How will trends from clay season roll to grass?
Jon Wertheim: The conventional wisdom -- the complaint among some; the happy observation among others -- is that surfaces aren't what they used to be. The grass is higher and thus slower; the clay harder and thus faster; and overall differentiations among the surfaces are smaller. The more charitable (and, I think more accurate) explanation: credit the players for elevating the sport and winnowing out the surface specialists.
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?
S.L. Price: This is a weird one. You have Nadal coming off winning a major on his best surface, the one that rejuvenates him annually and has seemingly done so in dramatic fashion this year; you have Sharapova coming off winning a major on her worst surface -- cow on ice, etc. -- and now everyone thinks she's rejuvenated, too. Can both those results, starting in opposite places, carry over in the same way?
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.
Bruce Jenkins: There was a time when this transition meant everything. Clay-court specialists recoiled -- many of them didn't even bother with Wimbledon -- and the big serve-and-volleyers took over. The lines seem a bit blurry now. Sharapova and Nadal each could pull off the French-Wimbledon double that once seemed almost impossible. It's clear, though, that we'll see less of the Erranis and more of the John Isners. It appears that Isner will be carrying the hopes of the American men, and after hearing his soul-baring laments about clay, he'll enjoy the transition as much as anyone.
Courtney Nguyen: It's dangerous to read the marks left by the clay season to look for insights into the grass season. Despite all the talk about the homogenization of court speed and the slowing down of Wimbledon's grass, the surfaces are still vastly different. So I don't think the trends will transfer because of a player's success on clay, but it just so happens that, generally speaking, the ones who played well the last two months just happen to be players who play well on grass.
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.
Bryan Armen Graham: Nadal dominated the Euro clay swing, winning 21 straight matches without dropping a set until the French Open final, where he dumped Djokovic in four. He's all but a shoo-in for the last four, with momentum to burn and 32 wins in his last 35 matches at SW19. Serena and Maria split the clay titles, with Azarenka making two finals, and each are favored to progress through their respective quarters.
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
Wertheim: In men's tennis circa 2012, "dark horse" has come to mean anyone outside the top three. In a different era, a John Isner or a Milos Raonic, for instance, would be contenders. In this era, they're practically considered sleepers. Chasing returns may be a surefire way to blow up your portfolio, but I'll go with Tommy Haas. A former semifinalist, he may be 34, but he is finally healthy, always talented, won the Halle tuneup, and has generally looked like a top ten player over the last few months. He faces Philipp Kohlschreiber in the first round but, if he makes a mini-run, could have his hands with Nadal in the third.
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.
Price: Milos Raonic: It's time for a breakthrough, and this is the surface for that serve.
Sloane Stephens: Paris was a sweet run, and everything about the All England Club plays into her game and personality.
Jenkins: I may well wait forever for Alexandr Dolgopolov to break out in a major, although he's a very dangerous No. 22 seed. Given that Raonic has yet to reach the final weekend of a major, I'll go with the big-serving Canadian, anxious to make last year's injury-tormented Wimbledon a distant memory. Most everyone close to the tour feels he's ready for a big-time breakthrough.
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.
Nguyen: I'm not saying Tommy Haas is going to win this thing, but he's the unseeded floater who has the potential to pull off some early-round upsets. He's riding high after his title in Halle, where he beat both Federer and Tomas Berdych, and he's had success at Wimbledon before, most notably a semifinal run in 2009. The savvy veteran, who says he wants to keep playing in hopes that his daughter can see him play professional tennis, might just have one more glory run in him. It would be a great story.
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 this Kerber is not that Kerber.
Graham: Raonic, whose 533 aces are the most on tour in 2012, was a trendy sleeper pick at last year's Wimbledon before slipping on the grass and suffering a season-ending injury. The 21-year-old up-and-comer who nearly took out Federer in Halle, is a prime candidate to extend Britain's 76-year Grand Slam drought in a potential fourth-round date with Andy Murray.
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
Wertheim: Nicolas Almagro is to be admired. He has gotten himself to shape. He gets a lot out of skills. His backhand is a thing (a zing?) of beauty. He performs his job with passion. He has also won just five of his 12 matches at the All England Club.
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.
Price: John Isner and Serena Williams. I know, I know: Isner's serve is custom-made for this surface and she's, well, Serena, rested and still smarting from her French Open implosion. But his return isn't custom-made for this, and she's past the point of being able to flip a switch and win a major. I can -- easily -- see him losing in the third round, and her losing in the quarters. Sorry, America.
