Wednesday June 20th, 2012

Rafael Nadal Rafael Nadal lost in the Halle quarters, his only grass-court tournament before Wimbledon. (Zumapress)

With all the upsets and relative unreliability of the lead-up tournament results, it's a tough ask to handicap the field for Wimbledon, which begins on Monday. The top players haven't given us a glimpse of their grass form, opting instead to stick to the practice courts, which means it's a relatively wide open field for both the men and women. Here's our look at the players who are the best and worst bets to do well as Wimbledon approaches.


Rafael Nadal: Nadal spent the last three months proving to the world, and perhaps himself, that he doesn't have a Novak Djokovic problem, and he did it in style at Roland Garros, putting together one of his most dominant campaigns to a Slam title ever. Now he'll shoot to complete the "Channel Slam" (winning Roland Garros and Wimbledon back to back) for the third time in his career, a feat that would match Bjorn Borg's run of three straight from 1978-80. Nadal has that swagger and snarl back and looks to be the man to beat in London.

Tommy Haas: You beat Roger Federer in straight sets in a final on grass and people are going to pay attention. Haas is the definition of a dangerous floater this year and all eyes will be on where he falls in the draw. Unseeded, the 34-year-old could get any of the top seeds in his first round match. Watch him draw Roger. The Draw Gods do have a sense of humor.

Maria Sharapova: Newly minted No. 1, French Open champion, and 2011 Wimbledon finalist. It's hard to knock Sharapova's chances at the All England Lawn and Tennis Club, the tournament where she kicked off her newly finished quest for the Career Slam at 17 years old. She appeared to be on track to win her second Wimbledon title last year before she ran into an unstoppable Petra Kvitova in the final. This year she's full of confidence and the serve isn't letting her down.

Milos Raonic: The Canuck has had only one appearance at Wimbledon and it ended in an injury retirement last year in the second round. He proved in Halle that he has a game that's perfectly suited for grass, taking a set off Federer before, once again, being nipped in the end in a third set tiebreak.

Tomas Berdych: After a strong campaign through the clay lead-ups, Berdych got a raw deal when he drew Juan Martin del Potro in the fourth round of Roland Garros. If the Draw Gods decide to even things out and give him a kinder draw at Wimbledon, the 2010 finalist is nothing but upside. Sure, he lost to Haas in Halle, but that loss sure looks a lot better now, doesn't it?

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga: The question for Tsonga is whether he'll take the positives or the negatives from his almost-upset of Novak Djokovic in Paris. Having four match points against the world No. 1 in front of your home crowd and not converting can lead to a whole lot of doubts. A semifinalist last year, he's admitted that he feels more pressure at Wimbledon than he does at Roland Garros. But even with those caveats, Tsonga's athleticism is just perfect on grass and the London crowd absolutely love him. I like the chances of a healthy Jo here.

Venus Williams: Unseeded and looming, Venus is the ultimate wildcard whenever Wimbledon rolls around. The quick surface and short points will help her immensely, as will the three-week layoff she's had since losing early in Paris. Like Haas, keep an eye on where she ends up in the draw. You never know, this could be her last Wimbledon. And let's go ahead and cross our fingers that she doesn't pull a Serena in the first round.

Tsvetana Pironkova: Ask "WHO?!?" at your peril. Ranked No. 40, the Bulgarian does nothing but win matches on grass. Quite literally. She doesn't do a whole lot of winning anytime else. But Pironkova was a surprise semifinalist two years ago, and less we thought it was a one-time performance, she backed it up last year with a solid run to the quarterfinals. Her flat game combined with her untraditional forehand slice wreaks havoc on grass. Want a spoiler pick that will impress your friends? Go with Tsvetana.

Melanie Oudin: Here's another potential spoiler. Oudin will be an unseeded wildcard at Wimbledon, riding the wave of confidence that came with her first career title in Birmingham last week. Her grass bona fides are strong at Wimbledon, where she made the fourth round in 2009 (and that was before her U.S. Open breakthrough). Give her the right draw and a similar result isn't out of the question.


Novak Djokovic: The defending champion hasn't won a title since Miami, which is understandable given the debacle that was Madrid and the fact that he lost three finals on clay to that Spanish guy. It would be one thing if Djokovic went gang-busters through the Roland Garros draw and simply ran into the brick wall that is Nadal, but he struggled in Paris, never quite able to get his game into full flight. I just can't shake the doublefault he hit on match point in the final and can't help but wonder if it's an ominous omen. He's going to need his serve to be clicking at Wimbledon.

Serena Williams Serena Williams' loss to Virginnie Razzano at the French Open was her first opening-round loss at a Grand Slam. (EPA/Landov)

Serena Williams: Serena finds herself in the same situation as Federer. Based on her talent and skill (and given that she's ostensibly healthy) there's no reason she doesn't have a title run in her, especially at Wimbledon. But that first-round loss to Virginie Razzano was painful, especially given the fact that Serena's done everything she's supposed to do this year. She's committed to her fitness, played the lead-ups, and it still hasn't come together for her through the first two Slams of the year. If she finds herself serving as well as she did on her way to the title in 2010, this one's a no-brainer. But seven matches in two weeks seems like a much tougher task for her these days.

