Having introduced the clay season with profiles of the leading stories to follow, we repeat the theme with an edition for the grass season. While many of the same characters return, most of their circumstances have changed radically since April.
1) Can Nadal finally win away from clay?
Having collected two titles at Roland Garros and three at clay Masters 1000 tournaments over the last two years, Rafa has not bit into any trophy from a tournament played on green or blue. While this drought comprises a relatively minor concern for someone who already owns a career Golden Slam, his legacy as an all-surface star would strengthen if he could return to his 2009-10 form. Hardly a clay specialist during that stretch, Nadal won each of the three non-clay majors and sparked rumors of eclipsing Federer as the greatest of all time. Now that this conversation has become plausible again, he must capitalize as much as he can on the recent momentum in his rivalry with Djokovic. Twice a champion at Wimbledon, Nadal also relishes the experience of representing Spain at the Olympics, so a magnificent summer could lie ahead.
2) Can Sharapova do what those before her have not?
Whenever a woman wins a major over the last two rounds, she invariably has imploded at the next. None of the five major champions preceding Sharapova reached the quarterfinals of their post-title major, but the world #1’s greater experience at this level suggests a shift in the narrative, as do her two previous Wimbledon finals and three finals over the past four majors. On the other hand, Ivanovic and Li each won 13 matches at the first two majors of season in 2008 and 2011, only to virtually vanish for the rest of the year. Having become the fourth woman in seven years to finish runner-up in Melbourne and champion in Paris, Sharapova hopes to follow the example of Henin in 2006, when the Belgian reached the final at every major. The looming presence of the Olympics complicates circumstances, and the newest member of the career Grand Slam club will need time to settle her emotions. But she has become the most consistent player in the WTA this year, and she long has loved Wimbledon. Regardless of how she performs there, expect an especially steely effort with the gold medal at stake.
3) How soon can Djokovic regroup?
Falling just short in his towering quest, he ended the defining narrative of 2012 so far with a deflating double fault. His first loss at a major when holding the top ranking, that disappointment might plunge lesser competitors into a deep depression, but the Serb has shown himself forged of finer steel since the start of last year, most notably in his twin-epic ordeal at the Australian Open. In 2011, Djokovic watched his perfect season wither under Federer’s barrage on the same court, only to smother Nadal en route to his first Wimbledon crown. As with Sharapova, however, his focus on the Olympics in this particular year blurs his otherwise formidable prospects at the All England Club. Having revolutionized his career by playing under his nation’s flag in 2010, Djokovic has made no secret of his priorities in 2012.
4) Can Serena adjust to a new reality?
From the four majors since her heroic comeback, a few painful truths regarding her future have become apparent. No longer can Serena rely on her aura to power her through seven rounds at majors, even against opponents several leagues below hers, and especially when she lacks her best fitness (see Makarova, Melbourne). No longer can she rely upon opponents to fold just before the finish line or on her fabled capacity to mount last-minute comebacks (see Stosur, US Open and Bartoli, Wimbledon). And no longer is she impervious to nerves or the inexplicable collapse that chronically afflicts virtually every women’s contender of the era in early rounds at majors (see Razzano, Roland Garros). In an era when women’s tennis has become significantly deeper and more dangerous than a few years ago, when she won virtually at will, Serena must adjust likewise or bid farewell to her hopes of claiming a 14th major. She must focus more consistently, play more intelligently, and commit herself more rigorously, and take far less for granted. If she brings merely a fraction of the determination that she showed in returning from injury in 2011, Serena can do all of those things. But will she? This grass season will tell us.
5) How will Azarenka respond to losing the top spot?
As much as many loathed her shrieks, her attitude, her generic game, or her persecution of their favorites, Azarenka acquitted herself as well as anyone could have expected in her first tenure at the top. Suffering her first truly bad loss of the season at Roland Garros, and looking tenuous even before then there, she now must fight to regain the #1 ranking. Often at her best when something motivates her or stirs her anger, Vika should rise to the challenge of asserting herself again with her customary ferocity. Whether she can return there sooner rather than later may depend on whether she can bolster her serve, eminently attackable and savagely attacked in key losses to rivals Sharapova and Serena this spring. Although she reached the semifinals at Wimbledon last year, Azarenka will struggle to overcome the shortcomings of that stroke on a surface that rewards first strikes.