Jenkins: What better candidate than Andy Murray? When he flames out at Wimbledon, the sparks launch bonfires throughout the kingdom. I can't see where Ivan Lendl's tutelage has made a tremendous difference, especially in Murray's body language and general demeanor. The pressure, once again, will be just too great. And this time, he's gone before the semis.
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.
Nguyen: Sorry Britain, but you're going to have to wait another year. There's just not a whole lot to like about how Murray has been playing over the last few months. A second-round loss to Nicolas Mahut in Queen's doesn't help, nor does a straight-set loss to Janko Tipsarevic at The Boodles exhibition this week. Murray doesn't seem to be panicking, but for a guy who relies so heavily on confidence to play well, I'm just not sure he's found it.
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.
Graham: The door to opportunity seldom requires a picked lock, only the right combination. That's how I reasoned Murray would break through for his first major at last year's U.S. Open, with a constellation of factors -- Djokovic (bum shoulder), Nadal (out of form) and Federer (on the wane) -- breaking in his favor. Erroneously, as it were. Yet Murray's stock entering Wimbledon was already sinking even before Friday's brutal draw, which augurs potential matches with Davydenko, Karlovic, Anderson, Raonic, Ferrer, Nadal and Djokovic if the history-making title is to be. It's not.
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
Wertheim: This one is waaaay out there. Serena Williams will do nothing dramatic. No tears. No controversy. No outlandish outfits, quotes or histrionics. She will neither sizzle nor fizzle, dazzle nor frazzle. She won't lose in the first week. She won't win in the second week.
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.
Price: His left knee is a mess, he had to pull out of Queens, there's no reason to think this is the time and place for Juan Martin del Potro to revive his Grand Slam presence and penetrate the Big Three. You want way out there? I see DelPo getting to the final.
Jenkins: Late in the first week, the talk will be all about Australians -- and I don't mean "Aussie Kim (Clijsters)," who was once engaged to Lleyton Hewitt. Bernard Tomic will put his formidable talents on display, and 16-year-old Ashleigh Barty will make a huge splash on the women's side. It's time for both of these exceptionally talented players to have serious impact in a major.
Nguyen: For the ladies, the last six Slams have been won by a new champion. That streak ends this year at Wimbledon, where I predict the winner will already have hoisted the Venus Rosewater Dish... This will be one of the wettest Wimbledons in history... David Nalbandian will not draw blood... There will be two semifinalists not named Novak, Rafael, or Roger... Melanie Oudin makes the second week.
Graham: Clijsters, the last unseeded player to win a Grand Slam (at the 2009 U.S. Open), repeats the feat by capturing the major title which initially attracted her out of retirement.
And The Winners Are
Wertheim: I'm taking Federer. Which makes little sense on its face, invites ridicule, encourages charges of slurpee-dom and provokes suggestions to change ones medication. He hasn't won a major in 30 months. He is coming off not only a disappointing French Open, but also a defeat (to Tommy Haas) in the Halle grass tuneup event. He is north of 30. The gap between him and Djoko-dal has led some to call the Big Three, "The Big 2.5." It's borderline irrational.
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.
Price: Djokovic, because double-fault on match point aside -- yes, even with that -- I think he'll feel good about Paris. And Sharapova because I think she'll still be feeling over-the-moon, cow-wise.
Jenkins: We all have our doubts about Federer's ability to sustain an A-1 level of play over two weeks, and he was especially erratic in Paris, but then again, he's Federer. I totally agree with Matt Cronin of TennisReporters.net: Federer can pull this off if he comes more often to the net. He certainly has the shots and the athleticism, and one of the most valuable weapons for a net-rusher -- the sliced backhand, struck low and deep -- works well at Wimbledon. He can't stay back and expect to outlast Nadal and/or Djokovic.
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.
Nguyen: Federer. Rafa may have widened the gap between himself and Roger on clay and hard courts, but Federer is still his best on grass. Their last meeting was the 2008 epic that Federer barely lost. If he gets another bite at the apple, I think he comes through here.
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.
Graham: Well, with all due respect to Federer, it's either Nadal or Djokovic here. The last time Nadal played Wimbledon and failed to reach the final was back in 2005. He enters with momentum, having rolled to yet another French Open title, with three straight wins over Djokovic after a dispiriting run of seven straight losses to the Serb. Yet each of those three reversals came on Nadal's preferred surface, and Nole's charitable draw will leave him fresher at the business end of the tournament. Look for Djokovic to edge Rafa in a five-set final for the ages.
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.