Wimbledon Draw 2014: Who Is the Real Men's Favorite?

Jeremy Eckstein@https://twitter.com/#!/JeremyEckstein1Featured ColumnistJune 20, 2014

Wimbledon Draw 2014: Who Is the Real Men's Favorite?

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    ANJA NIEDRINGHAUS/Associated Press

    The Wimbledon 2014 draw is now complete, and the roads to the championship have been revealed for the top men’s players in tennis.

    It’s a particularly important analysis for tennis’ most revered tournament. There is not much to separate the top players on grass, and there are many dangerous challengers. Debates and points of analyses can be made or disproved for any of the players.

    Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, the top two players in the world, have more question marks on the low-bouncing grass surface; they rely more on baseline slugging and attrition. Roger Federer and Andy Murray will be assisted by the court speed and variety of shots that they can create to attack their opponents.

    Of course even the best laid draws will not unfold as expected, but there are relevant indicators as to who has earned the right as the favorite to win Wimbledon.

    The slides that follow will look at nine players who are the most likely to contend for the Wimbledon title. The first five players listed are dark horses to make a deep run at Wimbledon, but they are not listed in preferential order because they are not favorites. Mainly, they are a threat to the favorites, but any one of them face long odds in capturing the title.

    The final four players are a large leap above the dark horses. We will list them as favorites and rank them in descending order from least likely to most likely in winning the championship.

Dark Horse: Ernests Gulbis

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    Alastair Grant/Associated Press

    The Latvian leads off this list after a fine run to the French Open semifinals. Ernests Gulbis has the power and talent to play awesome tennis, but he might find it harder to wind up his unorthodox forehand or find high-hopping balls for his favored backhand.

    His road to the Wimbledon title could be tricky with second-round serve-and-volley specialist Sergiy Stakhovsky. Jeremy Chardy and Fernando Verdasco are dangerous possibilities in the third round, then the matches with Tomas Berdych and Djokovic.

    Tough draw. He will be hard-pressed to get a semifinal rematch against Djokovic.

Dark Horse: Tomas Berdych

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    Alastair Grant/Associated Press

    The 2010 Wimbledon runner-up has shown he can beat Roger Federer in big matches, and he is usually dependable in reaching the fourth round or quarterfinals.

    His road to a Wimbledon title is nearly impossible. His first test could be in the third round against Marin Cilic, who is a fine player on grass and playing well in 2014. Then a rematch with Gulbis a round later, followed by Djokovic to try and get to the semifinals.

    It's not likely Berdych gets back to the final.

Dark Horse: Kei Nishikori

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    Anja Niedringhaus/Associated Press

    Federer handled him at Halle, but Kei Nishikori does have the defensive reflexes and timing to counter his opponents. Like Murray, he can benefit from the pace on grass without having to generate his own power. But he has a long way to go to be like Murray and win Wimbledon.

    His road to a Wimbledon title seems unrealistic, but he could conceivably drive for the semifinals if he flashes the form he had heading into the Madrid Masters. His first real test will be in the third round against serve-and-volley veteran Philipp Kohlschreiber, who can be considered a grass-court specialist. Nishikori then might have bullet-serving Milos Raonic in the fourth round and Nadal in the quarterfinals.

    Can he stay healthy and durable for best-of-five matches over two weeks? It's not going to be easy with the tricky route ahead.

Dark Horse: Milos Raonic

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    Sang Tan/Associated Press

    Although Raonic has the advantage of his huge serve, he might be hurt more by not having the time to set up his feet for defensive groundstrokes. He has actually had better results on clay the past few years.

    His road to a Wimbledon title is slim, but perhaps he can get on a roll against weaker opponents in opening rounds. Maybe he faces 2013 quarterfinalist Lukasz Kubot in the third round.  

    Then Nishikori and Nadal await for the fourth round and quarterfinal. It's not a guarantee either of them will be there, so with a little chaos and a lot of game, Raonic could get to the semifinals against Federer. There, the party would stop.

Dark Horse: Grigor Dimitrov

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    Sang Tan/Associated Press

    The young Bulgarian is gradually maturing. His conquest at London's Queen's Club has given him trophies on all surfaces dating back to October. He has the energy, flexibility and creativity to win. The question for now is his consistency and potential superstar status. He has much to prove.

    His road to a Wimbledon title is filled with many young, dynamic players who could make it difficult to even get to the second week. First-round opponent Ryan Harrison is a huge server, but Grigor Dimitrov should be fine.

    Then, a potential glimpse at the future with a blockbuster against young gun Dominic Thiem. It's also possible he could face Alexandr Dolgopolov in the third round and David Ferrer in the fourth round, unless Ferrer falls to athletic veteran Dustin Brown in the third round.

    Dimitrov might be favored in each match, but it will be very difficult to get to the quarterfinals. His reward could be Murray there, followed by a crack at Djokovic.

    It doesn't get much tougher for the Bulgarian, and he will need to show the conditioning and consistency that coach Roger Rasheed has worked into him. If so, Dimitrov could get his money matches.

Favorite No. 4: Rafael Nadal

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    Anja Niedringhaus/Associated Press

    In 2010, Spain dominated the World Cup and won the most prized trophy on Earth. Nadal won his second and last Wimbledon title.

    The sky just fell on Spanish soccer, much as it has the past two years for Nadal's trips to SW19. Will he continue to crash out in the early rounds or is he ready to once again challenge for tennis' most prestigious trophy?

    Nadal needs to go out and crush Martin Klizan. If he struggles to scrape by, he likely will have to encounter a lot more troubles to get out of the first week. The second round will have two dangerous players lined up: talented but enigmatic Benoit Paire and familiar foe Lukas Rosol, who famously dispatched the Spaniard at the 2012 Wimbledon in the second round.

