Wimbledon 2008 Preview

Wimbledon 2008 Preview

I have a feeling this Wimbledon is going to be the best we have had in a very long time. Among the men, there are three chief candidates who could walk away with the top honor, and a fourth who has a serious chance to take the title. Clearly, the “Big Three” of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic are all primed for the occasion. Nadal has won five of his last six tournaments, sweeping through the field on the clay at Roland Garros and then stepping out onto the grass at Queen’s Club to win the tournament in London. He must like his chances.

But Federer has won 59 matches in a row on grass, and is in pursuit of a modern record of six championships in a row at the All England Club. He is a deeply prideful man who will want to reassert his supremacy after losing straight set matches to Djokovic in the semifinals of the Australian and to Nadal in Paris.

Djokovic now approaches every tournament he enters believing he can and probably should win it. He has been a semifinalist or better in every major since Roland Garros in 2007. And the fourth man who must be mentioned as a potential champion is Andy Roddick, the runner-up to Federer in 2003 and 2004. Roddick has beaten Federer, Nadal and Djokovic this season, and he is always a big threat on the lawns.

Let’s look at the draw. Federer will open against Dominik Hrbaty, a 30-year-old who is currently ranked No. 272 in the world. He is past his prime. Hrbaty has a 2-0 record against Federer (including a win over the Swiss in 2004 at Cincinnati), but this time around he will not worry Federer that much and the Swiss will prevail in straight sets. Federer should face the streaky yet dangerous Robin Soderling, the big hitting Swede, in the second round, and might well lose a set in that contest. But Soderling will not have the consistency on serve or off the ground to threaten Federer too long. The world No. 1 could well take on Gael Monfils in the third round, Monfils pushed Federer hard in a four set contest at Roland Garros in the semifinals, but his court positioning will be a problem if they meet on the grass. Federer in straight sets.

In the round of 16, Federer figures to play either Lleyton Hewitt or Fernando Gonzalez. He will handle either of them in three or possibly four sets, and that would take him into a quarterfinal with either Tomas Berdych or David Ferrer. Berdych would pose a larger threat, but Federer would be more than ready by then to handle the assignment. He will inevitably march into the semifinals in a confident frame of mind.

Waiting for him there will be Djokovic, who has been talking big coming into the tournament. Djokovic could meet Marat Safin in the second round but this year has been distressing for the two-time former Grand Slam tournament champion. Djokovic would win that battle in four sets. In the round of 16, he should confront the vastly improved Stanislas Wawrinka, the No. 13 seed. They met in the final of the Italian Open on clay, with Djokovic battling from behind to win in three sets. Djokovic could have some problems with Wawrinka again, but he would prevail in four sets.

In the quarterfinals, a number of men could take on Djokovic. The game’s most daunting server, Ivo Karlovic, should play 2006 Wimbledon semifinalist Marcos Baghdatis. I give that one to Karlovic in five sets. Meanwhile, No. 7 seed David Nalbandian should play the left-handed serve-and-volleyer Feliciano Lopez in the third round. Nalbandian— always enigmatic— would probably get through that one in four difficult sets, and would then meet Karlovic in the round of 16. Probably against my better judgment, I will pick Nalbandian to stop Karlovic in four sets, which would give him the right to face Djokovic in the quarters. When they met in the semifinals at Queen’s, Djokovic granted Nalbandian one game in two sets. This time, it would be more competitive but Djokovic would still be victorious in straight sets.

That would give us the semifinal everyone wants to see: Djokovic vs. Federer. They have met only once since Djokovic upset Federer in the semifinals of the Australian Open–that was on the clay in Monte Carlo. After losing the first set and trailing by a service break in the second, Djokovic retired, claiming dizziness as his reason for quitting. This time, the two great players would stage a fantastic match. I would not expect many service breaks as two of the best in the business protect their deliveries stubbornly. I would look for at least two tie-breaks and possibly more. In the end, Federer’s capacity to come forward and volley with finality will make the slim difference in the outcome. Djokovic will counter with some stupendous backhand passing shots, and some impressive attacking as his own. But Federer will win 6-7, 7-5, 7-6, 5-7, 6-4 in a five set contest of the highest order.

Nadal may have a few anxious moments in the early rounds, but he will be ready. Ernest Gulbis, so admirable in reaching the French Open quarterfinals, could take on Nadal in the second round, but Nadal would get through that one in three or possibly four sets. In the round of 16, the No. 16 seed Radek Stepanek could well meet Nadal. His attacking tactics will keep the Spaniard off balance sporadically, but Nadal would advance in four sets for a place in the quarterfinals. I have a hard time guessing who will face Nadal in that round.

