A closer look at Djokovic’s, Federer’s, and Nadal’s varyingly-difficult paths to the title
Will the WTA’s Wimbledon elite rise to the occasion again, or will someone new join their ranks?
by Steve Tignor
Tennis isn’t run out of the offices of the All England Club the way it once was, but Wimbledon can still throw a little of its old weight around. This year, the tournament unilaterally reversed the seedings of Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer—Rafa went from No. 2 to No. 3, and Roger went from No. 3 to No. 2. Wimbledon is the only tournament that reserves the right to deviate from the rankings when it makes its seeds, which are based on a formula that the club has devised to measure a player’s grass-court skills. Once upon a time, when grass was an outlier surface that heavily favored huge servers and heavily disadvantaged baseliners, the idea made sense. But those days are over—while Federer has won Wimbledon eight times, Nadal has won it twice, and he nearly reached the final again last year. More important, the players don’t have a say in how the tournament’s self-created system works; it’s time to give them one, if they want it.
With that minor controversy behind us, we can move on to greener pastures—a first look at the men’s draw.
The last time we saw Novak Djokovic, he was stalking out of Court Philippe Chatrier in exasperation, having lost a two-day, five-set semifinal to Dominic Thiem. But if you think that will hurt his chances at Wimbledon, you should probably think again. Djokovic has made a specialty of taking disappointment at Roland Garros and turning it into redemption at Wimbledon; he’s done it four times, including last year. The only time he won in Paris, in 2016, he went out early in London.
Djokovic’s draw shouldn’t hurt his chances at a fifth Wimbledon title. While he starts against Philipp Kohlschreiber, who beat him at Indian Wells in March, the first seed he could face is his countryman Dusan Lajovic. For now, all eyes will be on a potential quarterfinal between Djokovic and Stefanos Tsitsipas. If Tsitsipas makes it, that is. David Goffin, who reached the final in Halle; Daniil Medvedev, who reached the semifinals at Queen’s Club; home favorite Kyle Edmund; and Ivo Karlovic are all on Tsitsy’s side of this section.
First-round matches to watch:
—Djokovic vs. Kohlschreiber
—Tsitsipas vs. Thomas Fabbiano, who reached the semifinals in Eastbourne this week
—Felix Auger-Aliassime vs. fellow Canadian and former Wimbledon quarterfinalist Vasek Pospisil
With no member of the Big 3 looming, this quarter qualifies as the land of opportunity in the men’s draw. And it opens up even more when you see who the top two seeds are: Kevin Anderson, the runner-up from last year who has been sidelined for much of 2019; and Alexander Zverev, who is still looking to reach his first Grand Slam semifinal.
Who might take advantage of this opening? Stan Wawrinka, a two-time Wimbledon quarterfinalist, and Milos Raonic, the 2016 finalist, are two names that jump out; unfortunately for them, they’re slated to play each other in the third round. The same could go for Karen Khachanov and Roberto Bautista Agut; the Russian and the Spaniard are also set to the meet in the third round. How about Benoit Paire? The Frenchman is on-the-record as a Wimbledon hater, but he has been to the fourth round there, and he has been playing some of the best tennis of his career this year.
Player of Interest: Reilly Opelka. In theory, this monster server could be a nightmare on grass. Wawrinka may have to face him in the second round.
If Nadal didn’t like his seeding demotion—and he didn’t—he’s not going to like his draw, either. In particular, the opponent he could face in the second round: Nick Kyrgios. Aside from getting under Rafa’s skin, the Aussie beat him at Wimbledon in 2014, and again earlier this year in Acapulco. That said, Kyrgios has a potentially tricky first-rounder to get through, against his countryman Jordan Thompson, who is ranked just two spots behind him and has played well in Turkey this week. Kyrgios and Thompson have never played a tour match against each other.
If Nadal does go out early, who might be ready to take his semifinal spot? Thiem is the second-highest seed here, but he’s just 5-5 at Wimbledon, and he has a very tough opener against 2017 semifinalist Sam Querrey, who has looked sharp again this week in Eastbourne. That could leave an opening for Marin Cilic. The 2017 finalist has had a bad year, but if he’s going to break out of his slump anywhere, Wimbledon would seem the likely place.
First-round matches to watch: Thiem vs. Querrey; Fabio Fognini vs. Frances Tiafoe; Jo-Wilfried Tsonga vs. Bernard Tomic; Kyrgios vs. Thompson; Ciic vs. Adrian Mannarino
While Nadal has a bumpy-looking path to the semifinals, Federer’s seems to be a smooth one, at least on paper. The eight-time champ, who just won his 10th title in Halle, will start against 87th-ranked Lloyd Harris of South Africa, and the three seeds in his half of this section are Lucas Pouille, Diego Schwartzman and Borna Coric—none of whom would seem to present major challenges to Federer on grass right now. The same goes for the second seed in this quarter, Kei Nishikori, who has reached just one Wimbledon quarterfinal in 10 tries. The one player who would seem to pose a test, 2018 semifinalist John Isner, hasn’t played at all since April, when he suffered a stress fracture in his foot against Federer in the Miami final.
Players of Interest:
—Jan-Lennard Struff. The towering German in just 3-6 at Wimbledon, and he’s buried deep in the draw here, but he’s been on the verge of a breakout in 2019, and his heavy artillery game could present problems to anyone on grass.
