Rafa Is Out, But the Battle Is Far From Over
Friday evening, the tennis world received the second largest shock of the year. In less than two weeks time, the No. 1 player in the world went from being a seemingly unstoppable tennis juggernaut to being human.
In reality, this was an illusion. The truth is that this downfall was many months in the making.
In the early part of the second set of the February Rotterdam final against Andy Murray, Nadal injured his right knee. Even though he was injured, he still nearly won the match in two sets.
Basically, he didn't try for any ball that was more than a step away during the third set, and in the end Murray prevailed.
The next warning occurred during a match in Madrid. During the second set, while playing Djokovic, Nadal double faulted with a serve that did not even make it to the net.
To the trained observer, this was a sign that his knee had again become a major problem. It is likely that the injury was a factor in Federer’s victory over Nadal in the Madrid final.
Robin Soderling played an incredible match at the French Open, beating Nadal in the fourth round. Again, it was clear to the trained eye that this was not the Nadal we are used to seeing; it was obvious that something was amiss.
Nadal was reported to have said in his press conference Friday, "sportsmen always play with pain."
In Nadal’s case, I think that it can be stated that true champions endure pain that others cannot imagine.
While it is indeed sad that Rafa cannot defend his Wimbledon title, there is still a lot of extraordinary tennis to be played over the next two weeks.
This is an incredible era in tennis. The depth of the field has never been greater on both the men's and women's tour.
With Juan Martin Del Potro taking Nadal’s place at the top half of the men’s draw, the dynamics of the early round matches have changed dramatically.
There are now more than a few of players that hours ago would have given themselves almost no likelihood of doing anything more than being practice partners during the second week.
These players now have a legitimate shot at a round of 16 or better run.
A few potentially interesting early round matchups will be covered in this article. A follow-up article will cover some potential second week clashes amongst the top seeds and the upset makers.
Del Potro vs. Hewitt—Second Round
Having never met in tour play this has the makings of a well-contested match. Both players have excellent serves and backhands. In both cases, if anything is likely to go off in their games, it is their forehands.
Del Potro has the edge on raw power. Hewitt, even with the loss of speed as a result of hip surgery, is still much faster around the court. Lleyton Hewitt was playing well this season after a long layoff to rehabilitate his hip after surgery.
In early June, Hewitt won his first tourney in a couple of seasons. Hewitt is the far more seasoned grass court player, and is a better net and transition player.
With the slower conditions present at Wimbledon of late, this is less of an advantage than it was 5 years ago.
Hewitt’s serve seems to be extremely effective on grass. Maybe it's because he grew up playing on the surface. Regardless of how the match unfolds, we can guarantee that Llyeton’s wife, Bec, will be there supporting and encouraging him. She is a real class act.
Del Potro vs Hewitt—Second Round (cont.)
Del Potro has been improving at a phenomenal pace over the last year and a half. I can remember when everyone thought Rafa would never make it beyond the third round.
How wrong that wisdom proved to be.
If Del Potro gets up a set or two early in the match, he will likely win.
Make no mistake about it, Hewitt is one of the best competitors around. If Del Porto takes his foot off the accelerator he will be in trouble. This match could easily go five sets.
Projected winner—Del Potro by the narrowest of margins
Gulbis vs. Dent—Third Round
Big Serving Classic Chip and Charge Tennis 'R' Us
Assuming that both players make it through to the third round (yes, that would be a big upset requiring a Murray crash-out), this is likely to be the most old-school-looking match of the men’s draw.
Their styles of play are what will make this match particularly interesting. Most of the current tour players appear to believe that if they cross the service line that lasers will vaporize them instantly.
Really, though, it is just a sign of how the game has changed.
With power that players generate in the modern game, chipping an approach shot down a sideline and charging the net usually means that the spectators will be cheering for the next shot, the cross court forehand or backhand that just went whizzing out of your reach to end the point.
Gulbis is a tall player with a big, hard-to-read serve. Because he turns his back to his opponent partially during the early part of his service motion, it does not give his opponent an easy read of his toss.
The disguised toss is much like Pete Sampras and John McEnroe's service motions.
It wasn’t the only reason that their serves we so potent, but it was the thing that made it particularly difficult to have to face them in their prime when they were serving well.
Gulbis looked to be making a solid run to the top 20 in 2008, but has stalled somewhat this season.
The slowing of his progression may be because other players have adjusted to his playing style. It may also be related to lapses in concentration.
Last year at the championships, he gave Rafael Nadal a good scare in the second round of the tournament pushing him to four sets after winning the opening one.
Gulbis vs. Dent—Third Round (cont)
This picture tells a lot of the story. The racket starts high and finishes low.
Taylor Dent is a master at neutralizing opponents' serves with chip returns, akin to Roger Federer.
The similarity between their playing styles ends there, other than volleying skills. If Dent does not spend most of the match well inside the baseline, things are going terribly wrong.
Dent comes from a hard serving family. His father Phil, evidently taught him a thing or two about tennis, especially how to serve and volley.
Dent is making a comeback from a long (close to three years) layoff primarily to recurring back injuries. He has had some fitness issues in the past, likely due to inability to train hard due to his back.
If he can keep the matches short, his back holds out, and he gets by Gulbis, Dent could cause some problems for Andy Murray later in the tournament.
On paper, Gulbis should win this match, but I am going with Taylor because his game can be just that good on grass.
Haas vs Cilic—Third Round
See the backhand in the picture? This is likely the best one-handed backhand on the planet from a technique perspective.
His backhand, coupled with a solid all-court game, propelled Tommy Haas to a career high No. 2 position on the ATP tour. Many thought that by now he would have five or more Grand Slam trophies on his mantle. But life is not fair and Haas is that mantra's poster athlete.
