It's the middle of the season, and the busiest time of the year for tennis professionals and fans alike. This is a perfect opportunity to look at the fortunes of the Big Four, where they stand at midseason and the outlook. When I say Big Four, I mean, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Andy Murray.
Having just won the 2011 French Open, a lot of pressure is off Nadal. Lets face it, whether he is on his game or not, whether he is facing a player with a streak or not, when it comes to Roland Garros, Rafael Nadal is always expected to win. Having said that, I suspect if Nadal is able to grab one of the remaining two Slams, he will be quite happy with his season, especially if he can defend his Wimbledon crown. I doubt that Nadal wants to win the U.S. Open as badly as last season if he is able to win Wimbledon this year, given that he has already won the career Grand Slam.
The switch from grass to hard courts has always been a tough transition for Rafa, with the delicate nature of his knees. Even though he won three Slams last year, I think Nadal would be very happy with two Slams this year, especially if he can win Wimbledon.
I would be looking at that serve very closely in Wimbledon to see if he ups the mph on that serve just as he did at last year's U.S. Open. At times during play at Roland Garros, I thought that serve was a liability. It certainly would have been interesting had he met Novak in the final.
What a season he has had. Enough said about the streak already! In his mind, I think, Novak would have preferred to lose to Rafa in the French Open final as opposed to losing to Roger in the semis. I am not saying this because of the No. 1 ranking implications. Novak has lost at the semifinal stage many times to Roger at many events including Slams. Just when he was winning everything and imposing himself, he loses again to Roger.
Novak now is at the prime of his career, has found his winning ways and doesn't want to lose to Roger again at this stage of Federer's career. Clearly Roger is not the player that he was in 2005-07. I say this because I am still not convinced that Novak has taken control of his mental frailties.
There were times in this French semifinal where there were traces of the Novak of old. Novak wants to bury those feelings once and for all, and get the train back on track. He would need that to win one of the remaining two Slams. I still believe that for all the fame and accolades he got and deserved for the streak, Novak has to win one of the two remaining Slams for the season to be a successful one for him. For him to just have the Australian in his kitty at the end of the season would be a huge disappointment—Novak would be the first to admit it.
Winning the U.S. Open would be more realistic for him than Wimbledon. If, however, he were to snatch the Wimbledon crown from Rafa, which is not impossible, the Serb would be under considerably less pressure in New York, and could also play the hard-court season in a much more relaxed manner, which would make him even more dangerous.
Roger has to win Wimbledon. There are no two ways about it. And the way he played against Rafa at Roland Garros augurs well for him. There are two things that I think are extremely important for Roger to win Wimbledon:
- It would help if the courts weren't as slow as the last couple years (the tennis balls that will be used in Wimbledon are not the new balls they just used in Roland Garros), which I think would favor Rafa and Novak. They have superior baseline games and return better than Roger.
- More importantly, the serve has to work for Roger. The serve that won him that incredible match against Novak at the French, and also kept him in the match against Rafa in Sunday's match, needs to fire. Absent the serve, I see no chance for Roger.
I think it will be more difficult for Roger to win the U.S. Open. The hard-court season is a long and gruelling one. Despite his selective schedule, I don't know how Roger would be able to skip Montreal and Cincinnati, and thus be able to be more relaxed for New York. It is still possible as he has shown five times in the past, but I think there are too many genuine contenders in New York.
He is 24 years old and playing magnificently. He has done everything well, except win a Grand Slam. Will that happen in Wimbledon? I genuinely think, if Murray falls in Nadal's section of the draw, he has a legitimate shot at winning the title. He is ready and feels he can beat Rafa. He just hasn't been able to do it at the highest level consistently.
If Murray can play a very aggressive brand of tennis and serve big, and Rafa's serve is similar to some of the earlier matches in RG, you never know. But Murray has to win one of the next three Slams (Including next year's Australian Open). If he comes up empty by the Australian next year, he could be in danger of fading away completely.
He is lurking there somewhere and I do think he has the capability of beating the aforementioned names and collecting Grand Slams. I just don't think that will happen at Wimbledon.
If he does that, it won't surprise me from a talent perspective, because this guy has got all the talent in the world. I am not sure that he is back to his best after the wrist surgery, and back to his 2009 self. Once he is back to that form, this Argentine is unstoppable.