—Taylor Fritz: Another spring-long European adventure has paid dividends for the young Californian. He recorded quality wins over Guido Pella and Hubert Hurkacz in Eastbourne this week. Now he’ll go up against 2010 Wimbledon finalist Tomas Berdych.
First-round matches to watch: Isner vs. Casper Ruud; Pouille vs. Richard Gasquet; Fritz vs. Berdych
Semifinals: Djokovic d. Wawrinka; Federer d. Cilic
Final: Djokovic d. Federer
CHAMPION: NOVAK DJOKOVIC
At first glance, we might say this is another “wide open” women’s Grand Slam. As good as Ashleigh Barty has been of late, few would claim that the world’s new No. 1 is a lock to win a tournament where she is just 2-3 lifetime. But Wimbledon does tend to have a more exclusive ruling class of players than the other majors. Serena Williams, Venus Williams, Angelique Kerber, Garbiñe Muguruza, Petra Kvitova: they’ve been reliable performers at the Big W for years, and it won’t be a surprise if they are again in 2019.
That said, it also won’t be a surprise if there’s a brand-new major champion holding the winner’s dish in two weeks. Here’s a look ahead at who that might be.
Barty’s game would seem to be a natural fit for grass. She can pop aces, finish points at net, change spins and speeds. And she showed off all of those skills in winning the Wimbledon tune-up event in Birmingham. But Wimbledon itself has been a different story so far for the Aussie; in her three main-draw appearances, she has yet to get past the third round. If Barty is going to go much farther than that this year, she’s going to have to earn it. The draw gods haven’t done their top seed any favors. Serena, Kerber, Muguruza and 2004 champ Maria Sharapova are all in this section, as well as other second-tier threats like Belinda Bencic, Julia Goerges and Donna Vekic.
The match that most WTA fans will already have circled is the fourth-rounder between Kerber and Serena. That was the final in 2016 and 2018; Serena won the first one, Kerber the second. If they meet again this year, the winner could pick up the momentum needed to go all the way—or at least knock off Barty in the next round. Kerber has already begun to round into her usual July form; she’ll play the Eastbourne final on Saturday. And while Serena has had what she calls a “grueling” 2019, she almost always rises to the occasion at Wimbledon.
Potential third-round matches to watch: Barty vs. Muguruza; Kerber vs. Sharapova; Serena vs. Goerges
Perhaps the most significant question mark at the start of the tournament hangs over Petra Kvitova. The No. 6 seed pulled out of Roland Garros last month, and says a wrist injury may force her to do the same at Wimbledon. If Kvitova isn’t fit to go, that would seem to open this section to two players in particular. The first is No. 4 seed Kiki Bertens, who reached the quarterfinals at Wimbledon last year, the final at ’s-Hertogenbosch two weeks ago, and the semis at Eastbourne this past week. The second is home favorite Johanna Konta, a 2017 Wimbledon semifinalist who caught fire again in Rome and Paris this spring. We’ll see how Bertens and Konta handle the different pressures they’ll be under: Bertens to perform better at a Slam, and Konta to perform for her country.
First-round matches to watch: Amanda Anisimova vs. Sorana Cirstea; Sloane Stephens vs. Timea Bacsinszky
Not for the first time, Karolina Pliskova is a player to watch heading into a major. She seems perpetually due to win her first Slam, but then…doesn’t. Last month, she won the title in Rome and looked like a contender in Paris, before an off day against an in-form Petra Martic sent her out. Now she’s in the Eastbourne final, and, with her power serve and flat ground strokes, she would seem to be a Wimbledon contender as well. Can Pliskova avoid having that one bad day over the coming fortnight? She’s never been past the fourth round at the All England Club, but she’ll be the favorite to make it out of this section. The second-highest seed here, Elina Svitolina, struggled with an injury all spring and lost in the first round at both of her Wimbledon tune-ups.
Player of Interest: Marketa Vondrousova. How will the Roland Garros runner-up’s game translate to grass? She could face Pliskova in the fourth round.
First-round match to watch: Su-Wei Hsieh vs. Jelena Ostapenko
One thing Naomi Osaka doesn’t have to worry about is dealing with the pressure of being a No. 1 seed at a Slam; with Barty’s rise, Osaka has dropped to No. 2. What she probably should worry about, though, is her first-round opponent. Two weeks ago in Birmingham, Osaka lost to Yulia Putintseva; now she’ll have to play her again.
But that will be just the start. Like the top quarter, the bottom one is rich with talent: Simona Halep, Venus Williams, Madison Keys, Victoria Azarenka, Aryna Sabalenka, Caroline Wozniacki, Caroline Garcia, and Sofia Kenin would all seem to be credible threats to make the semifinals. Keys, in particular, is due for a deep run at Wimbledon, while Halep will want to avoid the early-upset bug that has sent her home before the fourth round on five occasions, including last year.
First-round matches to watch: Osaka vs. Putintseva; Sabalenka vs. 2017 semifinalist Magdalena Rybarikova; Halep vs. Aliaksandra Sasnovich; Azarenka vs. Alizé Cornet
First-round match to watch, and think about: Venus Williams vs. 15-year-old American qualifier Coco Gauff. The 24-year age ga between is the biggest age difference in a GrandSlam singles match in the Open Era since 2004. (At Wimbedon 2004, Martina Navratilova, 47 at the time, lost a second-round match to 19-year-old Gisela Dulko.)
Semifinals: Kerber d. Konta; Keys d. Pliskova
FINAL: KERBER D. KEYS
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