Since Marat Safin won the Australian Open in 2005, only one major has yielded to a man other than the current top three. Not since 2004, in fact, has either of the European majors fallen into the hands of someone other than Djokovic, Nadal, and Federer. But the latter two of that group had swept up 14 straight titles at Roland Garros and Wimbledon before Djokovic halted their span of dominance on these lawns last year. Those three men continue to stand head and shoulders above the competition as the Tour moves there in 2012, although our preview of contenders includes three other men who could block their paths.
1. Nadal: Not since before the 2011 Australian Open, where his bid for a Rafa Slam stalled, can Nadal have approached a non-clay major with so much confidence. Although he has not won a tournament away from his favorite surface in nearly two years, the two-time Wimbledon champion has not lost before the final at the All England Club since 2005, shortly after his nineteenth birthday. As the grass slows in the second week, Nadal’s baseline game becomes ever more lethal as his dipping passing shots frustrate the net-rushers who typically excel on grass. His own net game has evolved into an underrated strength over the years, while his wide lefty serve allows him to open the court especially effectively on grass. Having recaptured the momentum for now in his rivalry with Djokovic, Nadal likely would bring a more optimistic attitude to a rematch of last year’s final than he did to the original. Although Roland Garros will remain his most successful major, the unparalleled history associated with Wimbledon elevates the event above others in the eyes of someone who reveres tradition so much. Nevertheless, Rafa has lost three of five finals at Wimbledon, the only tournament where he has a losing record in reaching the championship match four times or more. And massive servers can trouble him on grass, so he will hope to avoid an early rendezvous with the likes of a Raonic or Isner.
2. Djokovic: Arguably his least effective surface, grass succumbed to the Serb’s will a year ago amidst a season so spectacular that it still dwarfs his 2012 feats. But Djokovic has won 13 matches through the first two majors for the first time in his career, and he has won eight consecutive sets from Federer, including six at majors. Less encouraging are his fortunes against Nadal, which began promisingly with the classic Australian Open final before faltering in three straight losses on the red clay, two of which ended in double faults. Typically a testament to nerves, that shaky serving suggested that Djokovic may have lost a little of the confidence that propelled him to dominate that rivalry through the previous twelve months, even as the Spaniard has regained some of his own belief. In the immediate aftermath of his failure to complete the Novak Slam, the world #1 may struggle to find inspiration from lesser sources of motivation until his second main objective of the season arrives at the Olympics. On the other hand, Djokovic rebounded magnificently from an even more disappointing defeat in Paris last year to capture this title, his first at a major away from hard courts. Despite his aura of invincibility, which shielded him more than once at Roland Garros, he will want to start matches more impressively and accumulate greater momentum early in the fortnight. For two sets in their last major final, moreover, Djokovic demonstrated that he still can strike terror into his archrival, no matter the surface or score.
3. Federer: Likely more than a little surprised to lose the Halle final to the 34-year-old Haas, Federer will hope that his Wimbledon campaign ends more auspiciously than it did on the previous occasion when he finished runner-up on German grass. In 2010, when he lost to Hewitt in Halle, the Swiss suffered arguably his worst Wimbledon campaign in over a decade by tottering within a game of defeat against Falla in his opener and succumbing rather meekly to Berdych in a four-set quarterfinal. Meekness characterized Federer’s two semifinal losses to the top two men this year, a contrast with his outstanding season so far at non-majors. Having defeated Djokovic just once at a major since 2009 and Nadal at no major since 2007, he can build little confidence from either of his two main rivalries, both of which have tilted decisively against him. Although he must serve superbly to repeat his 2006-07 triumphs over Nadal here, Federer’s chances look brighter against Djokovic, whom he never has played on grass. The six-time Wimbledon champion possesses a superior serve and clearly superior volleys to the Serb, advantages that shine more on this surface than on any other. As murmurs mount that he may have won his final major, Federer could find no more fitting stage to disprove the doubters than the scene of his greatest accomplishments, from his breakthrough victory over Sampras in 2001 to his twin victories over Nadal to his record-breaking 15th major title in 2009.
