After each of the last three Wimbledons, a shift at the top has reshaped the men’s Tour.  In 2009, Federer’s record-breaking 15th major title edged him past the absent Nadal.  In 2010, Nadal regained his ascendancy by winning here for the second time after Federer fell in the quarterfinals.  In 2011, Djokovic surged to #1 for the first time by winning his second major of the season and the first of his career away from Melbourne.  Although the Serb still holds a substantial lead, any of these three could finish the fortnight as the men’s top-ranked player.  We look at each of their draws and at the section occupied by the perennial crusher of British dreams.

First quarter:  Striding onto the immaculate lawns of Centre Court as the defending champion, Djokovic must accomplish a similar reversal to what he achieved in 2011, when he erased the deflating memories of Paris with a Wimbledon title.  Never sustaining his best tennis for long at Roland Garros, he benefited from a comfortable early draw and may again here.  Although fellow #1 Ferrero poses a pleasantly intriguing test in his opener, the veteran probably lacks the serve and stamina  necessary to overcome Djokovic in a best-of-five format.  As Federer and Murray have learned, the Serb’s potential second-round opponent Ryan Harrison never lacks for belief against the leading contenders.  Harrison extended Ferrer to five sets here last year, but he bowed meekly to Djokovic in their only previous meeting.  Outside the Spanish veteran and the American prodigy, the defending champion eyes a thoroughly unremarkable group of pre-quarterfinal foes, at least on this surface.  Shining at Miami and on clay this season, Monaco probably cannot translate those skills to grass, where grinding reaps few rewards. 

More tested than Djokovic, then, is the top-eight seed on the other side of the quarter, who faces the perennially dangerous Gulbis in the first round.  Always susceptible to early exits at majors, Berdych cannot afford to languish after disappointing results at Roland Garros and Halle, although his loss to Haas at the latter event looked more justifiable when the German eventually won the title.  If the Czech survives the first week, he should find ample motivation on the second Monday should he meet Almagro for the fourth time this year.  Trading verbal volleys during and after their clash in the same round at Melbourne, this pair of competitors have developed an enmity that fills their matches with an intensity unexpected for such a minor rivalry.  Before Almagro reaches that stage, though, he might need to navigate past Gasquet, toppled by a qualifier in his opener as the Eastbourne top seed but a semifinalist at Wimbledon five years ago.  The winner of that battle of backhands should prove no match for Berdych’s superior serve or fiercer forehand.  And then an intriguing rematch of the 2010 semifinal would loom, in which the Czech throttled the Serb a round after dismissing Federer.  Still his only victory in their rivalry, that match featured a much less confident version of Djokovic than he will confront this time.  Nevertheless, the world #1 seems surprisingly uninspired by the prospect of defending this title, so an opportunistic Berdych could spring an ambush.

Semifinalist:  Berdych

Second quarter:  Handed the most difficult draw of the top three at Roland Garros, Federer now enjoys the smoothest draw of the top three at Wimbledon.  None of his rivals would find the prospect of Tipsarevic in the quarterfinals intimidating, nor would they flinch at the thought of Verdasco on grass.  But Federer faltered at unexpected moments in the previous major, dropping sets to Nicolas Mahut and David Goffin, while a benign draw at Wimbledon two years ago nearly resulted in a first-round upset by Alejandro Falla, no observer’s definition of a snake in the grass.  One of the Swiss star’s personal nemeses may await in the fourth round, where a resurgent Simon hopes to build upon his surprisingly sturdy clay campaign.  At his most effective on hard courts, the Frenchman has defeated Federer twice and dragged him through five nerve-jangling sets when they met at the Australian Open last year.  Less likely to cause the six-time Wimbledon champion concern is his third-round opponent, Benneteau, despite this other Frenchman’s victory over him at the Paris Indoors.  In a third-round meeting with Verdasco, meanwhile, Simon must stay positive and steady to weather a more powerful opponent’s spurts and lulls.  With three qualifiers and two wildcards in this section, the first week should feature either some routs or some stunning upsets.

Although he has impressed sporadically at significant tournaments this year, like Miami and Madrid, Tipsarevic in general has not recorded the consistent results expected of a top-eight seed.  The second-ranked Serb did defeat Roddick four years ago here, when the American ranked among the leading title contenders, but he has won only one match at the All England Club in his last three appearances.  With former finalist Nalbandian destined to meet him in his opener, that trend could continue unless the Argentine’s embarrassing explosion of temper at Queens Club leaves him emotionally muted.  Not as faded as Nalbandian but still well past his prime, Youzhny once won two sets from Nadal at Wimbledon and owns the capable forecourt game that can flourish on grass.  Perhaps the most notable early matches in this section, though, feature the top half’s tallest player.  By a curious quirk of fate, Isner could encounter the man who will accompany him into Wimbledon history in the second round.  Immediately after Mahut lurks the man who defeated him in a Rome thriller this spring, who won two sets from Djokovic at Roland Garros, and who just reached the Eastbourne final.  Of Isner, Seppi, Tipsarevic, and others in this diverse group,  none has conquered Federer at a significant tournament for a long time.

