  The other women’s surprise package of the spring, MJMS suddenly transferred her doubles prowess to the singles court in Rome, yet her strengths would seem even better suited to grass than clay.  While her feathery drop shot will prove a weapon at Wimbledon as much as at Roland Garros, her spinning lefty serve and sometimes surreal volleying expertise might fluster inexperienced foes like Wozniacki or indifferent servers like Jankovic.  Featuring 15 aces, her three-set loss to Bartoli in Eastbourne represented more a tribute to her opponent’s unflinching resolve than a testament to the Spaniard’s frailties.  Her idiosyncratic, low-margin playing style can swing wildly from the inspiring to the horrifying, however, so one doesn’t know what she’ll bring to the court on any given day.

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5)      Zheng Jie:  A 2008 Wimbledon semifinalist with wins over Ivanovic and Vaidisova, Zheng reemerged in 2010 by matching compatriot Li Na win for win all the way to the Australian Open semifinals.  Positioning herself well inside the baseline for her crisply struck groundstrokes, this Chinese star relishes the low bounce on grass that hinders the WTA’s towering contenders.  Zheng’s serve and especially her second serve remain a major flaw that force her to turn most matches into breakfests.  Generally helpless against psychologically impregnable shotmakers like Serena, she will be best equipped to capitalize upon erratic outings from more powerful, less agile adversaries whose serves sometimes falter under pressure.

6)      Alisa Kleybanova:  Securing her maiden title at Kuala Lumpur a few weeks ago, this rising Russian has upset Dementieva, Jankovic, Clijsters, and Venus while severely threatening Henin and Sharapova.  Mentally redoubtable and remarkably agile, Kleybanova creates ingenious cross-court angles that should shine on grass while enjoying a greater ability to bend for low shots than most players with similar height.  Although double faults occasionally creep into her game, her flat second serve does challenge aggressive returners more than a standard WTA second delivery.  Kleybanova must serve at a high percentage, however, in order to wield an impact upon the draw; she nearly toppled Kuznetsova in Eastbourne before her first serve wobbled when she most needed it in the final set.

7)      Yaroslava Shvedova:  The Russian-turned-Kazakh has stumbled a bit at the grass preparatory events, falling to American qualifier Alison Riske in Birmingham and fellow upstart Alexandra Dulgheru in the Netherlands.  But the sheer ferocity with which she strikes the ball on almost every shot make her a player to watch after her Roland Garros quarterfinal.  Among the most upwardly mobile WTA newcomers, Shvedova should prove even more dangerous on faster surfaces during the rest of the season, although she remains a little raw at present.

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After this final article in our three-part Wimbledon preview, we will return in a day or two with thoughts on the draws.  We plan to release our debut daily preview on Sunday several hours before Federer strikes the first serve of the 2010 Wimbledon Championships.  Prepare for a fortnight filled with drama!

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