After the practically biennial disappointment of a 99% perspiration 1% inspiration England knockout-stage exit, at least Wimbledon has swooped in, all regal with its white polo shirts, strawberries and cream, Arabellas and Quentins and Murray-mania, to try and lift the nation’s spirits (and prevent, god forbid, two days without major sports on tv). And with three of world’s greatest players at the top of their game, and a hungry chasing pack not too far behind, this year looks possibly greater than ever. Here’s a look at the major runners and riders in the men’s draw.
Novak Djokovic – 7/4
‘Nole’ has really come to prominence in the past year and half, starting with his amazing 43-match winning streak which began with his native Serbia’s Davis Cup Finals win in December 2010, encompassed his 2011 Australian Open win, and continued right up to Federer’s spectacular semi-final victory over him in that year’s French. A principal difference is the psychological strength he has gained. He was by no means ever a shrinking violet, but had developed a bit of reputation for not quite having the requisite minerals to win that huge break point against the Federers and Nadals of the world, and had been criticised by some for – admittedly probably sensible – decisions to retire in big games with only minor injuries. But since, he has basically become the iron man of tennis, as evidenced particularly in this year’s Australian Open. Just two days after his incredible 5-hour, 5-set Australian Open semi against Murray – in which, according to many (including yours truly), the Scot played the game of his life and still lost – Djokovic beat Nadal in a game in which both were playing superhuman tennis well into the sixth hour of the longest match ever in the Aussie Open (also the longest final in Open-era history). It would be a brave man who bets against him this time.
Rafael Nadal – 2/1
Fresh from clinching his 7th slam on the clay of Roland Garros – an imperious record, at just 26, to match Sampras’ infamous Wimbledon record – Nadal will be looking to avenge damaging defeats to Djokovic in this year’s Aussie Open and last year’s Wimbledon, in what is fast replacing his and Federer’s to become a classic tennis rivalry (and allegedly one with a little edge to it in the dressing room). Due to a combination of a more attacking game and slightly slower Wimbledon grass (some say, on a hot day, there is very little difference in the way Roland Garros and Wimbledon’s surfaces play now), Nadal has well and truly shaken off the tag of ‘just another Spaniard who can’t play on grass’, having won two of the last four Wimbledon titles. Remarkably, given the pounding his body takes due to his ultra-physical game, he still seems in peak condition. So, when coupled with his indomitable mentality, it’s safe to say that, though Djokovic is slight favourite, Rafa won’t go down without a massive fight.
Roger Federer – 7/2
In this humble viewer’s opinion the greatest player to have played the game, Roger Federer will be looking to match Sampras’ record of the most Wimbledon titles (7) this summer. With the out-of-this-world tennis being played by Djokovic and Nadal, the dream is fading a little, having not won a grand slam since 2010’s Australian Open. He is, though, still in good physical shape – his graceful, effortless movement and smooth hitting, in contrast to big-stomping Nadal and stretch-armstrong Djokovic, have evidently not taken a great deal of physical toll. And he is still capable of rolling back the years, as he did in last year’s four-set victory against Djokovic in the French semi final. However, he has lost the aura of invincibility of being able to regularly do this three times in five days. Expect a few of these great performances, perhaps against Almagro (12) and Berdych (6), but a four-set semi-final exit to Djokovic.
Andy Murray 13/2
Andy Murray’s career to date has, unfortunately for fans such as myself, seemed comparable to the travails of a teenage lad gallantly attempting to lose his v-plates. He puts in all the groundwork and does most of the right things to get second and third base much of the time – but, in his quest to go the distance, is hampered a little bit by lack of reserve but mostly by unfortunate circumstance, typically that of slightly more attractive kids with a cooler cars swooping in to steal the prize that seemed rightfully his. (In grand slams in the past one-and-a-half seasons, he has been in one final, four semis and a quarter-final.) To this end, he recruited former world no. 1 Ivan Lendl as his coach just before this year’s Aussie Open, who has worked on making Murray more attacking, ruthless and as superhumanly fit as Djokovic and Nadal. The early signs from performances and the camp are that it is working. He has added to his typical counter-punching game by significantly improving his ability to hit lines and attack the net. And though he has only reached a semi and a quarter this year, he was only prevented from going further in Melbourne by an imperious Djokovic performance and the French never was his best surface, let alone with a (supposed) injury like this year. That said, whenever Murray ups his game, Nadal, Djokovic and, formerly at least, Federer always seem to up their game to even more extraordinary levels. So, alas, it will probably be another debilitating, if tight, defeat to Nadal in the semis.