Wimbledon 2012 Roundtable: Much on the line at All England Club
It's a quick turnaround from the French Open to Wimbledon. Rafael Nadal and Maria Sharapova rolled through the draws on the red clay of Roland Garros, but the Wimbledon grass is a different game. Some of the top players head to the All England Lawn Tennis Club without any matches on grass this season, while others chose to hit some tuneups. So what's the scoop on the third major of the year? The SI.com tennis team breaks it down.
How will trends from clay season roll to grass?
In any case, the days of a Spaniard winning the French and then getting lost in the weeds of Wimbledon are over. Having proven to himself that he can beat Novak Djokovic -- cherry picking the sample size, he has now won eight of their last 10 sets -- Nadal rolls into Wimbledon with momentum. Also the last five times he's been to the All England Club look like this: R/U, W, W, R/U, R/U. Likewise, Djokovic is the defending champ and can play on grass. Roger Federer is accomplished on the surface as well. Barring some cosmic event, you have to believe one of the Big Three is winning yet another Slam, an eventuality that's happened in every Slam, save one, since early 2005 -- among the most preposterous stats in sports today.
On the other end of the spectrum, for all the other possible causes of WTA chaos, surface specialties don't rank high. When their games (and minds) are willing, the women can play on anything. So, (short of seeing Sara Errani in another final), it's easier to see an acceleration of trends rather than a reversal. Maria Sharapova is my pick (see below). Petra Kvitova, a semifinalist in Paris, is the defending champion. Two things to look for: how will Roland Garros' first week flameouts -- Serena Williams, Marion Bartoli, Victoria Azarenka and Aga Radwanska chief among them -- fare? Well overall, I suspect. Conversely, can some of the pleasant surprises coming out Paris (we're looking at you, Sloane Stephens) continue building?
In the seemingly shakier case, Sharapova, I'd say yes. There's simply no way she can't be brimming with confidence; she now returns to the place where it all began, bearing the knowledge that she's proven herself an all-around force. I can't help but think of Agassi winning the French in '99: the major that answered so many questions about and for him, the win that remade his legacy and jump-started an entirely new persona. I can easily see this happening, too, for Sharapova.
As for Nadal, I'm less convinced that this will carry. His confidence -- unless it was dented by that rain-soaked walkabout on Sunday's final in Paris -- should be peaking, but now his grass/hardcourt/will my-body-hold-up? summer begins. His challenge will be stiffer than Sharapova's, competition-wise, and there will be more opportunities for him to crack.
Nadal and Sharapova have to be the presumptive favorites heading into London, not just because of their recent success and decisive play in Paris but because of their history of success at Wimbledon. The same goes for Djokovic, Federer, Serena and Kvitova. In other words, whenever the grass is concerned, you have to back the players who have already proved their chops. If they happened to do well in Paris, that's just an orange wedge in an ice cold glass of Pimm's.
For a potential bucked trend, how about John Isner? The rangy American scored headline-grabbing wins over Federer, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Gilles Simon in Davis Cup this year before fading badly during the French Open tune-ups and crashing out in the second round at Roland Garros. His return game remains a liability, but it's hard to discount his thunderous serve on such a favorable surface, past mixed results at Wimbledon notwithstanding.
Dark Horse players to watch
As for the women, the field of dark horses is either vast or nonexistent. (If virtually anyone can win, who is overlooked?) I like Petra Martic of Croatia. I fell hard for her athletic, all-court game in Paris. (She not only serves and volleys, but occasionally does so on second serves!) It's easy to see these skills transferring to grass, and her first-round foe will be Sabine Lisicki, who has lost in her first match of four straight tournaments.
Sloane Stephens: Paris was a sweet run, and everything about the All England Club plays into her game and personality.
Why not go with the Americans? Their hasty exits (save Varvara Lepchenko) were somewhat deceiving in Paris, because they all lost to excellent players. Major props to Melanie Oudin for beating Jelena Jankovic in the Birmingham final, and she'll be a story at Wimbledon if she can get past Nadia Petrova in the second round. Lepchenko, Christina McHale and Sloane Stephens are pretty good bets to reach the third round, at the very least.
And from one end of the age spectrum to another, keep an eye on Raonic. The Canadian Missile is primed for a true debut at Wimbledon after his first appearance was cut short by injury last year.