The No. 8 seed Richard Gasquet has a first round duel with the big serving Mardy Fish in the first round. That one has upset written all over it. Fish is comfortable and confident on the grass. He will have to shake off the effects of some sparkling backhand passing shots from the flamboyant Frenchman, but I see Fish winning that match in four sets, and moving on to a fourth round meeting with No. 12 seed Andy Murray. That would be a beauty, with Murray mixing things up off the ground and returning skillfully. Murray beats Fish in five sets, but can’t cope with the physicality of Nadal. He will make it reasonably close, but Nadal comes through in four.

I expect Roddick to be the man Nadal confronts in the semifinals. Roddick should square off against Davis Cup teammate James Blake in the round of 16. Roddick will serve to well on that court and defeat Blake in four sets. In the quarters, the seedings tell us the American will play No. 4 seed Nikolay Davydenko. But Davydenko has been less than stellar as of late. My guess is that Roddick will play either Paul-Henri Mathieu or Ivan Ljubicic in the quarters. Either way, Roddick moves through with a four set win.

Roddick was not at his best when he played a top of the line and commanding Nadal in the semifinals at Queen’s, and Nadal took that one 7-5, 6-4. I envision Roddick playing to a higher level at Wimbledon, and making more of a go of it. But, in the end, Nadal’s left-handed slice serve in the advantage court and his persistent returning and passing will give Roddick fits. Nadal in four sets.

So the stage would be set for a third consecutive Nadal-Federer final. Two years ago, Federer was too good, winning 6-0, 7-6, 6-7, 6-3. Nadal served for the second set and had a 3-1 lead in the second set tie-break but did not exploit those crucial openings. Federer was just too good on the grass. Last year, Federer stopped Nadal 7-6 (7), 4-6, 7-6 (3), 2-6, 6-2 in a classic showdown. Nadal lost his opening service game of the match and was not broken again until the middle of the fifth set. Federer saved himself with two clutch tie-break performances, and then held on gamely from 15-40 at 1-1 and 2-2 in the fifth set. Had Nadal converted in either of those critical situations, he probably would have been the champion. Federer served remarkably well down the stretch.

This year, Nadal will believe more fully in himself. He is playing at a considerably higher level. Federer will compete with quiet fury and will do everything in his power to retain his crown. But I think Nadal’s 6-1, 6-3, 6-0 triumph over Federer in the French Open final will have carry over implications. That was on clay and this one will be on grass, but Nadal will still be terribly difficult for Federer to contain. Nadal will become the first man since Bjorn Borg in 1980 to rule at Roland Garros and Wimbledon in the same year, winning 7-6(4),7-5, 4-6, 6-4 in first rate final.

And what of the women? Top seeded Ana Ivanovic, fresh from winning her first major at the French Open, will be eager to establish her authority on the grass as well. Ivanovic should advance with relative ease through the top quarter of the draw. She is due to meet Anna Chakvetadze— the No. 8 seed— in the quarters, but might end up facing No. 12 seed Patty Schnyder. I see Ivanovic moving on comfortably into the semifinals, but that will be the end of her journey. Serena Williams— the two-time former Wimbledon champion— has an excellent draw. I believe Serena— the No. 6 seed– will have a stern test with No. 4 Svetlana Kuznetsova in the last eight, but will win 7-5,7-6(4).

Then Williams would play Ivanovic in the semifinals. Off the ground, Ivanovic will hold her own with Serena in some fiercely contested rallies. But Serena’s serve will pull her through in three sets for a place in the final.

On the bottom half of the draw, look for No. 2 seed Jelena Jankovic to have a quarterfinal clash with No. 7 seed Venus Williams, the defending champion. They never fail to provide us with a fascinating contrast in styles, and Venus would come at Jankovic full force. Jankovic will answer by displaying her superb ball control and strategic acumen. It will go down to the wire, much like their U.S. Open quarterfinal last year. Venus won that one in a final set tie-break. This time around, Jankovic will come through in a similarly close contest.

Maria Sharapova and Elena Dementieva could well be on a collision course, likely to run into each other in the quarterfinals. The No. 3 seed Sharapova— who started the year in such style by winning the Australian Open— will be eager to capture a second Wimbledon title and happy to be back on the grass. Sharapova will defeat Dementieva in straight sets, setting up a semifinal appointment with Jankovic. Jankovic will give that match her all, but Sharapova will serve her off the court in the end and win in straight sets.

So that would give us a Sharapova-Serena Williams final. I have little doubt about the outcome of that match. Serena will return more persuasively. She will exploit her superior mobility. She will serve better than Sharapova, which is no mean feat. Serena Williams will a ninth Grand Slam tournament title, overcoming Sharapova 6-4, 7-5 in a well played final.

That is how I see it. Rafael Nadal takes the men’s crown. Serena Williams is the women’s champion. And all of us witness a tournament we will not soon forget.