Welcome back to the All England Club, already looking tidy and rejuvenated after less than a month of serenity. Pressed into action for barely a week this time, the most famous arena in tennis accommodates the most famous competition in all of sports. We preview the men’s draw today and the women’s draw tomorrow. Daily previews will start with the second round on Monday.
First quarter: As strange as it seemed in 2008 when Federer no longer stood atop the rankings, it seems almost as strange to see him looming above them again after a two-year absence. More déjà vu beckons when he opens his quest for the golden Slam against Alejandro Falla, the man who led the seven-time Wimbledon champion by two sets on this court in 2010 and later served for the match in the fourth set. Early in his last two majors, Federer suffered spans of vulnerability against unheralded opponents, although his memories of Falla should sharpen his focus. A round later might await the challenger who nearly toppled him at Wimbledon this year, likewise winning the first two sets and eventually edging within two points of the upset. Those serendipitous threats aside, the most serious threat to the top seed before the medal matches could come from John Isner. Winning a title on this surface in Newport, the hero of “70-68” never has mounted a deep charge at Wimbledon but did defeat Federer in similar circumstances at Davis Cup this year. The long European season chipped away at Isner mentally, so his competitive stamina bears attention as the week unfolds. At the Australian Open, he escaped a vintage effort from Nalbandian by the slimmest of margins, and the resurgent Argentine could seek a bit of revenge in the round before Federer. Destined to open against Tipsarevic, the 2002 Wimbledon runner-up traded victories with the Serb at the two mini-majors at Indian Wells and Miami before succumbing to him routinely at Wimbledon, Part I.
Second quarter: Rare is the opportunity at an event of this magnitude to reach the semifinals without meeting one of the ATP’s top four, but here is the section where some man will accomplish exactly that dream. Fittingly, a host of rising stars populate it from Kei Nishikori to Grigor Dimitrov to Bernard Tomic, a quarterfinalist at Wimbledon last year. Tasked with defusing this wealth of youthful talent is the fourth-seeded Ferrer, who has enjoyed arguably the best year of his career to date with a Roland Garros semifinal, quarterfinal appearances at the other two majors, and no fewer than five titles. One of those titles came on the grass of the Dutch Open, albeit as the top seed in a weak draw, and the Spaniard deployed his reflexes and compact strokes to devastating effect on this low-bouncing surface in matches against Roddick and Murray. A quarterfinalist at Wimbledon this year, Kohlschreiber exploited the Nadal-less section ruthlessly before shifting away from grass to the European clay again. His strange preparation bodes ill for his chances, as does the recently tepid form displayed by Del Potro, never at his best on grass. Far less intimidating mentally than physically of late, the Tower of Tandil tumbled abjectly to Ferrer twice this year, including at the All England Club. Near laughingstock of the draw Donald Young and clay specialist Seppi, Del Potro will have the time to find his footing before facing a player adept on grass in Dimitrov. Elsewhere are serve-volleyers Stepanek and Kubot, more proficient in doubles than singles at this stage yet uncomfortable to face on a fast court in a best-of-three format.
Spoiler: Tomic? Dimitrov?
Third quarter: Just three weeks have passed since Murray shed tears on this court after the most emotional fortnight of an emotional career. When he settled for the runner-up trophy at previous majors, the Scot did not resemble himself for weeks or months to come, and he lost his first match at the 2008 Olympics to the unremarkable Yen-Hsun Lu. In his vicinity are three men who have battled Murray in memorable collisions on Centre Court. Bending the curfew rule to outlast Baghdatis this year in the latest match ever at Wimbledon, he needed five sets to stifle Wawrinka under the roof last year, while his comeback from a two-set deficit against Gasquet in 2008 remains one of his signature moments. A semifinalist there in 2007, the Frenchman usually fits his deft, imaginative shot-making to the grass better than most surfaces, but he has distinguished himself for his disappointments when competing under his nation’s flag. Scheduled on the other side of the quarter is still another encounter between sworn enemies Berdych and Almagro, their fifth of 2012 and fourth since the notoriously acrimonious afternoon in Melbourne when the Czech refused to shake the Spaniard’s hand. Much the superior of the two men on grass, the 2010 Wimbledon finalist must beware of Ryan Harrison in the second round should his lackluster June form continue. Defeated by Haas and Gulbis, admittedly dangerous dark horses, Berdych shone eight years ago in Athens when he upset Federer. His monochromatic game has reaped rewards regularly against both Gasquet and Murray before, and the abbreviated format should favor him as well.
Fourth quarter: Perhaps the most challenging section of the draw, the lowest quadrant features two of its most imposing servers in Raonic and Roddick. While the former would face Tsonga in a second-round bilateral bombardment, the latter eyes the daunting test of conquering a thoroughly motivated Djokovic at the same stage. Since both the American and the Serb have competed impressively for their nations in Davis Cup, they should translate that intensity to the latest gripping episode in a strange mini-rivalry, dominated until relatively recently by Roddick. The three-time Wimbledon finalist enters the week with his confidence higher than in years following titles at Eastbourne and Atlanta, although a slightly deflating loss to Ferrer at the All England Club separated them. No such disappointment afflicted Tsonga at Wimbledon, where he duplicated last year’s semifinal performance before falling to Murray there for the second time. Like Roddick, Cilic enters the Olympics having won two titles in the last two months and having acquitted himself with honor in national team competition. Nor can one forget about the sliding lefty serve of Feliciano Lopez, the equivalent of a lucky loser when Nadal withdrew but a former quarterfinalist at Wimbledon. Virtually anything might happen in a section where so much will hinge on first-serve percentage and where favorites will lack the luxury of a five-setter to regroup from a lull. Despite all the sound and the fury, though, there is exactly one player here who has won Wimbledon in the last ten years. Even when he has looked mortal this year, Djokovic consistently has clawed himself deep into draws, so a second straight medal almost certainly awaits. But will the medal be forged of the metal that he most desires?
Gold medal: Federer
Silver medal: Djokovic
Bronze medal: Ferrer