Thursday June 21st, 2012

Novak Djokovic had to go through Rafael Nadal to capture his first Wimbledon title in 2011. (EPA)

Wimbledon is fast approaching. Last week on The Toss, Ben Rothenberg joined to discuss which was likely to happen first: A French player wins Roland Garros, or a British player wins Wimbledon. The readers were almost in a dead heat in our poll. Whether or not Andy Murray can make a run at Wimbledon this year is yet to be seen, as the Big Three have had a stranglehold on Grand Slams since 2005.

This week, Hannah Wilks, a frequent contributor to Tennis.com, joins The Toss to look at some plausible scenarios surrounding the biggest names on the men's side.

Today Toss: Of the ATP's Big Three, for whom is it most important to win Wimbledon, potentially taking over the No. 1 ranking in the process?

Courtney Nguyen: Thanks for joining me this week, Hannah. I'm sure you're enjoying the rain delay in Eastbourne as much as I am. While the weather has stopped us from reveling in the high-powered clash between Great Britain's own Peter Ashley and America's Mackenzie McDonald (all part of the LTA Challenge Cup, which pits the two countries' juniors against each other), let's turn to talking some men's tennis.

As if this year's Championships at Wimbledon needed more intrigue, it turns out that Rafael Nadal's clay surge, Novak Djokovic's slight dip, and Roger Federer's consistent form has led to the No. 1 ranking being up for grabs for the first time since… well, Wimbledon. All three men have a chance to walk away from the All England Lawn and Tennis Club in two and a half weeks with the No. 1 ranking (and I send my commiseration's to you that, per usual, your own Andy Murray is not part of the conversation).

Here's a quick rundown of the scenarios:

• Djokovic retains the No. 1 ranking if he makes the Wimbledon final.

• Federer can retake No. 1 if he wins the title and Djokovic does not advance beyond the semis.

• Nadal, can reclaim the top spot if he wins the title and Djokovic does not advance beyond the quarters.

So the question of the week is this: With where these guys stand in their careers, for whom is it most important to leave Wimbledon with a title, potentially even the No. 1 ranking?

There's good arguments to be made on all sides. Federer is one week away from tying Pete Sampras for the most weeks at No. 1. Nadal can finally close the loop on the re-write of his rivalry with Djokovic, and Djokovic can continue to amass the stats that he needs to show that his 2011 wasn't a flukey one-off.

I'm going to go with Djokovic. The most exciting thing to happen in the men's game in the last two years has been his rise to the top. It used to all about "Fedal", which was great for the game in that it gave us a historic rivalry and some epic matches. But the addition of Djokovic into the mix has made things even more interesting, in my opinion. It forced Rafa to deal with a contemporary rival that he perhaps didn't look up to and it added one more obstacle for Roger, particularly on hard courts.

In terms of legacy, all eyes are on Djokovic to see if he can come close to replicating his 2011. So far the results are mixed. His win over Rafa at the Australian Open was momentous and he went one round further than he ever has at Roland Garros, pushing Rafa to four sets in the final. But he was effectively man-handled by Nadal during the clay season, losing three finals, upended by Madrid's blue clay, and stunned by John Isner at Indian Wells. By this point last year, Djokovic had seven titles under his belt. This year he has two. That obviously accounts for why his point-lead has shrunk. But it's not so much a downward trend, but a closing of the gap by Rafa and Roger. He needs to keep them at bay as long as possible, or else 2011 will start looking more like a surge and less like a standard.

Hannah Wilks: Well, I suppose I can reluctantly turn my attention from watching Coca-Cola’s Argentine Olympic video (featuring DelPo!) for the millionth time to consider a significant issue in the run-up to Wimbledon. You make good points where Djokovic is concerned, but let’s turn our attention to Nadal for a moment and that most overused word in tennis pundits’ vocabulary -- momentum. Nadal has it right now, but I would argue that he needs to regain the Wimbledon title and, ideally, the No. 1 ranking to keep it.

Nadal’s victories over Djokovic in Monte Carlo, Rome and at Roland Garros have tipped the balance of the tennis world back in the Spaniard’s favor, but the surface has already shifted under Nadal’s feet. Although losing at the quarterfinal stage in Halle isn’t a big surprise when you look at Nadal’s record at Queens, and it certainly doesn’t mean he won’t be leaving SW19 with the title, it does show that we’ve left the part of the season where victories, or at least final showings, for Nadal are all but guaranteed. Let’s not forget that before Monte Carlo this year, Nadal’s last title came at Roland Garros in 2011; you have to go back to Tokyo in 2010 to find his last title on a surface other than clay.

Only the most delusional of people would bring up the tired old saw about Nadal being a 'clay-court specialist’, and we all know he can win on other surfaces, but he’s got to show that he can do that in the era of the new, improved Djokovic. Just as in 2008, when taking the Wimbledon title and the No. 1 ranking made a powerful statement about just who was the dominant player in the tennis world, wrestling the Wimbledon trophy and the considerably more declasse monstrosity they give the world No. 1 out of Djokovic’s hands would give Nadal the ascendancy over his most dangerous rival.

