by Saqib Ali
When I was introduced to the sport in the mid eighty’s and it was commonly referred to as Lawn Tennis. Grass court tennis was the norm in India and had more than a few weeks presence on the circuit. Grass was synonymous to the biggest tournament of all called the Championships, not the England Open but simply The Championships. Also known more popularly as Wimbledon to most. While grass tennis has all but evaporated form the tennis tour, winning Wimbledon still remains the most prestigious thing in the sport. Not to take away from the prestige of the other three majors but Wimbledon has an aura of its own. To the casual fan or someone who does not follow tennis, Wimbledon champion back in the day was the equivalent of the world champ or the most famous tennis player. And it is no coincidence that former tennis greats are often addressed as either former world number ones (if they reached the summit of course) or simply as former Wimbledon Champion! This year too the tennis world will look at the fortnight to produce another glorious chapter. Will we see a new champion or a familiar face triumphing on Center Court. As we are few days away from that chapter to unfold, here is a premature look at the possible contenders and the challengers of these championships.
Before we break down the favorites and the challengers I must say that men who have dominated these championships have become pretty good all court players as well. Which is remarkable in itself as the likes of Federer, Becker, Nadal and many other men who have won here have no or little training on the surface. All these men have adopted so well on the surface where the movement has been the biggest challenge. Playing styles have changed over the years since Becker-Edberg locked horns in three successive title fights to the more recent three final duel of Federer- Nadal. Serve and volley has been replaced by attacking baseline exchanges. The court used to lose all its grass around the net area, whereas now it is the baseline which is the most worn out part of the court. What has not changed is the sheer quality of tennis one has to display to win these championships.
Roger Federer reconfirmed his status as the favorite to win his eighth Wimbledon title after dismantling the young German Alexander Zverev in Halle yesterday. He was my pick to win this year even after the loss to Tommy Haas last week or even after his not so convincing win against another next generation contender, Karen Khachanov in the semifinals. Predictions have a way of playing out silly lot of times but Federer’s masterful display against Zverev, stamped the much needed pre draw validation of his status as the favorite. Federer has always valued these two weeks as the most important time of the tennis year. And in a very longtime he comes into these championships as the strong favorite. The narrative around his story for the last twelve months is incredible, considering how he left the championships last year. There loomed a certain uncertainty if he would ever be a strong contender at these Championships. He has answered any concerns or doubts in the most emphatic manner. Nothing new can be said about how he has taken care of his body after all these years of top flight tennis. He knows he has made the right decisions and sacrifices to be in this position once again. Win or lose something tells me he will savor every minute of these championships.
Andy Murray The defending champ is another player who is literally at home on the lawns of Wimbledon. His movement is superb on grass and so is the feel if he comes to the net. I guess that is why he has won this thing twice. His ability to defuse the big servers is another aspect which makes him very complete on grass, where close sets are decided by a return there or a lob here! Since reaching the number one ranking, Murray has had a pretty tough time this year on and off the court until the recently concluded French open. His early departure at Queens is probably a big blow to his Wimbledon preparations. His two Wimbledon titles are quite remarkable given the immense pressure he is under every time he plays the Championships. For added pressure and expectations, it is the first time he comes into these championships as the world number one. On current form I don’t see him beating Federer, but a lot can happen between now and then if they were to square off. Murray’s season could be starting now as well similar to Federer’s!
Rafael Nadal will not have appeared in this short list few months ago. The tennis narrative changes fast and Nadal’s win at Roland Garros has propelled his status to a contender even though he himself feels otherwise. Of course we have to be realistic as Nadal has not made the last eight since 2011 at Wimbledon with few unceremonious losses to players he would not lose otherwise. Despite his newly regained confidence the first week at Wimbledon will be the critical phase for him in terms of survival. The new grass always plays fast and can be little tricky in the first week. The draw will be of huge intrigue for him as well. If he clears the first week then he can be a major threat as he definitely knows how to win here after reaching five finals at the Championships. He will be determined to avoid another early exit for sure, even though he cited his knees as suspect after winning the unprecedented tenth Roland Garros crown.
Milos Raonic is a throwback Wimbledon player with big booming serve and aggressive net play. But the problem is that Wimbledon is nearly not as rewarding to this kind of play anymore. The big four can be Raonic’s undoing because all of them move so well and return very well, especially Murray and Djokovic. Raonic represents the lost generation of players who have not broken through the gridlock of the big four at major tournaments as the new generation is ready to take over as well. But one thing you cannot accuse Raonic is for lack of trying. He has always brought in the best help possible and has kept improving. He has parted ways with former Wimbledon Champ Richard Krajicek right after Roland Garros and has brought in Mark Knowles as the consulting coach. His big obstacle has been his injury niggles for most of his career. He has not been able to build any kind of momentum so far. If healthy he can seriously be a great contender this year considering he already reached the finals last year. Players don’t want to admit this but the decline of Djokovic form his nearly invincible has already created some opportunities at the top. Raonic must fancy his chances as this is the year of some uncertainty and he his is a major force on grass. Raonic takes himself very seriously and that can only be a good thing on this surface where instinctive play holds the key.
Novak Djokovic is a former three time winner of these Championships. The good part is he knows what it takes to lift that trophy on the second Sunday. However the tricky part is he seldom has looked like that guy for quite some time now. The turmoil of his tennis are well known of late. He has brought in another super coach in Andre Agassi and has tinkered his pre Wimbledon schedule this year by accepting a late wildcard in to the Eastbourne event. Ironically his quest will be of a different nature at these championships as he tries to dig deeper than ever to find that missing mojo. His class cannot be questioned, so write him off at your own peril.
There are three others who can go through the draw and become Wimbledon champs. Marin Cilic, Alex Zverev and Nick Kyrgios. Kyrgios especially would be a favorite if had maintained health and form he displayed at the Miami Open. Arguably with the best second serve in the game, watch out for him if he clears weak one. Marin Cilic is one of the few players who knows what it takes to win a major and big titles. He is a little under appreciated by the experts in my opinion and is a very legit threat at these Championships especially if we have some upsets in the first week. Last but definitely not the least is the younger Zverev. This is a guy who probably will win contend for many big titles and a deep run is not out of the question for this year as well.