Last year this time, our attention was singularly and not surprisingly focussed on South Africa’s soccer pitches to the extent that for two magical months there seemed to be only one sport on Earth. This year balance has returned – and the Daily Maverick will be bringing all the drama from Wimbledon 2011, thanks to MICHAEL McCLELLAND. Here’s what you can look forward to.
Wimbledon is the most famous tennis tournament in the world, and for good reason. Wimbledon is where the best players play their best tennis. While the other major tournaments have seen relatively unheralded champions such as Thomas Johannson, Anastasia Myskina, Gaston Gaudio, and Svetlana Kuznetsova in recent years, Wimbledon has been dominated by Sampras, Federer, Venus, and Serena. In fact, even the two least impressive Wimbledon champions of the last decade, Amelie Mauresmo and Lleyton Hewitt, each held the number one ranking and won an additional major tournament.
The best prevail at Wimbledon because the fast grass courts of the All England Club favour shot-making over consistency. Federer’s great problem when facing Nadal at the French Open has been his inability to turn his beautiful ground strokes into winners on the slow red clay of Roland Garros. On grass, most of those perfectly timed shots are hit for clean winners. Similarly, Venus Williams’ high-risk game tends to break down when she is forced to hit shot after shot on clay. Her serve and ground strokes are hit with such pace she is able to finish most points before losing focus on grass.
Grass court tennis is so rewarding for fans because we get to see the greats implement their tactics. In 1997, Martina Hingis became a serve-and-volleyer after losing the first set of the final to Jana Novotna and proceeded to take the title in a flourish of tactical brilliance. In 1999, Pete Sampras coasted on his serve and lulled Andre Agassi into slowly paced rallies before slamming the door with return winners. In 2005, Venus Williams went from aggressor to defender against Lindsay Davenport to win what many consider the best women’s match of all time. And in 2008, Rafael Nadal hit volleys off those short balls he produces by hitting high to Federer’s backhand to win what most consider the best men’s match of all time.
Couple these tactical displays with the almost-awkward tradition of Wimbledon and you have one of the most idiosyncratic sporting experiences on the planet. It may be the only place where black girls from Compton, California, must dress up like debutantes and curtsy to the royal box before engaging in a screaming battle and a well-mannered Swiss in a cream-colored sweater vest can seem as formidable an athlete as Mohammed Ali. It is Wimbledon and we love it.
This year’s tournament is poised for a changing of the guard – or, equally, a reassertion of power from the established greats. On the men’s side, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have won the last eight titles, while on the women’s side, Venus and Serena Williams have won nine of the past 11. Though Federer and Nadal are still very much at the top of the men’s game, they have welcomed a third member, Novak Djokovic, and face pressure from the fourth-ranked Andy Murray. Djokovic began the year with one of the great winning streaks in the sport, taking his first 41 matches, and Murray’s up-and-down year has been highlighted by an appearance in the finals of the Australian Open and a trip to the semi-finals at the French, played on his least favourite surface.
The Williams sisters find themselves in the opposite position, with Venus playing in only three events since last year’s Wimbledon and Serena only one – last week’s tournament in Eastbourne – due to a variety of health problems. They find themselves returning to a tour headlined by Chinese phenomenon Li Na and a number one nearly decade younger in Caroline Wozniacki.
The men’s tournament features three previous champions – Roger Federer (2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009), Rafael Nadal (2008, 2010), and Lleyton Hewitt (2002). It also features three former finalists – Andy Roddick (2004, 2005, 2009), David Nalbandian (2002), and Thomas Berdych (2010). While Federer and Nadal would be considered the heavy favourites, Djokovic and Murray would sit just a tiny step down on the contenders’ ladder. Both have reached the semi-finals twice and are playing outstanding tennis.
A Wimbledon title would mean very different things for each of these top four players. For top-ranked Nadal, it would mark his 11th major title – tying him for fourth all-time. Second-ranked Djokovic would ensure an eventual climb to the number one ranking with the title. While major titles may seem like bonuses for Roger Federer, whose record of 16 seems relatively safe, his motivation seems to be higher than ever. A seventh Wimbledon title would tie him with Pete Sampras and William Renshaw for the most men’s singles titles, and quiet the rumours that his form is slipping. Perhaps the man with the most to gain would be fourth-ranked Murray, who would become the first Briton since Fred Perry won in 1936, and, indeed, the the first Brit to win Wimbledon since Virginia Wade in 1977.
It would be an absolute shock if someone other than one of these four men wins the title. Still, tennis is rarely predictable, and the top threats to watch are number five-seed Robin Soderling, number six Thomas Berdych, number eight Roddick, number 17 Richard Gasquet or number 24 Juan Martin Del Potro.
On the women’s side there are three former champions– Venus Williams (2000, 2001, 2005, 2007, 2008), Serena Williams (2002, 2003, 2009, 2010), and Maria Sharapova (2004). There are also two former finalists – Marion Bartoli (2007) and Vera Zvonareva (2010). Unlike the men’s side, you really cannot count anyone out. Awkwardly, one of the more shocking winners of the title would be top-ranked Caroline Wozniacki, who won only two games in the fourth round last year. Grass does not suit Wozniacki’s consistent, angle-heavy game. Unlike the hard-court surfaces where Wozniacki flourishes, high net-clearance and sharp angles only set you up to be attacked on grass, where an opponent can swoop into the net and take those high balls out of the air to hit winners. Also, Wozniacki finds herself in the same portion of the draw as Maria Sharapova, who is confident and fit after her best-ever clay-court season.
Second-seeded Zvonareva was a finalist last year, and grass adds pace to her serve and complements her smooth, deep strokes. Unfortunately, she finds herself in the same section of the draw as Venus Williams and Petra Kvitova, two of the more likely contenders for the title. Look for one of these three ladies to reach the final.
A few weeks ago at the French Open, Li Na became the first Chinese major champion in history. Will she follow that with a crash-and-burn, or will she relish the spotlight and use her fluid, power-heavy game to go deep at Wimbledon? Bet on her doing well, at least until the quarterfinals, where she could meet Serena Williams. If Williams makes it that far, no guarantee considering her lack of matchplay, she would have to be called the favourite being two-time defending champion.
Fourth seed is Victoria Azarenka, who has never quite managed to pull it all together at a major tournament. However, her section of the draw is relatively clear, so she could slip through to the semis if she makes it through Daniela Hantuchova and French Open specialist Francesca Schiavone.
While impossible to predict which women will go deep this year, it should be fascinating to see if Venus and Serena can come back, if Sharapova can keep her face on magazine covers, if one of the younger players could make the move from “next big thing” to “the big thing” or if Li Na can make the transition from being a great story to being an all-time great. DM
Pnoto: Spain’s Rafael Nadal hits a return to Tomas Berdych of the Czech Republic during the men’s singles final at the 2010 Wimbledon tennis championships in London, July 4, 2010. REUTERS/Phil Noble
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