Roger Federer: The Swiss Maestro hasn't won a Slam in over two years, and one of tennis' greatest ever front-runners returns to the site of a historic defeat, where he lost a two sets to love lead for the first time in 179 Slam matches to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the quarterfinals last year. A nice draw and Federer should be able to ease himself into the semifinals easily. But the primary cause of concern is the growing inconsistency in his game as matches get tight. It happened against Djokovic in the Roland Garros semifinals, where he'd go through spells of scintillating tennis only to stumble when trying to close, and it happened just last week in Halle, failing to hold on to a break lead in the first set, misfiring repeatedly when his footwork failed him. On paper, given his quality results of the last eight months, Roger's one of the favorites. On the other hand, reliability in the clutch has been an issue.

Petra Kvitova: To say that Kvitova has been struggling this year is 100 percent accurate and unfair at the same time. She hasn't made a final let alone won a title in 2012, yet she's made it to the semifinals of both the Australian Open and the French Open. Those are results anyone would be happy with and yet, given how she broke through here at Wimbledon last year -- with jaw-dropping power and poise -- it seems a disappointment. The Czech will go into Wimbledon with only one match on grass under her belt, a straight-set loss to Ekaterina Makarova. All signs point to a slump, but we all know Petra can flip a switch faster than, well, you can flip a switch.

Victoria Azarenka: It's a cruel world, this tennis. One minute you're the talk of the town, dominating every headline and making everyone wonder if you're ever going to lose another match, and the next you're confined to the back pages as an afterthought. Azarenka started the clay season well, with two finalist appearances in Stuttgart and Madrid (losing to Sharapova, and Serena, respectively). But after a second round withdrawal from Rome that came under scrutiny, she crashed out of the French Open to Dominika Cibulkova, lost her No. 1 ranking, and left a wake of broken rackets and press room missteps (asked how she would deal with the loss, Azarenka sarcastically said she was going to kill herself). She's been laying low since, opting not to play a grass lead-up. It's hard to know where Vika's head is as she attempts to back up last year's semifinal run.

Andy Roddick: A quarterfinal run isn't out of the cards for Roddick and he's hitting the ball much better now that he's back on grass, finally notching a complete match win on Wednesday in Eastbourne (his first since beating Federer in Miami). With his tools he's always a threat at Wimbledon. But will the body hold up?

Juan Martin del Potro: As I saw it, a healthy Del Potro beats Federer at Roland Garros, as opposed to falling away after winning the first two sets. Let's wait and see if two weeks off was enough to get his knee fit for Wimbledon.

Marion Bartoli: It's a wait and see situation with Bartoli, who had a disappointing clay season. But she could get the boost of confidence she needs this week at Eastbourne where she's the defending champion. Last year she won Eastbourne and knocked out Serena in the fourth round of Wimbledon a week later. She's always one to watch.

Bernard Tomic: A quarterfinalist last year, Tomic is still a complete conundrum. He clearly loves the big stages, saving his best for the Australian Open and Wimbledon, but his ability to compete when the stakes are lower leaves much to be desired. Look no further than his sleeper of a match today in Eastbourne, where he blew a 5-2 lead on Fabio Fognini to lose 7-5 in the third set. I'm thinking last year's run was a one-off.


Andy Murray Andy Murray lost in his first match at Queen's Club and hopes to find his feet on grass at The Boodles exhibition. (Getty Images)

Andy Murray: As of this writing, Murray has yet to win a match on grass this year, losing in his first match at Queen's Club last week to Nicolas Mahut and Wednesday to Janko Tipsarevic in straight sets at The Boodles (what's a Boodle?) exhibition outside of London. Let's save everyone the trouble of unfair expectations and hype. This could be a rough two weeks for Team Murray.

Sam Stosur: Let's just dispel this myth once and for all: just because you have a "big" serve and a "big" forehand does not mean you should dominate on grass. Your offensive weapons have to be "big" in the right ways, and Stosur's game is built all wrong. Her "big" serve is a kick serve that simply doesn't kick on grass, and she needs time and space to hit her heavy topspin forehand, time and space she doesn't have on grass. The low, irregular bounces keep the ball below her prime hitting zone, which means the shanks come quick and they come often. There's a reason she's never made it past the third round here. Time to let it go.

John Isner: After all the expectations heaped onto Isner during the European clay season, the drop in expectation for his performance on grass seems illogical. After all, this is the man with the most dangerous serve in the game and a devastating forehand to boot. But Isner has never made it past the second round at Wimbledon and, much like Sam Stosur, the quickness of the court actually hurts him. He can't time his backhand and gets handcuffed on the returns.

Agnieszka Radwanska: If Wimbledon took a hard look at the women's seedings they would realize that Radwanska has no business being seeded third, a spot that should go to Kvitova, meaning Serena could be bumped to the No. 4 seed. Aga's tired, both mentally and physically, and it shows.

Caroline Wozniacki: She's tinkering with her serving mechanics on the eve of the tournament, she's clearly frustrated and unhappy, and grass is her worst surface. 'Nuff said.

Sabine Lisicki: Grass is her best surface by far, but Lisicki will come into Wimbledon on a five-match losing streak. Don't bet on her defending her semifinal appearance. David Nalbandian: Had he not made a line-umpire bleed and instead went on to win Queen's, Nalbandian would be a nice sleeper pick for Wimbledon. As it is, I'm thinking the Argentine would rather be anywhere but England.

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