Though the two are separated by just two weeks and a few hundred miles, the French Open and Wimbledon Championships share remarkably little in common. Roland Garros has its red clay and boisterous atmosphere, the All-England club its manicured grass and cherished traditions. And whereas the French Open began with the men’s title all but decided and the women’s field wide open, the opposite is true for Wimbledon. Coming off an unexpected title at Roland Garros, Serena Williams is the undisputed favorite at the All-England Club, but the forecast for the men’s draw is far murkier in London than it was in Paris, where Rafael Nadal is practically invincible. The question, as Wimbledon’s first-round action kicks off today, is just how different the season’s third Grand Slam will be from the second.
For the better part of the last two decades, the men’s draw at Wimbledon has achieved a level of predictability exceeded only by Rafael Nadal’s recent run at the French Open. Pete Sampras and Roger Federer have won 14 of the last 20 titles, the most recent of which came last year when Federer defeated Andy Murray to earn his seventh championship at the All-England Club. But that predictability is fading rapidly. This year, each member of the so-called “Big Four” (Federer, Murray, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal) is a viable candidate to hoist the 18-inch silver gilt cup on July 6, and many others—including Tommy Haas, David Ferrer and Juan Martin Del Potro—are likely to offer substantial opposition.
As has been the case since Federer’s streak of five consecutive Wimbledon titles was snapped in 2008 by arch nemesis Nadal in a five-set finals classic, no player has won consecutive titles at the All-England club. Federer reclaimed the title in 2009, then Nadal answered back with his second Wimbledon title in 2010 before Djokovic earned his first in 2011. That brings us back to Federer, who defeated both Djokovic and Murray to win the Championship last year.
At the time, only a handful of pundits gave Federer a serious chance of winning. He hadn’t won a Grand Slam title since the Australian Open in 2010, had advanced to a Grand Slam just once since then (at the French Open in 2011), and hadn’t made it past the quarterfinals at Wimbledon since winning in 2009. Federer’s once-graceful and stunningly precise groundstrokes that were tailor-made for the grass at the All-England Club had begun to deteriorate with his advancing age. Wimbledon plays markedly faster than any other Grand Slam surface, and few thought that the 30-year-old Swiss legend would be able to keep up. They were wrong.
This year, the odds of Federer pulling off another surprise Wimbledon championship appear to be even longer. Prior to the 2012 tournament, he had already won three tournaments (over Del Potro, John Isner and Tomas Berdych); this year, Federer did not win a single event until claiming the title at a 28-man Wimbledon tune-up in Halle, Germany two weeks ago. He’s also a year older and was bounced in the quarterfinals at Roland Garros last month. And if that’s not bad enough, as the third seed he would have to face the man who just won at Roland Garros for a record eighth time and has defeated him in each of their last five Grand Slam match-ups, Rafa Nadal. Even if he did manage to make it past Nadal, Andy Murray would likely await him in the finals before a finals showdown with top-ranked Novak Djokovic. As tough as it is to think of a 17-time Grand Slam winner and defending tournament champion as as an upset pick, that’s exactly what Federer is this year.
Then there’s the man Federer defeated for that 17th Grand Slam title, Britain’s own native son: Andy Murray. Murray, since winning both the Olympic gold medal and U.S. Open last year, has had a bit of a strange go of it in 2013. He’s second in the ATP rankings and has won a pair of titles (including the Queen’s Club tune-up two weeks ago), but his late 2012 hot streak has cooled considerably. Murray fell to Djokovic in the finals of the Australian Open and has struggled with back injuries for much of the spring—they even forced him to pull out of the French Open. If truly healthy, Murray may get a chance to avenge both of his recent Grand Slam losses: first against Federer (Wimbledon, 2012) in a potential semifinal matchup (assuming he can get past two-time semifinalist Jo-Wilfried Tsonga) and then against Djokovic in a rematch of the 2013 Aussie final. If he does emerge victorious at the All-England Club, he would be the first Brit to do so since Fred Perry in 1936.
Of course for Murray to even earn a shot at Federer and Djokovic, the season-long ascendancy of Rafa Nadal will need need to take a serious nosedive. The Spaniard is 43-2 in 2013, has won seven titles—including the French Open—and has seemed virtually unstoppable since returning from injury in February. Though he fell in the first round last year, that can largely be explained by his injury troubles which sidelined him for more than six months. It was the first time since 2005 that he’s competed in the tournament and not reached the finals. Nadal has taken the last month off since winning at Roland Garros, so he should be well-rested for the upcoming tournament. Even so, his path to the finals is a grueling one—he’ll likely have to face Federer and Murray before reaching Djokovic (who defeated Nadal in the 2011 final the last time the two squared off at the All-England Club).
Facing a far easier path is Djokovic himself. The top-seed Serb also has not played a match since the French Open, and will not have to face Nadal, Murray or Federer until the finals. Tommy Haas—his likely fourth round opponent—has actually beaten Djokovic this year, but has failed to advance beyond the first round at Wimbledon since 2009. Then in the semifinals, Djokovic will probably draw either David Ferrer (just one quarterfinal appearance in 10 tries at the All-England Club) or Juan Martin Del Potro (best finish at Wimbledon: fourth round). All of this is to say that if Djokovic can’t make the finals this time around, he’ll have no one to blame but himself. In fact, what may ultimately be Djokovic’s toughest obstacle in the quest for a second Wimbledon championship is a lack of serious competition prior to the final round. While far from a lock, Djokovic has the motivation, rest and draw to earn him the distinction of favorite at this year’s tournament.
Forecasting the draw on the women’s side is a far simpler task. Since 2000, only three women not named Serena or Venus have won a Wimbledon Championship. One has retired (Amelie Mauresmo), another one just lost to Serena Williams in straight sets at Roland Garros (Maria Sharapova) and the most recent one followed her 2011 title by falling in the quarterfinals last year (Petra Kvitova). All of this is to say that it seems unlikely a Williams sister won’t be the one holding up the Rosewater dish in less than two weeks—and if recent history is any indication, that sister is likely to be Serena.
Even for a player as accomplished as Williams, the last year has been remarkable one. She’s won three of the last four Grand Slams, only falling short at the Australian Open earlier this year. Serena has rocketed back to No.1 in the WTA rankings with a 43-2 record and has won nearly as many tournaments (six) as she has lost sets (10). Then there’s her history at the All-England Club. Williams has won five Wimbledon titles, including three of the last four. With a victory in 2013, she’ll move past her sister and into sole possession of third place for most Wimbledon championships in the Open Era (trailing only Martina Navratilova and Steffi Graf).
Though both Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova—No. 2 and 3 in the current rankings, respectively—have put together impressive 2013 campaigns up to this point, neither has shown herself capable of keeping up with Williams. Azarenka is 1-2 against the 31-year-old American this year, while Sharapova is winless in four tries. (Serena and Sharapova’s verbal sparring off the court has been far less one-sided.) Since 2011, determining women’s Grand Slam champions has become less predictable than on the men’s side—seven different women have won the last 10 Grand Slam events—but the pendulum appears to be swinging back in the other direction with Williams reasserting her dominance.
Strangely, the best chance for the field at Wimbledon will likely come in the early rounds, because Williams becomes practically untouchable by the second week of a Grand Slam. Since 2002, she has won 14 of 19 Grand Glam events in which she’s reached the quarterfinals. For comparison’s sake, her sister is 3 of 11, Sharapova just 4 of 16 and even Federer only 17 of 33. If Serena were a comic book character, she’d be the Juggernaut. And there’s little reason for us to believe she won’t run straight through this year’s draw and earn her sixth Wimbledon title.