Novak Djokovic is No. 1 and has won three of the last four majors. Rafael Nadal is No. 2 and just won Roland Garros. Roger Federer is No. 3 but has been steady enough over the last year that he’s still within striking distance of the top spot. Put those facts together and we have a Grand Slam men’s event that feels, for the first time since perhaps the French Open last year, favorite-less.
The big buildup to Roland Garros is over, and Wimbledon begins in its aftermath. The most important result from Paris is that Djokovic’s hold on Nadal at the majors is over. They start their march toward a fifth straight Slam final on what seems like even terms.
But first -- as well as second, third, fourth, fifth, and sixth -- things first. Who has the tougher road there? Is there anyone who we can plausibly say has a chance to derail them? Where do the two men behind them, Federer and Andy Murray, stand? And is there any reason to believe that someone other than these four can reach the semis or even the final? Let’s see what the draw says.
The men’s game can seem like one long episode of Groundhog Day. Big 4 dominance, Nadal winning in Paris, Djoker-Rafa finals: Not much, after all of the hue and cry, ever changes these days. And it’s true in one more respect: Djokovic is virtually guaranteed to draw Federer in one semi, while Nadal and Murray are scheduled to face off in the other. That scenario has come true again this time.
As I said, though, first things first. Djokovic begins his title defense against Juan Carlos Ferrero. That’s not the easiest draw -- Ferrero, ranked 38th, was only six spots from being seeded—but it’s not the scariest, either. Ferrero has been to the Wimbledon quarters twice, including as recently as 2009, and is 1-1 against Djokovic lifetime (they haven’t played since 2007, and never on grass). But he’s also 32 years old. Novak’s second round -- against either Ryan Harrison, who reached the Eastbourne semis this week and acquitted himself well at Wimbledon last year, or Yen-Hsun Lu—isn’t a cakewalk either.
Djokovic is scheduled to face Tomas Berdych in the quarters. Berdych recorded his only career win over Novak in the Wimbledon semis in 2010; if anything, with the exception of his fourth-round loss at Roland Garros, Berdych has been playing better this year than he was then. The Czech’s draw shapes up well. He starts with Ernests Gulbis, and the next highest seed on his side of this quarter is Nicolas Almagro.
What should we make of Djokovic’s chances, and the state of his game, as the tournament begins? He’s not what he was last year, we know; mainly, he’s not quite as consistent, and his rough mental edges have reappeared. On the one hand, I’d say that could leave him vulnerable to an upset. On the other, I thought something similar when he came to Wimbledon last after a tough defeat in Paris.
First-round match to watch: Almagro vs. Rochus. One-handers
Sleeper, unless he goes to sleep: Richard Gasquet
Of the Top 4, Federer has the best draw through the quarters. Tipsarevic is the next highest seed in this section; Benneteau, Verdasco, and Simon are the three seeds in Federer's half; and one potentially tricky opponent, John Isner, is on the other side, and has never been past the second round at Wimbledon.
Maybe Federer should be more afraid of his first-round against Albert Ramos, a journeyman lefty. Another man who fits that description, Alejandro Falla, nearly knocked him out in the first round two years ago. Federer’s form has been shaky of late, especially his forehand. Like Djokovic, I wondered coming in about the possibilities of an early upset. It could happen, obviously, but with this draw I don’t see where. Net-rushing Michael Llodra in the second round, perhaps? Federer is 2-0 against him. Federer will also be motivated, in part by the ghost of Pete Sampras. He could tie Sampras with his seventh title, and with that title he could retake No. 1 and pass Pete for most weeks at No. 1 all time. Plus, it's Wimbledon, his favorite tournament.
First-round match to watch, for a number of reasons: Tipsarevic vs. Nalbandian
Second-round match to sort of hope doesn’t happen and sort of hope does: Isner vs. Mahut
10th straight loss alert: Donald Young, who opens with Youzhny. When can we start invoking the name of Vince Spadea and his 21 straight defeats? Come on, he's not even halfway there, that couldn't possibly happen . . .
Best-named first-round: Flavio Cipolla vs. Inigo Cervantes
Best name: Jimmy Wang
If Federer has been dealt the best hand of the Top 4, Murray has the worst. He starts with Nikolay Davydenko; the aging Russian has four wins over him in nine matches. Next could be Ivo Karlovic; no need to explain what he can do. Grass fan Grigor Dimitrov is in the vicinity, as is the other big-serving guy no one wants to face, Milos Raonic. And then there’s Marin Cilic, winner in Queen’s last week. And that’s just Murray’s half of this section.
The top seed on the other side is David Ferrer; grass is not his surface, though he has been to the fourth round the last two years here. Juan Martin del Potro is next highest seed, and Andy Roddick after that. Roddick in particular could surprise. He’s in the final in Eastbourne this weekend, and his closest seed is Ferrer, whom he beat as recently as last year’s U.S. Open.
How about Murray himself? He comes in with back issues and having just suffered an upset loss at Queen’s. But everything starts again at Wimbledon for him. He's been to the semis the last three years.
Second-round match to watch, for reasons having nothing to do with the quality of tennis: Roddick vs. Wayne Odesnik
Duel of contrasts: Kevin Anderson vs. Grigor Dimitrov
Question marks: Del Potro and Raonic. How good is the Argentine on grass? The tall man has struggled on it in the past. And how reliable is the 21-year-old Raonic at this point? Each could do damage, or disappoint early. (I guess that’s true for everyone, but I think you know what I mean.)
Rafael Nadal comes to Wimbledon the way he always comes to Wimbledon, with the momentum of a major title at his back. The last five times he won at Roland Garros, he’s gone on to reach the Wimbledon final. As I said, he has also snapped Novak’s streak against him, at the majors and elsewhere, and has now won their last three matches. He can come into this tournament without any lingering doubts about whether he can win it.
Nadal starts with lefty Thomaz Bellucci, whose ranking of 78 doesn’t do justice to his talent. In the second round Rafa could get Ivan Dodig, who beat him in Canada last year. Nearby are Tommy Haas and Philip Kohlschreiber; the latter just beat Nadal on grass in Halle. Also on his side: Lopez, Dolgopolov, and qualifier Brian Baker.
If that’s not exactly a murderer's row, Nadal has been given a dangerous second seed in his section: Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, fan of grass, 2011 semifinalist, and near-conqueror of Djokovic in Paris. Tsonga injured a finger at Queen’s, but seems ready. He has a tricky opener against former champ Lleyton Hewitt, and might get another look at Stan Wawrinka, the man he beat in five at Roland Garros, in the third round.
First-round match to watch: Bernard Tomic vs. David Goffin
Most confusing first-round match: Alex Bogomolov, Jr. vs. Alex Dolgopolov (former Jr.)
Most unfortunate first-round match: Haas vs. Kohlschreiber
Returning: Mardy Fish
Semifinals: Federer d. Djokovic; Nadal d. Murray
Final: Nadal d. Federer