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Wimbledon Gentlemen’s Preview: Can Djokovic Rebound from Heartbreak in Paris?

In theory, Wimbledon should be the Grand Slam for upsets. The faster surface makes the serve more potent and creates quick points, which means underdogs don’t need as many high quality shots to win a point and shorter matches equals less time over which they have to play at their peak level. And yet, the Big Four between them have hoarded the last 12 titles and 16 of the last 18 finalist spots.

Their dominance isn’t what it was (and perhaps it was never really a Big Four, but more of a Federer/Nadal era followed by a Nadal/Djokovic era), yet no end is in sight. The generation following the Rafa Nadal/Novak Djokovic/Andy Murray cluster has severely underwhelmed, and the next, next generation isn’t quite finished cooking in the oven.

That presents us another Grand Slam with a lot of historical stakes. Roger Federer is going for his eighth Wimbledon title, something no one in the history of the sport has achieved. Djokovic’s third in London would lock up 2015 as his second best season (after 2011) and solidify his year as one of the most dominant ever.

Nadal winning would serve as yet another comeback in a career full of them, and make him the first player ever with three Slams on each surface (only he and Mats Wilander even have two). Finally, a second championship for Murray puts his career in a different context, considering plenty of good-but-not-all-time-great players have two Slams, and at 28, he needs to take advantage of his best event.

TENNIS: JUL 02 Wimbledon

The Draw

— Djokovic’s path to the title looked like a breeze when Murray and Nadal both landed in Federer’s half, but then he landed an absolute nightmare in round one. He drew Philipp Kohlschreiber, who is ranked No. 33, just one spot shy of being seeded, so he’s essentially a third-round quality opponent, at minimum. Though Kohlschreiber is a career underachiever, having never made a semifinal at a significant tournament, his lone major quarterfinal did come at Wimbledon in 2012, and he had the match on his racket against Federer in Halle a couple weeks ago, a match he predictably went on to lose.

— The world No. 1’s draw doesn’t get significantly easier either. In the second round, he could face Lleyton Hewitt. The 2002 champion poses no threat to Djokovic, but the fanfare around his final Wimbledon could mean a more emotional match than usual. From there, potential opponents include resurgent Aussie Bernard Tomic, a tricky opponent who thrives on grass, and then big serving Queen’s finalist Kevin Anderson before Marin Cilic or Kei Nishikori in the quarters.

— The quarter belonging to French Open champ Stan Wawrinka is the most wide open and arguably the most interesting. In what was a quarterfinal match last year, ace machines Milos Raonic and Nick Kyrgios could meet in the third round. Lurking in Raonic’s section is fellow 2014 semifinalist Grigor Dimitrov, in what might represent his best chance to salvage a miserable 2015 campaign.

— Andy Murray’s draw poses little danger to him as he seeks his first Grand Slam since winning Wimbledon two years ago. He has made seven straight Wimbledon quarterfinals and has made the quarters in every Slam he’s played since 2011. The biggest early challenger for him is Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, but an ab injury and a first round match against Gilles Muller means the Frenchman is unlikely to meet Murray in the fourth round. Veterans Andreas Seppi and Ivo Karlovic enjoyed strong grass seasons, though they aren’t capable of testing Murray.

— Someone who is capable of knocking him out is Nadal, the two-time champion. Though he hasn’t been his normal self in 2015, his path is far smoother than last year’s rough draw, which culminated in a loss to an on-fire Kyrgios. Nadal may face competent grass players early, especially Viktor Troicki, the man he defeated to win the title in Stuttgart, and if he can get past them, none of his possible fourth round opponents (David Ferrer withdrew today, though he might not have gone far anyway) should trouble him.

— Seven-time champion Federer resides in the final quarter. Power players Feliciano Lopez, Jack Sock, Sam Querrey and Sam Groth headline his early opposition, and while they look frisky on paper, Federer always finds a way to tame one-dimensional sluggers, particularly on grass. The only player with a feasible chance to knock out Federer is Tomas Berdych. On one hand, the 2010 Wimbledon finalist ousted Fed that year. On the other, Federer has regained control of what was once a decent rivalry, taking Berdych to the woodshed twice in the last few months.

TENNIS: JUL 06 Wimbledon - Men's Final

The Contenders

1. Novak Djokovic

Despite the rough terrain, it would be a shock if Djokovic didn’t manage his way through the draw and into the final. From there, all bets are off, as the Roland Garros final showed Djokovic’s shakiness in Grand Slam finals hasn’t gone away. Think of his status as the favorite like when Las Vegas sets an Eastern Conference team as the NBA title favorite rather than a squad from the West: their odds are the best only because they’re more likely to reach the end, not because they’re a lock in the final itself.

2. Andy Murray

Murray’s form in 2015 hasn’t shown itself in titles because of Djokovic’s dominance, but the Serb is the only player Murray has lost to since March. If he meets Nadal, Murray will be the popular pick despite an 0-3 Wimbledon record (2008, 2010, 2011) against the King of Clay. Finally getting a win there over Nadal could propel him all the way to the title.

3. Roger Federer

As mentioned, Federer has a favorable path in the first week, but his form is critical to keep an eye on. When he stumbles early, that often portends bad things for his chances at winning. Having to beat either Nadal or Murray, then Djokovic is probably asking too much of the 33-year-old. If he gets a bit of help from the field though, he’ll be ready to take advantage, especially with the British crowd in full force behind him.

4. Rafael Nadal

Merely the No. 10 seed, Nadal is years removed from making the final in five consecutive appearances. The longer the tournament goes, the more the grass gets chewed up, which favors Nadal, except his bad knees have prevented him from making the rapid adjustment to grass right after winning the French Open, not to mention Kyrgios would have beaten just about anybody the way he played in their match last year. Due to his early exit departure in Paris and the extra week before Wimbledon this year, he’s never had this much time to fully prepare. His coach/uncle Toni Nadal recently said his nephew comes to London pain-free in his knees for the first time in years.

5. The field

Grass isn’t his surface, yet Wawrinka was playing well against Federer last year until he couldn’t sustain it due to illness. Cilic, John Isner and Karlovic are always interesting names but as much as their serves are aided by the grass, they’re also hurt by the low bounce of the ball that becomes hard to deal with because of how tall they are. Like always, Berdych will have a chance to make his mark. Like always, he’ll end up disappointing. Nishikori comes in dealing with another injury, having retired in his Halle semifinal versus Seppi. It shouldn’t affect the tournament much, as he was unlikely to be a true contender anyway.

Predictions

Round of 16: Djokovic over Anderson, Cilic over Nishikori, Wawrinka over Goffin, Raonic over Gasquet, Nadal over Pospisil, Murray over Muller, Berdych over Simon, Federer over Lopez

Quarterfinals: Djokovic over Cilic, Wawrinka over Raonic, Murray over Nadal, Federer over Berdych

Semifinals: Djokovic over Wawrinka, Murray over Federer

Championship Murray over Djokovic, Whoever emerges from the Murray/Nadal quarter wins the tournament

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