Men's Preview: Week of June 20
Men's Look Forward: Wimbledon
It takes a lot of remembering, trying to recall the last time so much attention was directed toward one player. Roger Federer, they whine, hasn't won either of the last two Slams! Ignore the fact that he has been hovering around the highest point total ever recorded under Required and Optional. Set aside the amazing feat of winning 20 straight finals. Obviously he's all messed up.
We just wish we were messed up like Federer....
Still, this is a Slam he'd like very much to win. It would give him three straight Wimbledons. And it would definitely strengthen his chances for the year-end #1.
The interesting question is, who is there to threaten him? Marat Safin is generally regarded as the biggest threat to Federer, in terms of raw abilities -- but grass is not a very satisfactory surface for him. Rafael Nadal was the best clay player going into Roland Garros, but his game is by no means built for grass and he doesn't have much experience on it. Lleyton Hewitt stoutly maintains that he's Federer's main competition -- but Federer has pretty much toyed with Hewitt in their recent meetings, including the U. S. Open final on what should be a Hewitt surface. Grass isn't nearly as good for the Australian. Federer himself hasn't lost a grass match since 2002. There really is no obvious competition.
Especially at an event where there are so few past champions in the draw. Andre Agassi isn't playing, and Goran Ivanisevic and Pete Sampras and Richard Krajicek are all retired, meaning that, other than Federer and Hewitt, there are no past champions in the draw. Of active finalists, we have Andy Roddick and Mark Philippoussis and David Nalbandian, and that's it -- and Philippoussis, even though he seems to be coming back to life, suffers the handicap of being unseeded, and Nalbandian is just too prone to breaking down.
By the looks of things, if you can figure out who will beat Federer, you can probably proceed from there to figure out who will win the tournament. But figuring out who will beat Federer is quite a trick.
There are, to be sure, some very good grass players who seem unlikely to go all the way. Tim Henman of course meets this description. The other underappreciated candidate is Sebastien Grosjean, who has made the semifinal two years running and is 17-6 in his career at Wimbledon.
The other thing about Wimbledon is the players it can bring out of the shadows. Because grass is a unique surface, the champions here tend to be great players. But because it rewards certain aspects of the game -- notably the serve, but also net skills, and slice groundstrokes, and even drop shots -- no one is ever entirely safe here. You can never tell when an Alexander Popp or Ivo Karlovic or even an Olivier Rochus will bounce up out of the grass and beat a top player.
It's times like this we're very glad we aren't in the prediction business.
Noteworthy First Round Matches
Draper vs. (8) Davydenko. A truly fascinating contest: A guy who seems to play only Slams against a guy who plays everything. Davydenko is of course the much better player -- but Draper knows what grass is for.
(3) Hewitt vs. C. Rochus. Christophe Rochus, based on history, isn't the grass player his brother is. But history in this case doesn't mean much; Rochus did, after all, just have the best clay season of his life after never looking like much on clay. Hewitt ought to beat the Belgian; after all, he's the stronger of the two. But it could prove a very, very long match.
Sargsian vs. (29) Massu. Sargsian has been having a tough year, but he likes grass as well as anything. Massu has been injured most of the year -- not a good way to prepare for a surface he doesn't like.
(24) Dent vs. D. Norman. This probably won't set a new record for aces -- but it won't be for lack of trying.
Burgsmuller vs. (16) Puerta. Lars Burgsmuller isn't much of a threat on grass (or anywhere else). But Puerta -- well, does he even exist away from clay? This will help us answer the question.
Saulnier vs. (22) Hrbaty. Cyril Saulnier, like a lot of French players, seems to like fast surfaces. Dominik Hrbaty doesn't -- not at all. An upset must at least be accounted a possibility.
Beck vs. Philippoussis (WC). They both like grass. In his career, Philippoussis has had better grass results. In the last two years, Beck has been much better. Though Philippoussis did well in 's-Hertogenbosch
Srichaphan vs. (5) Safin. Srichaphan is having a crummy year, but he seems to like grass; his first Slam win was at Wimbledon, and he made the fourth round two years ago. Safin has been having a decent year, and actually showed life at Halle -- but this is by no means his favorite surface.
Mirnyi vs. Schuettler. Schuettler has a 4-2 head-to-head lead, but that was when he amounted to something. And Mirnyi just had his best-ever grass result at Nottingham.
Wessels vs. (28) Novak. Peter Wessels is one of those guys who mostly exists for fast courts. Jiri Novak isn't so fond of them, and his motivation isn't great these days anyway.
(14) Stepanek vs. Ginepri. Stepanek is having a great year, and has never lost first round at Wimbledon. But he's never made the fourth round, either, and that's how far Robby Ginepri made it last year.
Spadea vs. (4) Nadal. Rafael Nadal's transition to grass was tough. He's now had more time to practice, but Vincent Spadea is an awfully tough customer to face in one's second Wimbledon (and first since winning one's first Slam).
(6) Henman vs. Nieminen. Now that Henman has announced how much he likes clay, can a player who likes slow surfaces do something against him?
Popp vs. Haehnel. Alexander Popp is one of those guys who lives and dies by the serve; his Wimbledon record is an amazing 11-3, and his every where else record doesn't bear mentioning. But he's been struggling after injury this year. Can he recover in time to defend fourth round points?
Arthurs vs. (32) Volandri. Another guy who lives by the serve, against a player who seems to think that even dry clay is awfully fast.
Llodra vs. (9) Grosjean. France's best grass player against its other best grass player. Llodra, to be sure, will be very tired -- not only did he play five matches in the Netherlands, but they were marathon matches.