On the other side, Marion Bartoli didn't have the clay season she wanted, but who cares? I'm writing this assuming the leg injury she sustained in her semifinal loss in Eastbourne isn't too debilitating. If so, I think she has a great shot to make the quarterfinals, if not the semis. She's back on her best surface, where she never fails to do some serious damage. Much like Venus Williams, Maid Marion knows exactly how to play on grass: all offense, all the time. If she's serving well, she'll be a tough out.
Another one to watch is Angelique Kerber. Thanks to her semifinal run in Eastbourne, she's tied with Victoria Azarenka and Agnieszka Radwanska for the most wins on tour this year with 38. I wasn't convinced of Kerber's abilities on grass until watching her in Eastbourne. She hugs the baseline well and while she doesn't have the outright power that you like to see from a good grasscourter, she absorbs pace and redirects the ball quite well. She may have lost in the first round last year to Laura Robson, but I think we can all agree that
A tricky opening-round match against formerly top-ranked Jelena Jankovic notwithstanding, Kim Clijsters -- whose ability far outstrips her No. 53 ranking -- is more than capable of making her last Wimbledon a memorable one. When fit, she's one of the tour's two best, along with Serena.
Flameouts to watch
Sam Stosur may be hard-hitting, athletic, dexterous at the net, and the owner of a mean kick serve. And you might think that based on these assets she should be formidable on grass. But the low bounces and skids are poorly suited to her elaborate backswing (a point Martina Navratilova presciently made years ago) and, beyond that, Stosur seems to have psyched herself out on grass.
I'm going to stick with my pick from Roland Garros: Serena. Something's amiss with her; it's unfathomable that she'd lose to Virginie Razzano after being up a set and 5-1. Perhaps the Wimbledon setting will rejuvenate Serena, but she seemed awfully excited to be in Paris, only to lose her competitive drive.
Agnieszka Radwanska and Caroline Wozniacki are tired, cranky, and not playing their best tennis. In fact, after Aga's first-round loss in Eastbourne to Tsvetana Pironkova, the world No. 3 said she couldn't wait to get back to the hard courts. That's not a great mindset for a player who needs to be mentally and physically prepared to out-think and outwit the power hitters on grass.
Petra Kvitova struggled after breaking through for her first major at last year's Wimbledon and has proven unable to use it as the springboard to superstardom many thought it could be. A natural introvert, Kvitova will find that the added spotlight afforded a defending champion is to her detriment, and a premature departure looms.
Bold, way out there prediction
If Andy Murray loses before the semis, he will part ways with Ivan Lendl. Good for Murray for having the conviction to make an unconventional coaching choice, for seeking counsel from someone who wouldn't coddle him, who didn't need the job and didn't need the money. And good for Lendl for seeing something in Murray and giving this coaching gig a chance. But tennis is a results driven business -- sometimes cruelly so -- and Murray's results speak for themselves. He has been struggling since mid-February. Another early exit and change might be in order.
And The Winners Are
But then again, what in tennis isn't? The sport has a history of throwing us unlikely plot twists and storylines. Players come out of retirement to win. They rescue their careers from the precipice. They rise and fall, often with little apparent provocation. We all know Federer's prowess on grass. We all know that he's been tailoring his year to these next eight weeks. We all know that the window for another major is closing. We all saw Pete Sampras' summer a decade ago.
Equally illogical and at odds with recent history, I'll take Sharapova. Yes, I know the trend: the WTA player who wins tournament T, flames out at tournament T+1. Except that Sharapova -- a former winner and finalist last year -- is brimming with self-belief and ambition, virtues that so few other players truly possess.
Victoria Azarenka. Grass is no problem for Vika, and she's one of the top returners on tour. She has to remember who she is, and what she's done, and ditch the sour face. Some would argue that this pick makes no sense, but this hasn't been a big year for heavy favorites. The WTA is all about unpredictability, and I'm sure the tour wouldn't mind Azarenka validating all the attention that has come her way this year.
Sharapova has proven this year that she has Kvitova's number, already beating her twice at the Slams. It took a very special performance from Kvitova to beat Sharapova in the final last year. She's not playing at the same level this year, while Maria has clearly improved.
It's been nearly three years since anyone on the parity-stricken women's tour won back-to-back majors -- and a decade since any woman completed the French Open-Wimbledon double -- and Sharapova, after conquering Roland Garros and regaining the No. 1 ranking, is up to the task on a surface that plays to her strengths. But a narrow loss to Clijsters in a quarterfinal classic will open the door for Kim's storybook finish.