Nadal will be new Wimbledon wonder
Spanish star poised to depose Federer as world's top player on grass
Eddie Keogh / Reuters
Spain's Rafael Nadal came close to winning the Wimbledon men's singles title last year. This year Nadal will accomplish that feat, predicts Bud Collins of NBCSports.com.
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By Bud Collins
One year ago as the world’s best tennis players came to London for yet another edition of The Lawn Tennis Championships (known as Wimbledon to the headline writers), the Lord of the Swings, Roger Federer, was virtually conceded a fifth straight men’s singles title.
Federer handled his regal duties handsomely in the throne room, Centre Court. However, it wasn't as one-sided a title won as was predicted, and it wasn’t a title as clearly Federer’s as the previous four had been. Rafael Nadal, the Muscle Man of Mallorca, had followed Federer from Paris and had he cashed a couple of break points in the fifth set of last year’s final the Wimbledon champion might well have been Nadal and not Federer.
Two years ago Federer showed up at Wimbledon in a royal blazer. Last year he added long trousers for the warmup. Nobody thought Federer was putting on the dog. The man has style. He was appreciated and accepted as the guy who should wear the oldest of tennis crowns. But no matter what Federer’s London arrival attire is this year, the times they are a-changin' as Bob Dylan used to warble.
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Perhaps the first sign of such change came in January at the Australian Open when Novak Djokovic ended Federer's bid for a third straight title Down Under. The fast-rising Serb star dismissed Federer in straight sets in the semifinals and followed that win with a four-set triumph over France’s Jo-Wilfried Tsonga to capture his first major. The Wimbledon draw — should it play to form — will match Federer and Djokovic in the semifinals.
Perhaps the next sign of such change will be Federer failing to extend his reign as the class on Wimbledon’s grass — a reign that began in 2003 at the expense of Aussie Mark Philippoussis and continued with a pair of title wins over Andy Roddick (2004 and 2005) and Nadal (the last two years).
Despite Federer’s No. 1 ranking and 59 consecutive match wins on grass and regardless of how pleased — he says — he is with the way he's playing, I feel he's trying to convince himself more than others. But I'm not convinced he's fully recovered physically from his end-of-2007 health problems. He clearly isn't the player he was in 2006 and 2007, grabbing three majors each year (the Australian Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open) as well as being a finalist at the French Open both those years.
The French Open final earlier this month was an embarrassing morale-jolter for Federer — a bagel for him in the final set and all of four games won over three sets as Nadal rocked and rolled over the Swiss in under two hours. So if you haven’t guessed it by now, Nadal is my pick to end Federer’s run on royalty’s most famous lawns.
I'm impressed at how much Nadal keeps improving while Federer isn't showing progress in his play. For the record, I picked Nadal last year to rule Wimbledon and he came oh-so-close: 7-6 (9-7), 4-6, 7-6 (7-3), 2-6, 6-2. How could this abundantly talented young Spaniard solve grass so quickly and do so with those clay-court grips? Obviously the courts and balls are slower. We saw that in 2002 when the Australian Lleyton Hewitt won the Wimbledon title without playing a single serve-and-volley point.
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Wherever Nadal plays, his blizzard of maddening spin accompanies him and that’s bad news for his opponents. He knows what's going on out there on the greensward although he's not going to do as much volleying as did the last Spaniard to conquer Centre Court — Manolo Santana in 1966. Expect Nadal to be tested, though, as he was last year with Robert Kendrick, Robin Soderling and Mikhail Youzhny prior to the final. Seven matches without any significant hurdles to overcome? That’s virtually unheard of at Wimbledon or any other major.
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Sometimes it looks as though we're back in the 1970s with the Bermuda Triangle days of Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors shutting out everybody else. Now it's Federer, Nadal and Djokovic doing the same.
Does anybody else have a realistic chance at winning Wimbledon? What about Tsonga? Well, he’s too often hurt but he sure dismembered Nadal on a fast court at Melbourne.
CONTINUED: Roddick needs to be healthy
Andy Roddick might catch fire but his right shoulder is questionable and if he makes the semifinals and it’s Nadal who’s across the net from him, does the American win that encounter? Nadal has won three of their five career clashes, including the only one they have waged on grass – that being at Queen’s Club this summer.
Also fragile, Andy Murray understands grass and will have Britain behind him — sometimes no fun as Tim Henman found to be the case throughout his career.
The tall Croat Mario Ancic — the last to beat Federer at Wimbledon (in the first round in 2002) — might prove of good value.
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American James Blake has displayed little affinity for grass and has a possible fourth-round tilt against Roddick. Like Blake the lawns are not to the liking of Nikolay Davydenko, who could meet up with Roddick in the semifinals.
Richard Gasquet, down two sets and a break, revived to beat Roddick last year at Wimbledon and is, according to Federer, "one of the best to watch." Dangerous is David Nalbandian, a Federer tormentor, and finalist to Hewitt in 2002.
Fun to watch in their mad dashes are Nico Mahut, Radek Stepanek and Gael Monfils, he who gave Federer so much trouble in this year’s French Open semifinals.
A good bet is that curious things will happen during this Wimbledon fortnight because so few know how to conduct themselves on this mysterious stuff called grass.
The crowds will be behind Federer, an admirable champion, in the hope they'll see him catch up with a 19th-century competitor named Willie Renshaw, who won six straight Wimbledon titles from 1881-1886. The draw presents the possible challenge that Federer will have to beat both Djokovic and Nadal to keep his throne. Renshaw — or at least his spirit — will be rooting against King Roger.