Bob Larson's Men's Look Forward: Wimbledon
Men's Look Forward: Wimbledon
Tennis is a gossipy place, even for players who are retired. Martina Hingis has retreated to the broadcast booth, and has managed to be the subject of controversy even so: She doesn't like picking winners in matches. Which looks like common sense from here, but it has her broadcasting partners pleading with her to pick someone.
But, at least at Wimbledon, one can sympathize. Suppose she names Roger Federer as her Wimbledon favorite: She'll be accused of favoring her countryman and one-time Hopman Cup partner. But suppose she doesn't name Federer. Even if it doesn't spark resentment at home, she will be going against the player who is the obvious choice.
Especially this year, when most of the other candidates are having their problems. Based on recent results, almost everyone agrees that this is one of Tim Henman's big chances -- but, owing to Wimbledon's use of an additive seeding formula (as opposed to a multiplicative formula, that might actually have taken Guillermo Coria down to a reasonable seed), he wound up seeded a mere #5 (though the withdrawal of David Nalbandian makes him an effective #4; Wimbledon, being a Slam, did not promote seeds; #33 seed Luis Horna took Nalbandian's place). The other strong candidate is, of course, Andy Roddick, who like Federer has a grass title this year and has only one grass loss in the past year. But -- well, can he beat Federer on grass? Sure, he has the serve -- but Federer's serve, while it doesn't set technicians scrambling to recalibrate the radar gun, is more than good enough on grass, and his backhand is perfect for the stuff, and when it comes to net play, it's no contest.
And the other candidates all have question marks. Lleyton Hewitt is a past Wimbledon champion -- one of only three past champions in the draw, in fact, Federer and Goran Ivanisevic being the others. But even though he's doing better this year than last, he still hasn't returned to his 2002 form. Sebastien Grosjean is a very good grass player (12-5 record at Wimbledon, with a semifinal last year and back-to-back Queen's finals), and we could make a case that he should have been seeded for the final eight -- but he just doesn't have the results at the big events. David Nalbandian is a former finalist, but he had to withdraw due to an injury sustained in an exhibition. Guillermo Coria has struggled just to win matches on grass -- though he did very well at 's-Hertogenbosch. Juan Carlos Ferrero hasn't been much better than Coria historically, and he's in terrible shape right now. Ditto Rainer Schuettler, whose form remains way off. Carlos Moya dislikes this surface enough that he's been known to boycott Wimbledon, though he's planning to play this year. Mardy Fish has fallen in love with grass, but Federer disassembled him at Halle, and he pulled out of Nottingham; he's probably not ready to win a Slam yet anyway. Ivanisevic is having his farewell tour; he's not a candidate to win. Mark Philippoussis hasn't won a match in ages -- and he and Ivanisevic are the only past finalists in the draw. (It's an amazingly inexperienced field, when you think about it.) Nicolas Escude, who would have been our candidate for Best Dark Horse, had to withdraw.
What it all adds up to is a field sorely lacking in favorites. Federer doesn't look nearly as likely to win as, say, Pete Sampras did in the mid-Nineties -- but while "field" looks like a pretty good bet to come out on top, it's hard to pick a candidate out of "field" who can make a real run at Federer.
That's especially so since players are withdrawing so fast. By Saturday night, with the draw just two days old, we had five Lucky Losers:
Benneteau, Pescosolido, Peya, Sanguinetti, and Starace. Most of them replaced pretty good players, too: Nalbandian, Escude, Nadal, Blake.
Of course, time and chance (read: The Draw) happen to them all. In Federer's case, Chance as a threat will probably emerge first in the form of either Thomas Johansson or Nicolas Kiefer in the third round. Then, probably, Paradorn Srichaphan, though Feliciano Lopez -- who has made the fourth round in both his previous Wimbledons -- is also in that part of the draw, and Ivo Karlovic also lurks. After that comes Hewitt -- or maybe Marat Safin, or Mikhail Youzhny if the Russian is over his flu. Ivanisevic is also in that part of the draw.
Down in Roddick's quarter, things look if anything a big easier. Like Federer, he has an easy path to the third round. There, he is supposed to face Taylor Dent -- but while grass is ideal for Dent's game, he really doesn't bring anything to the court that Roddick can't match, and he's more fragile. Federer, as we saw, will have a tough fourth round match; Roddick, who would face Nicolas Massu or Andrei Pavel or possibly Alexander Popp, may not. And he's supposed to face Schuettler in the quarterfinal. The other high seed in that section is Sjeng Schalken, and he's in a big of a funk, too; we might well see a surprise quarterfinalist (e.g. Robin Soderling or Todd Reid or maybe even Todd Martin or Guillermo Canas).
