Wimbledon Men's Draw Offers Little Threat to Top Four

Gareth PughCorrespondent IJune 17, 2009

LONDON - JULY 06:  A general view of Centre Court during the men's singles Final match between Roger Federer of Switzerland and Rafael Nadal of Spain on day thirteen of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on July 6, 2008 in London, England.  (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)

The thing that prevents Bjorn Borg from being seriously considered a contender for the title of greatest of all time is the same thing that emphasizes his genius—he only ever won grand slams in Paris and London.


Despite having an Open-Era high Grand Slam match win percentage of 89.8 percent, and a record which says he won 41 percent of the slams he entered, Borg’s failing is his inability to claim a title in Melbourne or New York.


Roger Federer’s recent French Open win has made clear the reverence in which we hold those players who have conquered at all venues. I use this term as opposed to “all surfaces,” as we all know that there was a time when three of four were played on grass, and even now, the courts of the Rod Laver Arena and the Arthur Ashe Stadium are not too dissimilar.


What makes Borg’s achievements so astounding is the transition he managed to make between the two surfaces that have remained the most distant from each other, in the cruelest time differential dictated by the tennis calendar.


On three occasions he finished at Roland Garros as champion in early June and was lifting the trophy at Wimbledon a month later. While accepting Rafael Nadal’s all-around ability, it was a surprise to see him become the first man to emulate Borg last summer, and now Federer embarks on the challenge for the first time.


In the not too distant past, many members of the top 20 would pour scorn on the lush grass of SW19 and pepper the media with sound bites of how it was “only good for cows.” These players owed their elevated position in the rankings to the plethora of clay-court tournaments they managed to squeeze into their schedule before the genuine champions carried on their global tour.


Today their achievements are not considered comparable to that of the all-court maestros we have today, and rightly so. However, statistics show that grass courts are slower and clay courts are faster than ever before, so perhaps the most vivid difference between the surfaces is the color these days.


It is a shame that nuances of each tournament are being slowly eroded to create a single homogeneous surface, but the grumbling about the specialists dominating on either grass or clay over the last decade and a half has never really abated.


Roger Federer will go to Wimbledon as a favorite for the title. He will be refreshed after an extended rest by missing Halle and will be mentally reinvigorated and motivated after his historic French Open win. Those looking for him to break his incredible streak of 20 consecutive Grand Slam semifinals should look elsewhere.


If Nadal takes his place in the draw, and it looks increasingly likely that he will, he will undoubtedly be a threat, but he will certainly be more likely to succumb to an early round defeat than Federer. Nadal has reached the last three Wimbledon finals, but he now seems to be as vulnerable as at any time before in the last 18 months.


Only four weeks ago Federer looked to be weakening, and Nadal was fit, healthy, and had the mental edge. Now, things have certainly changed. The world's No. 1 is being let down by his knees again and finding that competitiveness and mental strength are not enough to sweep through tournaments.


Of the other contenders, Andy Murray looks the most dangerous. The British media hype machine is churning away, and many believe that this will be the year. The win at Queen's Club removed a substantial historical monkey off the back of British tennis, and now all eyes turn to Wimbledon.


Murray is undoubtedly playing with huge confidence and genuinely believes he can beat either of the top two. More importantly, they also know that he can beat them.


Novak Djokovic has certainly dropped off in recent months. His loss to Tommy Haas in Halle completes a miserable run of underachievement. Last year he exited at a premature stage, and his form in Grand Slams since has not been impressive. He will want to make sure we continue to talk of a top four and not just an elite three.


Within the seeds, Andy Roddick will always relish the grass, but he has been found wanting versus the top four and is an injury doubt after hurting an ankle at Queen's. Fernando Verdasco has been to the fourth round twice at Wimbledon and will aim to keep up his consistent results of the last eight months.


Juan Martin Del Potro was a revelation in Paris, but his Argentine roots do not suggest a grass court expert. That said, he has power and showed that a faster surface could offer him a chance to use his weapons. Whether he can fend off those of the more natural grass-court players and advance beyond his best of round two remains to be seen.


The enigmatic French contingent of Gilles Simon, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, and Gael Monfils always threaten to be just a tournament away from a breakthrough. Tsonga and Monfils especially have the pace and athleticism to be successful on grass, but potential matchups versus elite players hinder their progress, Tsonga’s first round defeat of Murray en route to the 2008 Australian Open Final being the only significant result.


Looking at the list of 32 seeds, there does not seem to be the same level of threat to the top four as at other events. There will always be upsets, but the seeds look vulnerable in the early stages of this tournament. Fernando Gonzalez at 10, Nikolay Davydenko at 12, Robin Soderling at 13, and the mercurial Marat Safin at 15 does not look like a strong grass court lineup.


James Blake at 18 and Ivo Karlovic at 23 are more likely to go deeper into the second week than some of those ranked above. The unseeded Haas will also take confidence from his Halle victory over Djokovic, and the fact that he had Federer in trouble in Paris, and could make the last 16.


There are few threats to be seen in the wildcard nominations, as most are taken by British entrants. Juan Carlos Ferrero gets one, but the former world No. 1 was never a real contender in SW19, despite a quarterfinal appearance in 2007.


In summary, while Federer has to be considered the favorite, Murray will probably see this as a fantastic opportunity to improve his Grand Slam pedigree or even take the title.


The draw looks very open indeed—to a point. There are very few genuine grass-court specialists around at the moment, but there are plenty of players who are competent across all surfaces. It could be argued that the top four are in a class of their own despite some patchy form of late, and that there is no one in the field who could realistically be seen as a potential champion.


Matches between the top four are very difficult to call, but they are not immune to upsets from outsiders. However, for any player to experience an unexpected victory against one of them and then follow up with a second upset win is extremely difficult—and no one seems equipped to do it.


The past two Wimbledons have been defined by their finals, and the previous four by Federer’s pursuit of Borg’s five in a row. There has not been a tournament of intrigue for several years, and perhaps 2009 could be it.


Nevertheless, if it is anything less than a win by one of the top four, it is likely to be viewed as anti-climactic; and if it is a win by the No. 3 seed, then prepare for some historic celebrations.