    The third round might be easier, unless Ivo Karlovic has a big day, but Nadal usually has no trouble with one-dimensional servers.

    Fourth-round opponents could be Gael Monfils, Richard Gasquet or perhaps a surprise newcomer in Jiri Vesely or Nick Kyrgios. On paper, it looks like Nadal should win, but they all pose particular problems, especially if the dynamic Monfils makes another run and turns his matches into a soccer atmosphere.

    Quarterfinals will also be an upset waiting to happen with Raonic, Nishikori or Kohlschreiber. The latter might be the most solid bet and could duel Nadal to death. The German might even be the favorite in this one, should they meet.

    All of which could sap some of Nadal's strength should he encounter Federer in the semifinals. It's true that Nadal has historically improved in the second weeks at Wimbledon as the grass gets more hard-packed, but Federer would have his own best advantages to turn the tables on Nadal for the first Grand Slam venue win over Nadal since the 2007 Wimbledon final.

    Nadal is unlikely to reach the final, let alone win a third Wimbledon. That ship may have already sailed.

Favorite No. 3: Andy Murray

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    He is the defending Wimbledon champion and leasing the good graces of Great Britain for at least a few more days. But how well he performs at SW19 could determine the expiration date of this goodwill.

    Murray made a surprising run to the French Open semifinals, but he was crushed by clay king Rafael Nadal. His follow-up at Queen's Club, London, was at least mildly disappointing in falling to Radek Stepanek, but it could also be a great reminder of how pesky some of his opponents will be. He is now wearing a big target.

    Fortunately for Murray, his opening three rounds would be much more dangerous on clay. As is, he should cruise past David Goffin, who is basically a lesser version of himself. The fourth round could be his first real match if Kevin Anderson arrives with his big serves and more consistent ground game. Murray will need to slice him up and return well. (No other fourth-round match should prove problematic.)

    The quarterfinal round is where it could really all begin. He should be rested and ready to face someone who had to fight through a tough quarter. This could be Ferrer or Dimitrov.

    The semifinal against Djokovic is worthy of a final but don't expect the revenge-minded and top-seeded Serbian to go out in straight sets this time around. The advantage goes to Djokovic, unless his wrist forces him out earlier.

    It's a tough road, and it's unlikely Murray defends his crown. We'll give him the quarterfinals but not another win over Djokovic.

Favorite No. 2: Roger Federer

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    Kirsty Wigglesworth/Associated Press

    We discussed the realities of Federer and his best chance at capturing his 18th major. He is also seeking a record eighth Wimbledon title.

    Federer is still arguably the best grass-court player in the world. He took a seventh title at Halle to place on the bottom shelf of his Wimbledon trophies. No other player boasts these credentials on grass. The key will be his experience in holding his serve time and again. His forehand will have more pop, and he is ready to play a lot of serve-and-volley tennis if needed.

    After he destroys Paolo Lorenzi, Federer has a tricky test in the second round against Julien Benneteau. Benneteau went up two sets on Federer in the 2012 Wimbledon third round before Federer charged and Benneteau faded with injury.

    The third round should be a solid win for Federer, possibly against Nicolas Mahut or Marcel Granollers. There's not much of a test in the fourth round either, unless Jerzy Janowicz matches his 2013 form as a Wimbledon semifinalist. But Janowicz has dropped off the map in 2014 and probably will not get to the fourth round.

    Federer's kind draw to the quarterfinals finally could get a big test against Stanislas Wawrinka, that is if the enigmatic Wawrinka even gets there. Grass has not been a good surface for Wawrinka, and he needs more time to wind up his backhand. Wawrinka could certainly fall to the likes of Alejandro Falla, Feliciano Lopez or John Isner before a potential Federer match.

    Federer could get Nadal in the semifinals, but let's stop this preview. Federer will be there, but there is a good chance Nadal will not arrive. And even with all of the disparity in their head-to-head rivalry, Federer has the better skills on grass and will likely be more rested—advantage Federer.

    There's a strong chance the Swiss Maestro gets to the Wimbledon final. Stay tuned.

Favorite No. 1: Novak Djokovic

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    Kirsty Wigglesworth/Associated Press

    Is it time for Novak Djokovic's next Grand Slam title? That is the question once again. There will also be questions about his wrist, but Djokovic has usually played through adversity well. The following preview assumes his wrist will be fine. If not, all bets are off.

    We know that grass has been his least favorite surface. Although he has the terrific groundstrokes, his footwork is not always as smooth on grass. He will need to serve at his best level, particularly late in the second week. Here is how his draw shapes up:

    After a routine win over Andrey Golubev, Djokovic could have his hands full with Radek Stepanek. The serve-and-volley veteran is a tough competitor and unafraid of big matches, like his Davis Cup wins for the Czech Republic. It would not be impossible for the headlines to show an upset here.

    Then expect Djokovic to cruise through the third round since Vasek Pospisil has had problems in the last few months.

    Don't expect Jo-Wilfried Tsonga to be waiting in the fourth round. Veterans Mikhail Youzhny and Jurgen Melzer could be more problematic anyway. Youzhny is very good on all surfaces and a tough fighter. Melzer does not have enough power, but the junk-baller could still create some problems with his spins.

    The quarterfinals could hold a big test in Cilic, Berdych or Gulbis. Djokovic should get by, but he could be extended a bit before his semifinal against Murray. This could, once again, prove to be a factor for the Wimbledon final. Will the Serbian be fresh and at his best?

    We like Djokovic's chances because he is so good at winning everywhere against everyone that he should beat. This time he will defeat Murray, given that chance, and we just might get an epic Wimbledon showdown and rare encounter in a Grand Slam final vs. Roger Federer.