#3 seed Coria might well be in trouble from the very start; he opens against Wesley Moodie, who is in an obvious slump after his breakthrough year last year but who definitely likes this surface. After that, Coria would face perhaps Wayne Arthurs (though they were supposed to face off at Queen's, and Arthurs fell). Then Ivan Ljubicic or Wayne Ferreira, then Mardy Fish or Jonas Bjorkman or Arnaud Clement or Joachim Johansson. Get through that, and he faces Ferrero -- or, more likely, Grosjean. Every one of those matches would be tough even for a natural grass-courter, and that Coria assuredly is not. Plus the Argentine has to be tired, having made the Roland Garros and 's-Hertogenbosch finals and played Queens also. (He even said, at 's-Hertogenbosch, that he felt tired in the final.)
The most interesting quarter of all, though, is surely the one formerly headed by Nalbandian, since that's the one he has abandoned to Henman. And Henman's draw is quite nice: A clay-courter, then Flavio Saretta (surprisingly good on grass, but assuredly not in Henman's league). The first seed he would face is Arazi, who is no fan of grass, then Philippoussis, slump and all, or Gonzalez. Then whoever comes through in Nalbandian's place -- Jiri Novak, perhaps, or Tommy Haas or Xavier Malisse or Mario Ancic, who was supposed to face Nalbandian in the first round. (James Blake was also in that section, but he was forced to withdraw.) The British have to be cheering. Will Henman, who lost early at Queen's, be up to the pressure?
Noteworthy First Round Matches.
This being grass, there aren't that many really threatening unseeded players. But there are quite a few hot matches.
T. Johansson vs. (29) Kiefer. Thomas Johansson gave a pretty convincing demonstration at Nottingham that he's back (at least on fast surfaces). Kiefer also likes grass, and he's in better form than he's been in for years. It's quite a contest.
Karlovic vs. (13) Srichaphan. Srichaphan is less likely to be surprised by Karlovic than was Lleyton Hewitt last year. But Srichaphan isn't the grass player Hewitt is, either.
Youzhny vs. Ivanisevic. Youzhny was sick last week. Ivanisevic is serving well, but the rest really isn't there. It may be a crummy match. But it may also be the last of Ivanisevic's career; how can you not want to watch?
(3) Coria vs. Moodie. Coria has overcome his grass jinx. Moodie is in a slump -- but he likes the surface. The French Open finalist may at last win a Wimbledon match, but it's no sure thing....
Arthurs vs. Mayer. We all know about the Arthurs serve. Mayer is starting to look like a pretty good prospect. An interesting contest at the very least. The winner faces the Coria/Moodie winner.
W. Ferreira vs. (28) Ljubicic. Another contest that just might be a last-of-career. It has potential apart from that: Ljubicic's weapon is his serve, and Ferreira likes facing big servers.
Clement vs. J. Johansson. Clement loves fast courts; he's never won a grass title, but he has a couple of finals. Johansson is a monster server. The contrast, at least, should be good. The winner will face Mardy Fish; that should be another fine contest.
Gambill vs. (23) Mirnyi. Gambill is a mess, game-wise, but he serves well and has a Wimbledon quarterfinal on his record (though he hasn't done all that well here otherwise). Mirnyi has never done as well on grass as his game would suggest. And Gambill can perhaps hurt him with his returns. It's a hard match to predict.
Boutter vs. (6) Ferrero. Boutter has been almost invisible lately, but he does serve big and play the net pretty well. Ferrero has been hurt and almost as hard to spot as the Frenchman, and he doesn't have a grassy game at all.
Verkerk vs. Davydenko. Neither is likely to do well here; Verkerk hasn't learned grass, and Davydenko likes slow surfaces. But it's another nice contrast.
(16) Novak vs. Malisse. Two years ago, Malisse made the semifinal here. He utterly failed to follow it up. But it showed what he could do. Maybe he'll finally wake up again this year.
(8) Schuettler vs. Soderling. Another slumping seed against another big server.
Reid (WC) vs. (30) Spadea. Spadea doesn't like grass much. Reid is Australian and promising; his big breakthrough came at Queen's last year. It's perhaps the ideal situation for the kid.
T. Martin vs. Canas. Todd Martin loves grass, but Guillermo Canas, when he's healthy, isn't bad on it either; he made the fourth round here in 2001, and also made the 's-Hertogenbosch final that year. And both are desperately trying to get back on track. The winner faces Sjeng Schalken, who is slumping a bit, so it's a real opportunity.
