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The Monarchs of Grass: A Preview of The Championships at Wimbledon

The contenders, the pretenders and the unpredictables at Wimbledon

The oldest, and most famous, tennis tournament kicks off today. We preview all the action.

The oldest tennis tournament in the world kicks off in Wimbledon tomorrow, and fans of football and tennis might as well take the next fortnight off if they want to keep track of all the action. Meanwhile, those who’ve made it to main draw will be busy conducting a final quality check of their outfits and accessories, so as not to violate the tournament’s “all white” clothing decree.

Despite the bewildering rules in a bid to uphold its 137 year old tradition, and the overhyped strawberries and cream, there is a lot that makes Wimbledon special. It is the only major tournament in the tennis calendar that is played on grass. It is also the only Grand Slam that is bereft of courtside sponsorship banners – instead, the tournament believes in long term partnerships, which is why companies such as IBM and Rolex have been the official scorer and timekeeper respectively for 25 years or more.

The formality of address (men and women are referred to as gentlemen and ladies); players in pristine white dancing on the shimmering grass and curtsying to the Royal Box; ball boys, ball girls and stewards dressed in uniforms designed by Ralph Lauren; a profusion of lavender hydrangeas and golden petunias all over the immaculate grounds; spectators camping overnight, carrying summer hats and umbrellas as preparation for the fickle British weather; the raucous crowds on Murray Mound – all come together at SW19, London, to fashion a seemingly exquisite stage set to mimic a lost era.

So as defending champion Andy Murray kicks off proceedings on Center Court at 1 PM GMT, here are a few questions that have tennis fans all over the world on edge. You can check the Gentlemen’s singles draw here and the Ladies’ singles draw here.

The Seedings

Tennis players are seeded according to their current ranking in all tournaments, except at Wimbledon. Not surprisingly, the Championships has wrested the right to come up with their own seeding, based upon a player’s performance on grass. Oftentimes they choose not to exercise that right – seven time champion Roger Federer was the defending champion at Wimbledon last year and had just won the ATP 250 grass court tournament at Halle – yet the tournament decided to seed him according to his ranking. So pardon our disbelief when we heard that the Lords of Wimbledon had decided to bump up Scotsman Andy Murray to number three, despite a one year drought of tournament victories and a current world ranking of number five.

In the same vein, bumping down the world’s top ranked player to number two seed also seems a tad unfair – Rafael Nadal has undoubtedly been the most successful player this year, making it to the finals of the Australian Open and winning a historic ninth title at Roland Garros.

The State of the Big Four

roger federer wimbledon

For over a decade, we’ve been waiting for the Big Four (Nadal, Djokiovic, Federer & Murray) to break their stranglehold over the Grand Slams – but it’s only happened twice (Juan Del Potro in 2009, Stainlas Wawrika earlier this year). There may be a momentary slip from one, or even two of them (Rafa lost in the first round and Federer in the second round at Wimbledon last year), but at least one of them is always around to wrest the crown. But this year, all four seem to have racket sized chinks in their armour (I know I’m likely to eat my words a fortnight from now, but hey..)

Top seed Novak Djokovic has lost five of the last six Grand Slam finals he’s played in – including a straight sets loss to Murray in last year’s Wimbledon final and a debilitating defeat to Nadal in this year’s French Open. Luckily for him, his draw at Wimbledon is not particularly difficult – the trickiest player in his quarter is Ernests Gulbis (who knocked out Federer in the fourth round of Roland Garros), but the Djoker handled him with ease in Paris. The biggest question for Djokovic is – will he unravel the way Federer did after his 2008 loss to Rafa in Paris, or will his recent spate of setbacks propel a resurrection similar to Murray’s two years ago?

Number two seed Rafael Nadal hasn’t had a particularly good run at Wimbledon the last two years – he was knocked out in the second round in 2012 and in the first round last year. He’s also coming off a physically grueling run in Paris, and the state of his knees and back is always unpredictable, seemingly even to him. His draw this year hasn’t been particularly kind – he could meet his 2012 conqueror Lukas Rosol in the second round again, and has several other giant slayers – Kei Nishikori, Gael Monfils, Ivo Karlovic – in his quarter. But if there is one man who can be counted upon to win when the chips are down, it’s the world number one. Bet against him at your own peril.

Defending champion Andy Murray is the biggest question mark amongst the Big Four this year. Murray was out of action for a few months due to back surgery, and hasn’t managed to make it to a tournament final since his return earlier this year. He also ended his successful coaching partnership with Ivan Lendl, and hired Amelie Mauresmo just two weeks before the start of Wimbledon. Before he can keep his date with Djokovic in the semi final, Murray will have to surmount the likes of Grigor Dimitrov and Fabio Fognini, both of whom have beaten him recently. Will the thought of becoming the first British man in 77 years to successfully defend his Wimbledon crown motivate Murray?

Roger Federer hasn’t won a Grand Slam since his victory at Wimbledon two years ago, but with 17 Grand Slam trophies in his vault (the most by any man in the Open era), you’d expect him not to bother turning up for another tournament. Yet Federer has made it amply clear that he would like nothing better than to add an eighth Wimbledon crown to his treasure chest. He also has a relatively easy quarter, with the biggest danger coming from countryman Wawrinka. It’s impossible to rule out a man who has won a record equaling seven Wimbledon titles, but does he have the stamina – both physical and mental – to last seven rounds? We’ll soon know.

