Wimbledon preview roundtable: Top storylines, predictions and more
With Wimbledon set to begin on Monday, SI.com's Andrew Lawrence, Courtney Nguyen and Jon Wertheim analyze the top storylines and predict the winners.
How will Andy Murray perform under the pressure of defending his first Wimbledon title?
Lawrence: Murray will play to the level of the pressure, which is not nearly as great as it was in 2013. That could cut two ways. He may relax a little, reduce his harshly critical inner self to a spectator and turn into the effortless shotmaker that he can be when he's in the zone. Or he may relax too much and overlook a draw that might not produce a fair fight for him until the quarters, where a matchup with David Ferrer or Grigor Dimitrov looms as a possibility.
Why is the second scenario more likely to come to pass? Because Murray isn't coming into this year's tournament on nearly as hot a streak as he did last year. It's difficult to see him meeting the moment again, especially with no titles to his name in 2014 and a hungry Novak Djokovic potentially lurking in the semis. That said, Murray does at least have one thing going for him: His decision to hire Amelie Mauresmo as his coach after the French Open gives him a convenient out. If he fails to repeat, he can just say this was a rebuilding year. If he's lucky, Britain will be so consumed with the Three Lions' epic flameout of Group D that it'll barely even notice.
Nguyen: Murray will be fine. People talk about Murray and pressure as though he's struggled playing before a home crowd. But the fact is he's always equaled or bettered his results at Wimbledon year after year. Playing at home on the grass brings out his best. There's a heck of a lot more pressure dealing with the 77-year-old ghost of Fred Perry than winning Wimbledon for the second time in two years. That's not to say he's going to win it again or that he won't crash out in the first round. But if something closer to the latter happens, I don't think it will be because he couldn't deal with the pressure. It will be because he's still working his way back into his top form after season-ending back surgery last fall.
Wertheim: And with a new, highly scrutinized coaching arrangement ...
A month ago, things looked bleak for Murray, who hadn't even reach a final -- much less won an event -- since Wimbledon last year. But then he played well (for five rounds, before he ran into the Nadal buzzsaw) in Paris. Two days later, he announced his hire of Mauresmo, which drew much praise and single-handedly caused a surge in that congealed managerial cliché of "thinking outside the box." His Wimbledon seeding exceeds his ATP ranking, so he's No. 3 on the draw board. And if Murray can handle the pressure of becoming the first British male since the Pleistocene Era to win Wimbledon, he can handle the pressure of defending. (Even if he is unsure.)
How will Victoria Azarenka play after her three-month injury layoff?
Lawrence: This is her left foot we're talking about -- she needs to be able to dig in to generate power for her groundstrokes. Is she prepared to do that time after time? Those strokes not only rate among the most consistent on the women's tour, but they also protect the most glaring weakness in Azarenka's game: her on-again, off-again serve. Azarenka can get by the first two rounds on grit alone, but that'll probably be as far as it takes her -- especially with Serena-killer Garbine Murguruza potentially waiting for her in the third round.
Nguyen: I watched Azarenka play against Camila Giorgi this week Eastbourne, her first match since March. She lost in nearly three hours, but the good news is that she got progressively better. The competitive instincts are still there, and she remained focused over the long match. She also moved confidently around the court. She's still rusty, but if she can get through the first two rounds, she has a draw that could put her into the quarterfinals. That would be an incredible result for her after such a long time away.
Wertheim: Azarenka hasn't won a match since the Australian Open. Expecting her to launch a comeback on grass is -- to use the tennis expression infected on us by Brad Gilbert -- "a big ask." As if Azarenka needed more dissonance in her life, Party Rock is reportedly no longer in the house. Then again, in tennis we have seen players amid discord and conflict turn in their best results when conventional wisdom said it was the least likely time. All of which is to say: If Azarenka lost early (as she did in 2013), it would not be a surprise. If she won the title, it would not bowl us over either.
Rafael Nadal hasn't made it past the second round the last two years. Will his struggles on grass continue?
Lawrence: Those of us who didn't take Nadal seriously when he said that the ninth French Open title was the hardest to win had to sympathize after seeing the way he was thoroughly dominated by the 85th-ranked Dustin Brown in an opening-round loss at the Gerry Weber Open last week. You could just as easily see Ivo Karlovic having his way with Nadal in the third round of Wimbledon, especially if the big Croatian's service game is on point.
Nguyen: When Nadal lost to Lukas Rosol in the second round two years ago, I shrugged it off. Rosol played the match of his life, and Nadal shut down his season after the loss due to his knees. But when he got bounced in straight sets by Steve Darcis in the first round last year, the alarm bells went off. All respect to the man they call "The Shark," but that loss should absolutely never happen, especially considering Nadal went on to have a great summer hard-court season. I'm bracing myself for an early Nadal upset this time around. He starts against Martin Klizan, who can be dangerous, then a possible rematch against Rosol in the second round, with Karlovic looming in the third round. Those are potentially tricky matches.
Wertheim: It's strange because we're talking about a guy who has reached FIVE Wimbledon finals, and won two titles. Were it not for his play the last two years, we'd be talking about him as a remarkably skilled grass-court player. Nadal, of course, needs to win only his first two matches to eclipse his last two dismal performances at the All England Club. It's hard to imagine he won't accomplish at least that much. But one wonders if, after the last two years, he has the necessary self-belief to think he can win the whole bangers-and-mash platter. We'll see.