(15) Massu vs. Popp. On grass, Alexander Popp has had two careers: Wimbledons 2000 and 2003, and everything else. At both those Wimbledons (the only two in which he's made the main draw), he's made the quarterfinal. Other than that, he had only 21 ATP .wins from 2000 through 2003, inclusive. Think this guy likes grass? And Massu hates it. But the Chilean is, in every other regard, much the better player.
Looking at our spreadsheet of safe points, it almost feels as if there are a bunch of players making a desperate attempt to get out of the Top Ten: Andre Agassi and Gaston Gaudio aren't here, and Juan Carlos Ferrero and Rainer Schuettler have a fair number of points to defend that they don't seem in shape to deal with, and David Nalbandian's withdrawal opens a real possibility that he will fall out of the Top Five.
But, in fact, we almost certainly won't see more than two new Top Ten players, and it would be no real surprise if there were only one. It's quite possible, in fact, that we'll end up with exactly the same Top Ten we started with.
But we might actually see a change at the top. This is Andy Roddick's one real chance at Roger Federer in the next few months: Federer has champion's points to defend, and Roddick only semifinalist points. Federer's lead coming in was big enough that that still gives him a 365 point edge in safe points, but that is surmountable for Roddick. Barely. He needs at least a semifinal to have any hope. If Federer makes the fourth round, Roddick needs a final. If Federer makes the semifinal, Roddick needs a title. And if Federer makes the final, Roddick can't pass him even by winning Wimbledon.
There is a theoretical possibility that Guillermo Coria could pass Roddick and take the #2 spot. But it's really very theoretical: He needs at least a final to do it.
There is, on the other hand, a real contest for David Nalbandian's #4 spot. He had a relatively slight lead, and fourth round points to defend. Carlos Moya is breathing down his neck; pending receipt of last week's official rankings from the ATP, it appears that Moya needs only one win to pass him. Ferrero can pass him with a fourth round. Henman can do it with a quarterfinal -- and he's now seeded for the semifinal. Even Rainer Schuettler could pass him with a semifinal.
The gap between #9 Agassi and everyone below him is so large that it's possible that Agassi will keep the spot, even though he loses fourth round points. The guy most likely to pass him is, of course, Lleyton Hewitt, who needs a quarterfinal to do it. Looking at the next few guys down, there don't seem to be any other strong candidates -- the best is Marat Safin, but he needs a final. So the odds really are strong that the Top Ten when this is over will be, in some order, Federer, Roddick, Coria, Nalbandian, Moya, Ferrero, Henman, Schuettler, Agassi, and Hewitt.
Several guys, of course, risk big falls. Sebastien Grosjean, with semifinalist points to defend, could end up below #20. Sjeng Schalken, a 2003 quarterfinalist, could end up below #25. Jonas Bjorkman, also a quarterfinalist, could be in the #35 range. But the biggest losses, potentially, will be those suffered by Mark Philippoussis and Alexander Popp. Philippoussis, with finalist points on his record and in terrible form, is likely to fall below #50. And Popp doesn't have much of a ranking anyway, and he has quarterfinalist points to defend.
It's surprisingly hard to pick these out this year. For example, the key matches for Roddick and Federer are the quarterfinal and the semifinal, respectively: Roddick must win his quarterfinal to have any chance at Federer (and that's if Federer loses early); for Federer, winning the semifinal clinches the #1 spot. And all those guys who are backed up behind David Nalbandian are too close together for any particular round to be significant; it's very much a case of who lasts longest. Though it seems a pretty good bet that, if Tim Henman holds his de facto #4 seed, it will earn him the #4 ranking.
For Lleyton Hewitt, a quarterfinal should spell the #9 ranking. That makes his key match the Round of 16 against (probably) Safin. It's big for Safin too, though: If he wins it, he'll very possibly be Top 12, giving him better seeding at the U. S. Open.
For Sebastien Grojean, the big match is his Round of Sixteen against Juan Carlos Ferrero (or whoever replaces him), because he probably needs to win that to stay Top 15. If he does win it, he has a very good chance of being a semifinalist, too.
Sjeng Schalken has a key match in the third round; he probably needs that to stay Top 20, though the opposition in that round isn't all that strong. He might face Thomas Enqvist.
Taylor Dent and Andy Roddick have a big match in the third round; for Dent, a win could spell a Top 25 spot.
The one player we'd pay most attention to in the first round (apart from Ivanisevic and Philippoussis, for their various reasons) is Coria's match with Moodie. Having had a great tournament at 's-Hertogenbosch, winning his first Wimbledon match could be very big for the Argentine.