Undoubtedly the last 24 hours has changed the perception of the upcoming 2009 Wimbledon Championships for many tennis enthusiasts. Losing a player of the class and calibre of Rafael Nadal, not to mention him being the defending champion, is sure to dampen the mood of anyone (with the possible exception of Roger Federer) watching the tournament.
I have read many articles in the last few days relating to Federer. What sort of effect will winning the French Open have on his mentality for the rest of his career? Is he now the greatest player ever? Will he break Sampras’ Grand Slam record at Wimbledon? These are obviously just to name a few.
As great and as dominant as Federer is, in my opinion, too much focus has been put into fast forwarding to the last match of the tournament without thinking about the challengers along the way.
With the withdrawal of Nadal, the opportunities for other players to make their mark on Wimbledon 2009 obviously increase. Here are my thoughts on how the men’s draw is shaping up.
The Next Generation—Djokovic and Murray
Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic are the two players that have long been touted as the “next big challengers” for Grand Slam success behind Nadal and Federer. Now is the time for these two to stand up and deliver.
At best Djokovic would describe his year thus far as mediocre. He is a previous Wimbledon semifinalist and lost a tough second round meeting last year with an in-form Marat Safin, an eventual semifinalist. He obviously knows how to play on grass.
Djokovic is an excellent mover, strikes the ball cleanly and unlike most modern day players has the ability to mix up his play, all of which will be of benefit on the courts at the All England Club.
However, his greatest weakness is his mental aptitude. Too many times in big matches he has forfeited or played poorly when under pressure.
Whether this is a result of public expectation or is self-inflicted remains to be seen. To be a consistent Grand Slam performer, Djokovic needs to become stronger in big matches. Wimbledon will test his strength, as of the top seeds, Djokovic has the toughest draw.
A possible third round meeting with either the dangerous Mardy Fish or compatriot Janko Tipsarevic looks difficult. Fish’s massive serve and volley game on its day can blow anyone off the court. Playing a fellow countryman in Tipsarevic is never easy, and would again test Djokovic’s mental state.
The other two players to watch in Djokovic’s quarter are the improving Marin Cilic from Croatia along with Tommy Haas.
Like Fish, Cilic has a game built for grass. His fourth round appearance at Wimbledon last year as well as at the two previous Grand Slams this year is also evidence of his consistency.
Winning his first ATP World Tour title in more than two years last week in Halle, Haas is brimming with confidence. While his two set to love lead against Federer at the French Open should have seen Federer out of the tournament, he will be looking to progress well into the second week at Wimbledon.
At his best, Djokovic is a far superior all-round player to any of these challengers. To be considered capable of “stepping up” in the world rankings and stamping his authority on the game, anything less than a semi-final meeting (probably against Federer) would be considered a failure.
No doubt he will be challenged, but he needs to learn to fight. Unlike the greats in the past decade, very few times have we seen Djokovic come from behind in big matches. He needs to learn that things will not always go his way, but if he can develop patience and an added self belief, a second Grand Slam title shouldn’t be too far away.
Murray will have the weight of public expectation on his shoulders to again perform. Victory at Queens recently only adds to this pressure and expectation. What is impressive about Murray is his willingness and hunger to succeed.
Outside Federer and Nadal, he has clearly been the form player of 2009. He thrives playing big matches and will no doubt look to use the “home” crowd to his advantage. What more, Murray has a near perfect draw.
I say “near perfect” because lurking as a potential quarterfinal match up is Fernando Gonzalez, the player with the most feared forehand in tennis and the one who destroyed Murray in the same round at the French Open.
While the quicker grass court is not Gonzalez’s best surface, Murray will still be hoping someone else will take out the Chilean before they are due to meet. Regardless, Murray’s recent clear winning record over Federer is reason to believe that there is no one on the tour he fears and success for the “home town” hero is not out of the question.
Without doubt Lleyton Hewitt is the luckiest man in the draw. Previously drawn to play Nadal in the second round, Juan Martin Del Potro, Nadal’s replacement, now looms as a second round opponent for the Australian as a result of Nadal’s exit.
Del Potro has never progressed beyond the second round at Wimbledon and his developing game isn’t yet suited to grass. Despite Hewitt’s low ranking, it is easy to forget how good he was (and still is) on grass. If he can get past Del Potro, thereby taking Nadal’s path through the draw, there is no one in his quarter (other than Andy Roddick) that he should fear on grass.
The likes of Nikolay Davydenko and David Ferrer are hardly going to have the games big enough to blow the Australian off the court, with Hewitt’s tenacity and persistence likely to win over. He will be tested in a likely quarter final encounter with Roddick.
Roddick is one of the best performed and most consistent players on grass in the last 5-6 years, and armed with his big first serve, the American will again be tough to beat at Wimbledon. These two have always had close encounters, and at the end of the day if Roddick serves well the match will most likely be decided by a couple of points here an there.
If his serve is even slightly off, expect Hewitt’s superior ground strokes and nouse to prevail. Hewitt’s experience as the only other Wimbledon Champion outside Federer also counts for a lot. He has said all along that he only needs a bit of luck in the draw and he still considers himself capable of challenging for a Grand Slam title.
For this reason, don’t be surprised to see him progress well into the final week.
Someone must be smiling fondly upon Federer. Robin Soderling knocks out Nadal at the French and now his nemesis won’t be playing at Wimbledon due to injury.
He has stated since winning the French Open that all pressure is now off him for the rest of his career and that he can “now play freely”. That is scary for his opponents if that is the case, but at the same time pressure works two fold.
On the one hand it keeps players accountable, driven to perform and delivers strong results, while conversely pressure can be detrimental and see players capitulate and crack under expectation. I am of the opinion that Nadal’s hold over Federer is more a result of the Spaniard’s superiority and class than any error or fault on Federer’s part. There are only two factors that may get in Federer’s way at Wimbledon this year—complacency and power.
Given the high he experienced after the French Open it would be only natural to have a letdown. Federer wants to be the greatest play of all time and he knows that he needs to pass Sampras’ Grand Slam record to confirm this.
Common sense says his time is running out given his age and performances of the next generation of stars. Complacency is not a trait known to Federer, but if there was ever a time for it to affect him, this would be the tournament. The other element, power, comes in the form of Soderling, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Fernando Verdasco, all with big enough games and weapons to blow Federer (and all other players for that matter) off the court on their day and are hiding in Federer’s part of the draw.
The toughest part is doing it over five sets. We saw Tomas Berdych and Haas take two set leads at the Australian and French Opens earlier this year but not go on with it. That’s why Federer is so good; the difference between his best and his worst is so small. Some players might be able to stay with him, or better him, over the course of a couple sets, but struggle to maintain the pressure over five.
Nevertheless, the three players mentioned above all lurk in Federer’s quarter and will provide tough opposition.
To pick a winner this early in the tournament is not only difficult but sacrificial. Due to the closeness of the tournament to the French Open, as well as the fact it is grass, Wimbledon always presents chokes, upsets and amazing performances.
I do believe that this year’s tournament will be a mix of youth and experience. The likes of Murray and Djokovic need to be aggressive and hungry in the absence of Nadal and stake their claim to challenge the strong performers of the past in Federer, Hewitt and Roddick. No doubt the tournament will also throw up new names and other unexpected results.
Let the competition at the All England Club begin.