The Big Girls

serena williams wimbledon

She hasn’t won a Grand Slam title since the US Open last year, but as long as Serena Williams is in the draw, there is only one favourite amongst the ladies. Nothing motivates Serena like defeat, and she’ll be raring to grab her 18th Grand Slam singles title. But Serena’s quarter is littered with landmines – the hungry young brigade of Eugenie Bouchard, Andrea Petkovic & Alize Cornet, as well as fellow veteran Maria Sharapova, who Williams is slated to meet in the quarter finals. Serena is likely to be less worried about Sharapova, whose last victory over Williams came a decade ago, as she will be about Bouchard, who came very close to defeating Sharapova in the semi finals of Roland Garros. If she manages to survive the first few rounds, our money is on Ms. Williams to lift the Venus Rosewater dish for the sixth time in her career.

The only player who seemed capable of halting Serena was Victoria Azarenka, but she is returning to action after a three month injury layoff. Azarenka is seeded eight at Wimbledon, and has several tricky players in her draw – fourth seed Agnieshka Radwanksa, Australian Open runner up Dominica Cibulkova and Garbine Muguruza, who beat Serena at Roland Garros. Vika made it to the semi finals here in 2011 & 2012, but will she able to hold up physically to better that performance this year?

French Open champion Maria Sharapova – the epitome of mind over matter – can never be ruled out of a major, and if Serena gets knocked out before the quarters, she has a very good shot at an unprecedented double. As for second seed Li Na, she could get knocked out in straights in the first round or go all the way to lifting the third Grand Slam title of her career. Just for the sake of hearing her winner’s speech, we hope it’s the latter.

The Pretenders

Stan Wawrinka’s Australian Open victory seems to have reminded tennis’ upcoming prodigies that if you learn to lose better, you can ultimately win. And what better stage than Wimbledon to announce your entry into the big league. So will this be the tournament in which the next generation will finally come good?

Amongst the gentlemen, all eyes will be on “Baby Fed” Grigor Dimitrov, who is just coming off three tournament victories on three different surfaces, including a classic come-from-behind win at Queens a week ago. Dimitrov has the game, but he’s yet to demonstrate the physical grit to last seven punishing rounds. But with a bit of luck and dollops of “it’s all in the mind” coaching from rumoured girl friend Maria Sharapova, who knows? The other men who can go deep into the tournament are Ernest Gulbis and Milos Raonic, both of who had great runs in Paris; perennial bridesmaid Tomas Berdych and Australian Open champion Wawrinka – but somehow, we don’t see them lifting the golden trophy just yet.

When it comes to the ladies, the biggest curiosity will be the performance of French Open runner up and world number three Simona Halep. Halep more than justified being named WTA’s Most Improved Player of 2013 – this year she reached the quarter finals at the Australian Open and the finals of Roland Garros, won the Qatar Open and was a finalist at Madrid. Her title clash with Sharapova in Paris was a nail bitingly close encounter – in the end, it was Maria’s vast experience and deep mental reserves that saw her through. Halep has a fantastic game that is a lot like Djokovic’s – clean strokes, excellent athleticism, fantastic court coverage and the right mix of offence and defence. With the added experience of competing in a Grand Slam final, will she finally go the distance on the biggest stage of her career?

Apart from Halep, Agnieshka Radwanska and Petra Kvitova will always be dangerous, but one gets the feeling that they have missed the bus (Kvitova at least has a Wimbledon title to her credit). We continue to hope that Sam Stosur will give us a replay of her 2011 US Open title run, but that seems like wishful thinking at best. Overall, there is only one guarantee in the women’s draw – expect the unexpected.

The Unpredictables

They are not title contenders just yet, but they can cause some mighty big upsets and provide truckloads of entertainment. Some of them have just turned professional, while the others have been around for a while.

Amongst the wise old ladies and gentlemen, we are most excited about Alexandr Dolgopolov, Kei Nishikori, Dominic Brown, Sabine Lisicki, Dominica Cibulkova, and purely for sentimental reasons – Marcos Baghdatis and Svetlana Kuznetsova.

And when it comes to the Young Ones, we’re sure to keep track of Taylor Townsend, Madison Keys and Dominic Thiem.

Lastly, let’s not forget the two indefatigable warriors – David Ferrer and Ana Ivanovic. If we were granted just one wish in tennis, we would ask for Ferrer to lift the trophy at Roland Garros next year.

The Weather & The Queues

Any talk of Wimbledon is incomplete without the fickle weather – expect at least one front page photograph of spectators staring at the unrelenting rain (not a tropical thunderstorm, but an endless pitter patter that can drive you nuts). Luckily, Center Court has a beautiful retractable roof, but that won’t be of much help in the busy first week of play.

The Wimbledon experience is incomplete without camping overnight in a bid to secure tickets for the day’s play. Waking up at the crack of dawn, sharing your neighbour’s flask of tea, playing frisbee or cards as you patiently await your turn, marvelling at the discipline and orderliness of thousands of human bodies (no shoving or sneaking ahead), jumping in joy when you manage to secure tickets for the show courts – these are memories as precious as those of watching Roger Federer glide across the grass and Serena Williams emit a terrifying roar of victory.

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