If Nadal can’t take the ranking from Djokovic now, when he’s coming off the best part of his season and just beaten the Serb three times in a row to reverse the tendency of their head-to-head, when can he? It’s hard to see him having the same gilt-edged opportunity on the hard courts of the U.S. in the summer.

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Finally, Nadal has a chance here and now to shove Djokovic’s remarkable 2011 firmly into the 'history’ category and depress the spiky-haired Serb’s pretensions. Djokovic may not have repeated his almost-impeccable 2011 January-June stretch, but he’s done a pretty good job of shoring up his No. 1 ranking and it won’t be lost on Nadal that Djokovic got closer than ever before to disturbing his pre-eminence at Roland Garros. If Nadal can take the Wimbledon title, it will be a serious statement of intent to Djokovic: you got better, so I got better; think how much better you’ll have to get again. That should give Djokovic some big-time soul-searching to do as he attempts to defend his points throughout the U.S. Open Series and in Flushing Meadows. If Nadal can underline the point by taking back the No. 1 ranking, so much the better for him, so much the worse for Djokovic.

Nguyen: I think it's interesting that neither of us came out of the gate citing what I would think would be the obvious choice here: Roger. The man needs a Slam title like I need a tasty meal in Britain (two weeks here and I'm still searching, to no avail). He hasn't won one since 2010 and Wimbledon continues to be his chance. He's not getting any younger and he's as close as can be to reclaiming the No. 1 ranking for the first time in over two years. Federer has almost every relevant record in the books, and he's so tantalizingly close to getting the one that's eluded him -- most weeks at No. 1 -- since Rafa booted him  at Roland Garros in 2010. He's just one week shy of his idol Pete Sampras' record of 286 weeks, and I can't think of a more appropriate place for Federer to reassert himself and lay claim to that record than his cherished grounds at Wimbledon.

And not to write off Federer's career if he's able to get the title and the record (the win could spur him on to more Slam titles, after all), but it feels like that achievement would be perfect closure. I don't know about you but my very scientific tennis weathervane tells me that Roger is primed for one more significant and successful run. I can smell it in the wind. Again, I'm not saying Federer would be done after that, but if he didn't win another major title in his career after, the book on his legacy would still have a tidy, if not fairytale-like ending.

Hmm… Somewhere along the line I seem to have convinced myself that the Swiss GOAT is the sentimental favorite. A win at Wimbledon sure would make things interesting  though, and it would return the ATP to being a true three-man race. That wouldn't be a bad thing.

Wilks: Ah, Roger Federer, the forgotten third man of tennis. Ronnie to Djokovic and Nadal’s Nancy; Sonny to their Cher; Ringo to their rest-of-the-Beatles. I’m joking (and quoting The Simpsons), obviously, and I don’t need you to tell me that if anybody’s Ringo were the top of men’s tennis is concerned, it’s Andy Murray. But we won’t talk about that, any more than I’ll take the low road in responding to your cheap crack about British food (what’s wrong with black pudding and sweetbreads, anyway?) or point out that Federer may be your sentimental favorite, but there’s stiff competition for that particular honor from at least a pair of Andy’s. Admittedly, neither of them can end the tournament ranked No. 1, but there wouldn’t be a dry eye in the house if Roddick or Murray -- or why not Tommy Haas, or Juan Martin del Potro, if we’re doing blue-sky thinking over here -- lifted that trophy. Now that would really put the cat among the pigeons on the all-too-predictable ATP tour.

But I digress. It’s true that Federer’s name didn’t leap to mind when pondering who needs the 2012 Wimbledon title like Americans need to learn to make a decent cup of tea (oh dear, I seem to have taken the low road after all). It’s also true that a win at Wimbledon would be the best way for Federer to remind Nadal and Djokovic, not to mention the rest of the ATP and the punditocracy, that he is very much still a force to be reckoned with, short of hiring a skywriter to scrawl it in big letters - should we have a brief window of blue skies during the next fortnight, that is.

On the other hand, I don’t think anybody who lives with the possibility of seeing Federer’s name in their half of the draw would be fool enough to underestimate the Swiss just because he’s not quite the Slam-winning machine he was once. Where respect is concerned -- in the locker-room, in the press room, and in living-rooms around the world -- Federer is richer than he is in cash money, and that’s saying something. His international profile doesn’t need any help either, not if the sheer volume of people I’ve seen wearing ‘RF’ merchandise during the last couple of weeks at tournaments where he isn’t even playing is anything to go by; I’ve not seen a single person wearing Nadal- or Djokovic-branded apparel, by the way.

Where the No. 1 ranking is concerned, I’m sure Federer would like to break that last record, but it’s not like he needs it to be in with an excellent chance of wreaking havoc at the U.S. Open, that other happy hunting ground of his. This year’s Wimbledon is hardly his last chance to take that one last Slam - or two, or three - and even if he doesn’t, there can be few champions so surely inscribed into the rolls of the ‘greatest ever’. Getting his hands on the Wimbledon trophy and No. 1 ranking won’t roll back the years or take away the reality that some time, perhaps soon, age will begin to weary The Fed, whereas doing the same might have a massive impact on the way the next few prime-playing years work out for Nadal and for Djokovic if they do the same. Federer’s legacy is very much secure, even if he never wins another Slam; Nadal and Djokovic are still writing theirs.

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