6) How far has Federer fallen behind the top two?
When he won three out of majors between Roland Garros 2009 and the Australian Open 2010, losing a five-set final at the fourth, Federer looked as though he might extend his golden age forever. Since making Murray weep in Melbourne, however, he has appeared in just one of nine major finals. This arid spell began as a bump, deepened into a drought, and now suggests a terminal decline. Since the start of 2010, Federer has earned just one total victory over the top two men at majors. In semifinal losses to them at the two majors of 2012, he recurrently threatened to seize control of a set or the match but rarely did. Suspicion thus mounts that Federer cannot defeat them consecutively to win a major. At Wimbledon, where he has won more titles than at any other major but has lost consecutive quarterfinals, he could regain #1 with a seventh championship and some help from colleagues outside the top four. But his exile from the second Sunday illustrates how much the ATP has become a two-man show.
7) How far will Kvitova go in her title defense?
In one of the season’s greater surprises, the reigning Wimbledon champion still searches for her first final. On the bright side, two of Kvitova’s four semifinals have come at the two majors so far, ending with losses to Sharapova. As she humorously observed in Paris, she needs to avoid the woman whom she defeated in last year’s Wimbledon final, rather than vice versa. On the less encouraging side, both of those semifinal appearances featured three-setters against foes like Shvedova and Suarez Navarro. Kvitova has not defeated a top-10 opponent or anyone more significant than Ivanovic all season. Recalling Li’s challenge at Roland Garros, she now must protect nearly 30% of her total points. As marquee events come fast and furious this summer, Kvitova will hope to mature quickly in the furnace of pressure before it scorches her. Different situations in 2012 have suggested different answers to the question of her mental resilience. No matter what happens, though, the experience will represent an important step forward in her long-term evolution as a champion.
8) Can Tsonga build on his effort in Paris? What about Del Potro?
Interpretations and lessons drawn from the flamboyant Frenchman’s Paris fortnight varied strikingly. To some, including us, his five-set battle and near-victory over the world #1 created a foundation of competitive belief upon which he could build a successful summer, aided by surfaces more suited to his style. To others, that dramatic quarterfinal confirmed his inferiority to the elite by revealing his inability to strike the decisive blow when victory beckoned. Stunning Federer on the grass last year, Tsonga also won Queens Club and used this season to catapult him towards a magnificent second half. The 2011 semifinalist can do so again, as long as he separates the good from the bad in his reflections on Paris. Although Del Potro’s game doesn’t fit the grass well, he also needs to decide whether the positives or the negatives matter more from a loss to a top-three contender. If both men channel confidence rather than fatalism from those results, something unexpected finally might happen in a major men’s draw.
9) Can any grass specialists leave a mark?
A less familiar phenomenon than clay specialists are snakes in the grass, for the standard hard-court contenders generally translate their games effectively to this surface, and the grass season’s brevity deters players from organizing their games around it specifically. As former quarterfinalist Karlovic dwindles in consistency, Isner has become the leading tower of power in the Ivanisevic model of dark horses. More impressive than the American lately, Milos Raonic leads the ATP in aces (Isner ranks a close second) and possesses the skills at net that could make him a Wimbledon champion eventually. Fewer women fit this label, and most familiar names have fared as well on grass as on more standard surfaces. But Tsvetana Pironkova deserves notice as a 2010 semifinalist and 2011 quarterfinalist who twice defeated Venus here and becomes a different player on the lawns of the All England Club.
10) What will the Olympics add and subtract?
In most years, the grass season hardly feels like a season at all. Beyond Wimbledon, no meaningful tournament selects the surface most deeply rooted in tradition. In 2012, the addition of the Olympics as a second prestigious grass event will make the season seem less like a fleeting moment en route to the North American hard courts. At the same time, the creation of a “Wimbledon II” may deplete the distinctive aura of the original and degrade the quality of play as contenders aim to set priorities and conserve the energy. International audiences also may find a return to Centre Court three weeks after the Wimbledon final a jarring sight. Each event thus benefits from the other, and each potentially could undermine the other.