Melzer vs. (20) Ljubicic. This is a strange match. You'd think Ivan Ljubicic, with his great serve, would be a major force at Wimbledon -- but it's his worst Slam (and he's struggled at all of them). Jurgen Melzer appears to have a great grass game -- but it's never shown in his results; he's 1-4 at Wimbledon. Can he snap out of it?
It will tell you how utterly dominant Roger Federer is that he is currently holding two Slams. Take both of them away, giving him zero points for them, and let #2 Lleyton Hewitt win both Wimbledon and the U. S. Open, and Federer would still be #1.
Not much doubt about who will be #1 after this is over, is there?
#2 is altogether another question. Lleyton Hewitt, Rafael Nadal, and Andy Roddick come in almost tied. Marat Safin is about 450 points off the pace, but he isn't defending anything. So any of them could end up at #2.
The edge, of course, is with Nadal, who has nothing to defend; Roddick, though ranked #4, is actually fifth in safe points, because he has the 2004 final to defend. Hewitt has quarterfinal points, putting him midway between Nadal and Safin in safe points. Our rough cut gives the following ways for each player to become #2:
* Roddick is #2 if he wins Wimbledon and Hewitt doesn't make the final and Nadal doesn't make the semifinal
* Hewitt is #2 if
- he makes the quarterfinal and Nadal loses in the first two rounds and Safin loses by the quarterfinal and Roddick loses by the final, or
- he makes the semifinal and Nadal loses before the quarterfinal and Safin before the final and Roddick loses by the final, or
- he makes the final and Nadal loses before the final and Safin does not win, or
- he wins Wimbledon
* Safin is #2 if
- he makes the semifinal and Hewitt loses before the quarterfinal and Nadal loses second round and Roddick does not make the final, or
- he makes the final and Hewitt loses by the semifinal and Nadal loses by the quarterfinal and Roddick does not win, or
- he wins and Nadal does not make the final
* Nadal is #2 in any other scenario.
It's effectively guaranteed that these five will remain the Top Five; the next guy down the rankings it Andre Agassi, and he isn't playing, and neither is Guillermo Canas. That means that the only one of the Top Five who could possibly fall out is Roddick, and only if he loses early and Nikolay Davydenko wins Wimbledon -- and Davydenko is still struggling to win grass matches, let alone a grass Slam.
It doesn't seem particularly likely that we'll see anyone enter or leave the Top Ten, either; most of the guys right below #10 are clay-courters.
Below the Top Ten, the odds of big moves are much higher. Mario Ancic has been pushing himself back into the Top 20 -- but he has semifinalist points to defend, and could end up below #30. Sebastien Grosjean also has semifinalist points, and he's below the Top 25; he could end up in the #50 range. Sjeng Schalken, a quarterfinalist last year, has withdrawn; he'll see half his points come off and will be ranked below #200. Another 2004 quarterfinalist, Florian Mayer, could end up in the #90 range. Mark Philippoussis, who made the fourth round, could give back all the points he earned at 's-Hertogenbosch, and then some, and fall back below #200. Alexander Popp also has fourth round points -- half his total. Other players to make the fourth round last year were Ivo Karlovic, Carlos Moya, Joachim Johansson, Robby Ginepri, Xavier Malisse, and Vincent Spadea. And Moya isn't playing this year.
Looking at the guys who have the most to defend, we observe that Grosjean's first match is his toughest; after facing Llodra, he should be in reasonably good shape until he faces Henman in the quarterfinal. It's truly too bad the Slams don't promote seeds once the draw is made; if they followed regular Tour rules in that regard, Grosjean would have take Guillermo Canas's spot in the draw when the latter withdrew and would have been relatively safe until the quarterfinal. As it is, Henman and Grosjean face each other for the right to face Roddick.
The other 2004 semifinalist, Ancic, is more fortunate in his draw; he faces almost no opposition until he takes on Marat Safin in the fourth round. The winner of that is drawn to face Hewitt.
Hewitt himself also looks relatively fortunate until the fourth round, when he would face Taylor Dent. And then Safin. That Safin/Hewitt quarterfinal is probably the single most important match in determining who will be #2.
The third contender for #2 is Roddick, and his draw is tough. He'll be favored in every match, but he faces big-serving Ivo Karlovic in the second round, big-serving Robin Soderling in the third, possibly big-serving Ivan Ljubicic in the fourth, and then Grosjean or Henman.
#4 seed Nadal, who has the inside track for #2 anyway, doesn't face any really big threats; the next-highest seed in his quarter was Canas, and he's out. But if the Spaniard doesn't face one overwhelming threat, there are lots of middle-sized threats. Spadea is a tough first round opponent, though his career record at Wimbledon isn't great. Potential third round opponent Richard Gasquet earned his first career title at Nottingham, so he's definitely discovered the joys of grass. In the fourth round, Nadal is seeded to face Radek Stepanek, who is having the best year of his career -- but he might end up facing #18 seed David Nalbandian, a past finalist here. And then, were the remaining seeds to hold, Nadal would go against Thomas Johansson, who has earned fully a quarter of his career titles on grass.
2004 quarterfinalist Florian Mayer could face a lot of clay players in the first three rounds -- Santiago Ventura, Tommy Robredo, Juan Carlos Ferrero. But if he survives that, he has to take on Roger Federer.
Joachim Johansson faces Greg Rusedski in the second round; he's the one Top Ten player who is in some genuine real danger of losing his spot, and this might be the match.