4. Tsonga: A semifinalist at Wimbledon last year, the Frenchman mounted an improbable comeback from a two-set deficit to stun Federer in five sets. His explosive serving, preference for short points, and eagerness to charge the net all enhance Tsonga’s prowess on grass, although lapses of focus still can cost him in a best-of-five format. After holding four match points against Djokovic at Roland Garros, he reminded the tennis world that his best tennis can unhinge virtually any opponent—and also that he rarely has finished off a member of the elite. Whether Tsonga views that quarterfinal as an encouraging validation or a deflating setback will shape his fortunes at Wimbledon. Spraining his finger on grass last week, he must feel both relieved to have avoided a more serious injury but also perhaps uneasy about his footing on grass. To unleash his fiery game at its full potential, Tsonga needs total confidence in his physical condition and cannot afford any distractions. Not yet in his career has he curbed his natural insouciance for an entire major. After two victories over Federer last summer, Tsonga surrendered the advantage in that rivalry during the fall, while he has not conquered Nadal at a tournament of consequence since the 2008 Australian Open.
5. Berdych: Toppling Federer and Djokovic consecutively en route to the final here in 2010, the dour Czech has emitted flashes in 2012 of the same brilliance that emerged from his breakthrough season two years ago. His quarterfinal charge in Melbourne culminated with a resolute competitive effort in a four-set loss to Nadal, and his finals appearance in Madrid ended similarly with a tense final set against Federer. All the same, Berdych lost to those two legends on both occasions, sharing some of Tsonga’s inability to deliver the coup de grace against players whom he must recognize as his superiors. Having lost eleven straight meetings to Nadal and seven straight to Djokovic, he will hope to draw neither of them in his quarter. Berdych also suffered a recent setback at Roland Garros, finding no solutions to Del Potro when the Argentine outhit him consistently from the baseline. At a serve-friendly tournament like Wimbledon, he could survive deep into the second week as long as he strikes first serves and confident forehands on the most meaningful points, but he probably needs assistance from the draw to claim his first major title.
6. Murray: Following the initial burst of momentum spurred by his partnership with Ivan Lendl, the world #4 has regressed in general since the Australian Open. Within a set of defeating Djokovic at the season’s first major, Murray has reached the semifinal at just one of six majors and Masters 1000 tournaments this year as injuries and his familiar malaise have overtaken him. The fervent British crowd should assist him in dispelling this natural negativity, as it has in three previous semifinal runs, but the home hope still has not fared any better than his ancestor Henman at Wimbledon. Thwarted twice in semifinals by Nadal, Murray lost to him at that stage in three 2011 majors, so a victory at a 2012 major in their first meeting of the season would require a sturdier mind than he has shown lately. A natural counterpuncher who uses his fine volleys less than he could, the Scot has forced himself into more aggressive tactics at previous Wimbledons, only to abandon them when adversity first strikes. If he draws Djokovic rather than Nadal in his semifinal, he could build upon a series of tightly contested matches that he has played against the Serb over the last year. Once again, though, all of those matches at majors and Masters 1000 tournaments have arrived at the same conclusion for a player who has stayed essentially the same despite his new coach.
The only man outside the top three who has won a major in the last seven years, Del Potro continues to tantalize fans with his reviving ability to penetrate deep in draws. Conquered by nobody outside the top 10 since Sydney, the 2009 US Open still has not won a completed match against Djokovic, Nadal, or Federer since returning from wrist surgery. His mighty serve intimidated Nadal for much of their four-set meeting at Wimbledon last year, and his heavy groundstrokes baffled Federer for two sets at Rolad Garros last month, but he continues to resemble his anxious pre-2009 self when opportunity knocks for a second breakthrough. Not yet reaching the quarterfinals here, as he has at all three other majors, Del Potro has found grass his least accommodating surface because of its low bounce and emphasis on finishing points at the net, where this firmly rooted baseliner struggles.
Perhaps more likely to mount a serious obstacle to the top three at Wimbledon is one of the ATP’s two leading servers. The ace leader for 2012, Raonic has won sets from Federer in every match that they have played last year but has lost once by a single break and twice in a final-set tiebreak. He has faced neither Federer nor the other two champions at a major, and grass has posed mobility issues for him once the rally begins, as it surely will sometimes when he faces an outstanding returner. Forever famous for the “70-68” epic on Court 17 two years ago, Isner has become the only player outside the top three to defeat two of its members already this year. At the same time, he leads the top 10 in losses to players outside it, illustrating the unpredictability produced by a game that balances a single outstanding shot with several glaring flaws. Just as the similarly uneven Karlovic reached the quarterfinals here before, however, Isner could ambush a figure of note before his serve can carry him no further.