Semifinalist:  Federer

Third quarter:  Just as at Roland Garros, Murray finds himself paired with Ferrer  in a quarter more open than the others.  By a fortunate (or unfortunate) coincidence, the greatest snake in the grass also landed in this area a week to the day after he took Federer to a third-set tiebreak for their second straight meeting.  Winning the first but losing the next two from the Swiss in their three 2012 encounters, Raonic will feel more confident about his prospects against the Scot, whom he recently overcame in Barcelona.  On the other hand, Murray has specialized in defusing power on fast surfaces with his crisp returns, while the British crowd should raise his spirits as he struggles with a back injury.  In the second round, a possible collision with former Wimbledon quarterfinalist Karlovic would provide the home hope with useful practice for blunting Raonic’s towering serves—and perhaps also test his physical condition.  In fact, such players proliferate throughout this section, from Raonic and Karlovic to Kevin Anderson, Sam Querrey, and the Queens Club champion-by-default Marin Cilic.  Nor should one ignore former Wimbledon junior champion Dimitrov, always entertaining to watch despite his erratic results and a stern test for Tsonga at the All England Club a year ago.

When this grass season ends, Roddick likely will look back on his decision to enter Eastbourne as a wildcard with satisfaction.  Finally snapping a two-month drought without a single victory, his title there not only matched him with Federer as the only players to win titles in each of the last 12 years but restored his confidence at an ideal moment.  Also likely to raise his morale is the Wimbledon grass formula that awarded him a seed, and the cozy section of the draw in which he finds himself.  Having defeated Ferrer at last year’s US Open, Roddick should approach this week’s Dutch Open champion armed with the knowledge that he can score the mini-upset.  Del Potro might pose a compelling challenge in the fourth round, for the Argentine has not lost to an opponent outside the top 10 since Sydney in January.  Losing to Hewitt here in the year that he won the US Open, however, he never has reached a quarterfinal at his least prolific major.  Yet Del Potro did ring Nadal’s alarm bells in a very tight four-setter on Centre Court last year.  While this quarter offers narratives murkier than the others, one can predict with authority that it should produce the most unreturnable serves of all.

Semifinalist:  A powerful server beginning with R

Fourth quarter:  Those who felt that Nadal received a Roland Garros draw unworthy of his talents will have relished the sight of the Spaniard’s thorny route at the next major.  Sometimes susceptible to early wobbles at Wimbledon, he has lost sets to players like Haase, Petzschner, and Gulbis in the first week here recently.  Ultimately surviving each of those challenges, however, the two-time champion has reached the final here in each of his last five appearances as he has excelled in adjusting from clay to grass.  Although he fell to Kohlschreiber in a Halle quarterfinal, that first career loss to the German should not strike fear into Rafa’s fan when they contemplate a rematch in the third round.  Only somewhat less serendipitous than the Isner-Mahut encore is the first-round reprise of the Halle semifinal between Kohlschreiber and Haas, who has defeated Tsonga, Berdych, and Federer over the last three months.  Forced to qualify after failing to receive a wildcard from the LTA, meanwhile, Brian Baker could test his revitalized serve and backhand against the stylish serve-volley combinations of Feliciano Lopez.  The highest-ranked player whom Nadal could face before the quarterfinals, this less prominent Spanish lefty has defeated him on grass before but never at a tournament of this magnitude. 

Having spent five sets and parts of two days in Paris hammering away at the sturdy Wawrinka, Tsonga must have grimaced to see the second-ranked Swiss scheduled to meet him in the third round.  Like Djokovic and Tipsarevic, the fifth seed starts the tournament against a veteran of outstanding pedigree in Hewitt, perhaps playing his final Wimbledon.  The Australian wildcard should test Tsonga’s focus, as might Wawrinka and possible fourth-round opponent Tomic.  Among the most compelling first-round matches to watch is the rendezvous that pits the rising Australian star, a quarterfinalist at Wimbledon last year, against David Goffin, the Roland  Garros sensation who reminded some onlookers of Davydenko.  Also a quarterfinalist in 2011, Fish returns to action for the first time since Miami and the heat condition that halted him afterwards.  No longer the highest-ranked American, he will feel less pressure in unleashing a game that adapts effectively to grass.   All of these players from Tsonga to Tomic to Fish, though, have struggled to maintain their focus and intensity throughout matches, which bodes ill for their fortunes against Nadal. 

Semifinalist:  Nadal

Final:  Federer vs. Nadal

Champion and new world #1:  Rafael Nadal