Barely two weeks ago dried the ink on our final daily preview of Roland Garros. Our sequence of Wimbledon previews begins where that sequence ended, analyzing the impending clash between the world #1 and a Spaniard on the main court of a major.
Djokovic vs. Ferrero: In one of Wimbledon’s many traditions, the reigning champion opens his title defense on Centre Court at the start of each new tournament. Facing Djokovic on Monday is an opponent whose playing style and personality also reflects the sport’s tradition. A clean, compact ball-striker with an understated air, Ferrero earned the sobriquet of “King Juan Carlos” when he ascended to #1 nearly a decade ago and won Roland Garros. His efficient strokes should adjust smoothly to the grass, as should his crisp footwork. Well into the twilight of his career at 32, Ferrero has won just five matches in 2012 while playing a limited schedule. Yet he reached the quarterfinals at Wimbledon two years ago, and he enters the tournament as one of the highest-ranked men not to claim a seed. Thrilled by the honor that he has earned, Djokovic should feel motivated to display his characteristically impressive tennis on Monday. But he has not played a match on grass this year and typically has weathered some turbulence early in the draw, losing at least one set in the first round at three of his last four Wimbledons. Although Ferrero cannot withstand the brutal physicality of the world #1, he could create an entertaining encounter with a little assistance from a rusty Djokovic.
Gulbis vs. Berdych: Destined to languish forever in the dustbin of tennis history, Gulbis has waited too long to make a breakthrough that once seemed inevitable. A little reminiscent of Kvitova, his game can look virtually impenetrable on the rare moments when he finds it and too large for the court on the much more frequent occasions when he does not. All the same, the pampered prodigy defeated Berdych before on a fast surface at the Memphis indoor tournament two years ago. Sometimes a little shaky in the opening rounds of majors, the Czech has lost three times in the first week since the start of 2010, the season when he finally crossed the line from a somewhat more intimidating version of Gulbis to a genuine contender. That surge culminated with a final at Wimbledon, where Berdych showcased an unexpectedly solid forecourt technique in addition to the familiar baseline blasts. Visibly dismayed by a loss to Del Potro at Roland Garros and surely displeased by a loss to Haas in Halle, he may find his recurrently questioned confidence tested if Gulbis can mount a credible challenge.
Nalbandian vs. Tipsarevic: From a single tournament at Queens Club came arguably the high point and certainly the low point of Nalbandian’s season so far. Rallying from a one-set deficit no fewer than three times, he reached his second final of 2012 at that appetizer to Wimbledon and then won the first set from Cilic there with opportunistic returning. A sudden and heavily—probably overly—criticized burst of temper then cost him a key victory that still lay well within reach. As he arrives at the season’s third major, Nalbandian must overcome the frustration and embarrassment from that disappointing lapse, although the docile British fans likely will not chastise him for it. If he can channel his vintage form, the 2002 Wimbledon runner-up should fancy his chances of upsetting the eighth seed, whom he defeated at Indian Wells this spring. Tipsarevic avenged that loss immediately afterwards at Miami, however, and his form has grown more consistent as the season has progressed. Also inclined to ride an emotional rollercoaster, he still should approach this match with a clearer mind than Nalbandian.
Martic vs. Lisicki: Defeating Peng, Jankovic, and fellow rising star Mona Barthel over the previous few months, the aspiring Croat enjoyed her first trip to the second week of a major at Roland Garros. Martic defeated world #8 Bartoli and seasoned clay specialist Medina Garrigues there, showcasing an all-court game more polished than her age would suggest. On the other hand, she lost her first match at three of her last four tournaments and showed little interest in preparing for the grass season by playing Bad Gastein on clay in the week of Birmingham. Entering the British tournament on the more relevant surface that week, Lisicki nevertheless arrives at Wimbledon with no more grass victories than her opponent. Since she reached the second week of the Australian Open, last year’s semifinalist at the All England Club has endured a dispiriting sequence of setbacks, including a current five-match losing streak and 12 losses in her last 17 matches. A mixture of injury and inconsistency have forced Lisicki to build her top-20 ranking upon just a handful of strong results, so she cannot afford an early stumble here. Rarely does the combination of pressure, rust, and depleted confidence bode well for a player who leans so heavily on offensive, high-risk tactics, but she will hope that her advantage in experience can carry her past the 21-year-old Croat.
Zvonareva vs. Barthel: Still without a semifinal in 2012 through eight tournaments, the Wimbledon runner-up from two years ago has watched her ranking sag downwards inexorably. Four of Zvonareva’s seven losses this year have come against opponents outside the top 50, all less talented than the latest prodigy to emerge from Germany. Twice extending Azarenka to 5-5 in a final set this year, Barthel delighted her compatriots in Stuttgart by upsetting Ivanovic and Bartoli three months after winning her first title in Hobart. Although one would expect her explosive serve to shine on grass, she lost her first match in Birmingham two weeks after a dismal first-round defeat at Roland Garros. Absent from most of the clay season, Zvonareva has suffered from a shoulder injury and has appeared mentally unfocused even when physically present. Perhaps the intelligent Russian senses herself that her peak and her window of opportunity have passed, whereas Barthel must feel only optimism as she looks forward to a bright future.
Clijsters vs. Jankovic: The clear highlight of the day on the women’s side and probably overall, this clash could end the Belgian’s last appearance at the All England Club before it fully begins. Typical of the Serb is a melodramatic season in which she has lost at least three times after holding match point, and twice after holding three match points. Those indignities preceded arguably her best result of 2012, though, a finals appearance at Birmingham built upon a three-set victory over former Wimbledon semifinalist Zheng. Staying true to her workaholic self, Jankovic then traveled to the Netherlands and lost a day later in her ninth opening-round defeat of the season. A tenth such reverse would seem more likely than not, for Clijsters has won seven of their previous eight meetings in a demonstration of her superiority to a player of an essentially similar skill set and fondness for hamstring-testing “splits.” Since the Belgian launched her second career, though, they have split their two meetings, and four of the last five overall have reached a third set. Limited by remorseless injuries to a sparse schedule in her last WTA season, Clijsters maneuvered to the semifinals in Rosmalen after missing the entire spring. To survive the first round at her final Wimbledon, she will hope to compensate with her mental edge for her opponent’s physical advantage, although little has gone according to script in her farewell to tennis.
Hradecka vs. Kerber: A muscular Czech with a booming serve, Hradecka pounded her way to the semifinals in Madrid at the expense of Kvitova and Stosur, among others. On a similarly fast, low-bouncing surface, her first strikes could pose a parallel challenge for Kerber, a relatively traditional type of lefty. A finalist at Eastbourne, where she squandered five championship points against Paszek, the eighth seed has not excelled at Wimbledon before but ended an equally arid spell at Roland Garros with a quarterfinal last month. Leading the WTA in matches won this season, Kerber has maintained a consistency uncommon for such a new arrival at the elite level. Such a wealth of experience will infuse her with the belief that she can solve a variety of opponents and playing styles. Matches can slip away quickly on grass, though, and Hradecka’s first serve can dictate the terms of engagement more than at most other tournaments. Not always using the full extent of her weaponry, Kerber will reap rewards by crafting more aggressive gambits.