Based on a measure of talent alone, there is really no reason that Haas should not be in a semifinal battle with Sir Roger.
But Federer is not Haas's biggest opponent.
His real opposition are injuries, self-belief, and perfectionism. Haas, when playing at his best, is like looking at the illustrated guide to tennis stroke production.
But the problem is that he knows that, and he is so tuned into his game that he could probably tell you the number of times that he did not hit the center of his racket in a match.
That would be OK, except that it really seems to upset him.
So if he believes it's his destiny to be in the semis, Djokovic has a big problem. Haas can take anyone's game apart when he believes.
Even more compelling, Haas did take Djokovic's game apart last week for his first title in over two years. Just a few weeks ago, he was very close to KO’ing Roger Federer at the French Open.
Maybe Tommy has one more slam title in him. For the most part, it is he who will decide.
Haas vs Cilic—Third Round (cont)
Two of the fastest-improving young players on the tour are in this slide show: Marin Cilic and Juan Martin Del Porto.
Cilic stands 6'6" (198 cm), but seems to move much better than the other giants on the tour. His game seems to be becoming more well-rounded everyday.
There is no doubt that influence from his Coach Bob Brett, the former coach of Boris Becker and Goran Ivanisevic, has a lot to do with this transformation.
Bob Brett is building Cilic’s game out to be an updated version of the style that Haas and Federer are known for. It is also of note that Brett’s former charges have fared quite well at SW 19.
Based purely on rankings (Cilic No. 13, Haas No. 35), this should be a straight set win for Cilic. That has a very low likelihood of happening.
If Cilic decides to serve and volley, Haas will feed him a steady diet of low dipping passing shots that will make him have to convert on difficult volleys.
If Cilic stays back and does not dictate play, Haas will wrong foot him and be inside the baseline in a split second to finish off the point.
Haas also has one of the best slice backhands in the game. On a grass court, this will produce low bouncing skidding shots. That is not going to be fun for tall players like Cilic.
Haas has the better forehand, but Cilic’s backhand has some similarities to that of Djokivic’s and can be a dangerous weapon given the opportunity to have an opening to hit a winner.
Both players forehands have gone off in matches so that could be a factor if it only happens to one of the two for most of the match.
If they stay on form, one of these players is likely going to be in Djokovic’s path to the semifinals.
Haas won his last meeting with Djokovic on grass last week. With so many attributes of Cilic’s game mirroring his fellow countryman, the likely winner of this match is Haas.
Roddick vs Davydenko—Round of 16
Meet the new Andy Roddick. Leaner, fitter, faster, but still hitting his serve like Thor dropping his hammer.
Couple that with a backhand that does not always go cross-court, and you have a reborn championship grass court player.
While he doesn’t have the finesse of someone like Federer at the net, most of the time it's just not needed.
When Andy is headed to the net on his own terms, he is rarely thinking of hitting more than one volley.
With his new coach, Larry Stefanki, the slimmer Roddick seems to be better able to carry his firepower through more than three sets of tennis.
Over the last six months, it seems that he is serving much smarter and no longer just trying to blast people off the court with speed. His improved mobility helped him make a very respectable showing at the French open this year.
Andy has a 5-1 career head-to-head record versus Nikolay Davydenko. The reason that this match has much bearing is that it will be a test of Andy's health after retiring in the semis against James Blake at Queen's club last week.
This match may never materialize if the new Bjorn (Phau) raises the level of his play.
Roddick vs Davydenko—Round of 16 (cont)
Nicolay Davydenko is not having a particularly good year by his standards. Historically he seemed to be somewhere in the world playing a tournament while most of the other players in the top 10 were taking a break.
Remarkably, he has had a good injury record considering the number of matches that he has played. But the few times that he was injured prior to this year were wrapped in controversy.
He was cleared in all of that, so why dwell on the past? The fact that he was out most of this season with a heel injury might be final proof of his innocence.
Davydenko has not fared well at Wimbledon in the past. So why is this feature match?
Both players have something to prove. The winner of this match is likely to make a very good run through the semifinals.
Davydenko should be able to play well on this surface. His game is somewhat similar to Andre Aggasi’s.
Can he overcome the grass court allergy in his head?
Safin vs Wawrinka—Third Round
If a list was made of the players that haven't lived up to their potential at Wimbledon, Marat Safin would be in one of the top two slots.
Safin’s game is still something to behold when he is playing well. He has nearly effortless power, but equally effortless is his ability to lose his temper and have the wheels come off of his game.
This is apparently Marat's farewell tour so if you want to see the tennis equivalent of one of Da Vinci's unfinished works, you should watch him play this tournament.
Marat might be spurred on by the success of his baby sister to create some magic of his own. His talent exceeds his seeding (No. 14) by at least 10 places on a grass court.
Safin vs Wawrinka—Third Round (cont)
Wawrinka was a top 10 player last year (career high No. 9).
He's practiced with Roger Federer in the past and has also been a successful Davis cup player for Switzerland. He and Federer won gold medals in doubles at the Olympics last summer.
Wawrinka is a powerful, aggressive player but he has to have time to get in position to hit his strokes. His one-handed backhand is one of the top five backhands on the tour when it is on.
Wawrinka and Safin will no doubt try and hit through each other from the baseline.
Wawrinka's best shot is to play a controlled yet aggressive match, mixing net play in to keep Marat guessing.
One thing that Safin can do is to hit short slice backhands to Wawrinka's forehand. Wawrinka uses a full western forehand grip and low skidding slice shots cause him issues especially on grass.
Wawrinka holds a head-to-head advantage of 3-1 over Marat Safin. Marat's win however was on grass last year at Wimbledon.
My prediction for the winner of the match is Safin, possibly in four sets. If not, expect there to be a pile of broken racquets by Safin's chair