What are you most looking forward to in the draw?
Lawrence: Taylor Townsend, of course. And not just because she, like me, is from Chicago. (Represent!) Her game -- a blend of power, athleticism and cunning -- is just a joy to watch. What's more, it was surprisingly effective on the Parisian terre battue -- where she ambushed 20th-seeded Alize Cornet in the second round (on Lenglen!) before falling to No. 14 seed Carla Suarez Navarro. The Wimbledon draw isn't too daunting for Townsend. The 18-year-old opens against No. 31 Klara Koukalova, who has cooled off since winning two titles in Brazil in February, and she could face fellow U.S. teen Madison Keys, 19, in the second round and the always vulnerable Jelena Jankovic, the No. 7 seed, in the third round.
Nguyen: I would love for the seeds to hold on the men's side so that we get a rematch of last year's final between Murray and Djokovic in the semifinals, and a rematch of the 2008 Wimbledon epic final between Federer and Nadal in the other semifinal. I'd welcome a Murray-Grigor Dimitrov quarterfinal as well.
As for the women, I would love for Serena's draw hold up to see if she can plow through top quality opposition all the way to the title. If that were to happen, she'd have to beat (in order) Anna Tatishvili, Christina McHale, Cornet, Eugenie Bouchard, Maria Sharapova, Simona Halep and Li Na. That's one way to shut everyone up about her quality.
Wertheim: The twists of the Big Four. There are abundant other storylines (five quickies: Keys, Townsend, Dimitrov, Ernests Gulbis, Andrea Petkovic), but no matter what happens to Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray, it has implications that go far beyond this one event.
Who might break through on the women's side?
Lawrence: Townsend again, for all the reasons I just said.
Nguyen: I feel like choosing Bouchard (who has already made two straight Grand Slam semifinals this year), Ana Ivanovic (who was a semifinalist in 2007 and is having a strong year) or Halep (she's ranked No. 3!) is cheating, though they're my "dark horse" picks to make the final or win the title. So I'm going to go with Keys. The 19-year-old is playing her first WTA final this weekend, in Eastbourne, and she hasn't dropped a set. I like her chances of making the fourth round, which would be a great result for her. It's hard to shake the feeling that with her big serve and strokes, Keys is going to win this tournament someday.
Wertheim: To me it's less about breakthrough than about seeing whether the arrivistes at Roland Garros can entrench themselves further. Can Halep -- who took a set off Serena at Wimbledon in 2011 -- continue her ascent? What about Bouchard, the only WTA player to reach the final four in both majors in 2014? Muguruza hasn't played much on grass, but one would think her game would translate well. Townsend, a main-draw wild card and an admitted grass-o-phile, was the junior runner-up in 2013.
Who might break through on the men's side?
Lawrence: At the risk of waving the red, white and blue a bit to vigorously, why not John Isner? He's back on the top-10 bubble and fresh off a fourth-round run in Paris, the deepest by an American man in four years. His section of the draw features fifth-seeded Stan Wawrinka, who has proved to be quite beatable since claiming the Australian Open, and No. 19 Feliciano Lopez, who has been to three Wimbledon quarterfinals but also lost in the first round twice in the last five years.
Nguyen: I don't see anyone outside of the Big Four winning the title, but Dimitrov is the man to watch over the fortnight. He won Queen's Club last week, and he should at least reach the fourth round, where he could face Ferrer, followed by Murray. Those are both winnable matches if he conserves his energy in the early rounds and doesn't get stuck in unnecessary five-setters.
Wertheim: Dustin Brown. We say it once. We'll say it again. Dustin Brown.
Who wins the men's tournament?
Lawrence: Novak Djokovic. He avenges his loss to Nadal at the French Open and reclaims the No. 1 ranking.
Nguyen: Roger Federer. It's between Federer and Murray for me, but I'm going with Federer. I like his draw, and I'm not convinced Nadal will make their semifinal date.
Wertheim: Roger Federer. Who knows how many more chances you get here: I'll take Federer. His track record (before last year) speaks for itself. Nadal is a bit dinged up and returns to an event where he's lost three of his last four matches. Djokovic has developed a nasty habit of failing to show up on Finals Day. Murray has -- by his own admission -- slipped since last year. Federer is on his preferred surface, with optimal preparation, and has looked better in 2014 than in 2013. Why the hell not?
Who wins the women's tournament?
Lawrence: Serena Williams. It used to annoy me when Williams would blame losses on herself rather than acknowledge that her opponent was simply better. But, oh, do I see the light now. When she's fit and focused, really, no one should so much as breathe on Williams -- let alone touch her. And I see her being ready from the start after failing to win the Australian Open and French Open. The only opponent I could see even coming close to a sharp Serena is Bouchard, who blends power with savvy. If they meet in the fourth round, it will be an electric spectacle -- especially if Bouchard is hitting her lines. It might even go down as the match of the tournament. But if Williams pulls through as expected, an 18th Grand Slam title is fait accompli.
Nguyen: Serena Williams. If I had to choose between Serena or The Field, I'd go with The Field. This isn't a lock for Serena by any means. But it's Wimbledon. How can you bet against her?
Wertheim: Serena Williams. I want to be adventurous and tip this year's Marion Bartoli. But it all seems a bit too whimsical. So we'll go boring: Serena, for the sixth time.