Wimbledon, the weekend before its main-draw competition begins, occupies a world of contradictions.
These contrasting elements aren’t nearly as perplexing as the ones unleashed by Great Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, but the turmoil rippling through the United Kingdom — as both reality and metaphor — serves as the fitting (if unpleasant) backdrop for the latest edition of The Championships, as the locals call the tournament.
Let’s start with a very simple contradiction before Wimbledon lifts the veil on Monday and starts the process of reducing its 128-man field: The Big W is the most prestigious tournament in tennis, and yet the collapse of the British pound has substantially eroded the value of prize money at The All-England Club this summer.
The allure, majesty and history-soaked sweetness of Wimbledon are as enduring as strawberries and cream, but the biggest tournament in tennis will have to rely on that aura to penetrate the public consciousness in the coming fortnight.
That’s just the beginning of “Contradiction Alley” at SW19.
The central contradiction found in the 2016 gentlemen’s singles competition at Wimbledon is that it appears remarkably clear-cut on the surface, but could burst into unpredictability… and a sport-changing breakthrough. This is what we’ll explore here.
Yes, a huge story line — the central one of the Wimbledon men’s tournament — concerns Novak Djokovic’s ability to win a fifth straight major tournament and put himself in position to capture the Grand Slam. It’s true that Djokovic has won the career Grand Slam, and that he’s also won the “Novak Slam” by taking four majors in a row. Yet, the truest, most accurate, and most classical definition of the Grand Slam is the attainment of the four majors in the same calendar year.
A Nole win on July 10 puts him on the doorstep of a special kind of history, one Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal never got to play for. In a larger historical sense, this tournament is all about Djokovic and his quest for an even larger taste of immortality.
Yet, as powerful as the Djokovic story line in fact is, that’s a topic which can be discussed when this tournament ends. The subject concerns the changing of reputations and the enlargement of legacies — it’s the story which transcends the painted white lines and English tennis lawns which will demand our attention the next two weeks.
A preview of this gentlemen’s singles tournament must necessarily focus on who is likely to win — or lose — and why. We’ll be able to write about Djokovic’s place in history at the appropriate time. For now, let’s consider his road to a championship which has enormous consequences for the U.S. Open… and eternity.
The release of the men’s draw on Friday — which gained comparatively little attention in a host nation scrambling to come to terms with Brexit — unleashed yet another contradiction: The smart money leads to one and only one conclusion in terms of a likely men’s final matchup, but if that pairing doesn’t emerge, tennis will gain a story which is either explosive or fresh, very possibly both.
Neutral or casual tennis fans — those who don’t have a rooting favorite among the Big Four, or who don’t follow the sport religiously — probably would have wanted a Novak Djokovic-Roger Federer men’s final more than any other possibility. However, when Federer fell into Djokovic’s half of the draw, that possibility was ruined. This will be seen by many as a flaw in the tournament, but one must consider the other side of the coin: With one of those two players unable to make the final, Wimbledon will witness a different championship match for the first time since 2013.
Who played in that 2013 final? The two men who are huge favorites to stage a reunion this year.
When Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray met three years ago at SW19, Murray won his first Wimbledon and his most recent major title. Ivan Lendl was his coach then, and the Czech-born American citizen has recently returned to guide his Scottish pupil. Djokovic lost yet another major final at a point in time when he had not learned how to conquer championship showdowns with regularity. Boris Becker, who knows a thing or two about winning Wimbledon, guided Nole over that obstacle.
It’s a contradiction in itself that a Nole-Murray final would be fresh within the context of Wimbledon and yet dull within the context of the 2016 tennis season. The two men — born just a week apart — have contested each of the first two major titles this year. Viewed through that lens — and through the prism of their 1-2 positions in the world rankings — their rivalry feels like a heavyweight bout. Yet, the quality of their Australian Open and French Open finals points to a far less compelling reality.
Except for brief flourishes by Murray, Djokovic has established one-way traffic in Melbourne and Paris. The 2013 Wimbledon result marks one of only two times Murray has beaten Nole at a major. He hasn’t done anything since. Murray also beat Djokovic inside Centre Court in the 2012 Olympic singles semifinals, but that period of history feels like 30 years ago, not four.
A grim sense of predictability (except for Serbians) has enfolded Djokovic-Murray matches at the majors. It’s why a men’s final meeting — while spiced by the return of Lendl — would still be dismissed by a lot of fans as yet another coronation for Djokovic.
This is where the draw weaves its way into the story of Wimbledon 2016.
With Federer out of his way (again), Murray has a path to the final which includes only one imposing obstacle: Nick Kyrgios in the fourth round. Kyrgios ushered Rafael Nadal out of the 2014 Wimbledon tournament in the fourth round. On grass, the Australian’s serve could be a headache for Murray. If Muzz can get past that one looming test against , however, no one should stop him en route to the final.
Murray wiped the floor with Stan Wawrinka in the French Open semifinals, and clay is Wawrinka’s best surface. Grass is Wawrinka’s worst — the Swiss has never made the semifinals at Wimbledon, the only major tournament where he hasn’t cracked the final four. Wawrinka will have enough of a test against Juan Martin del Potro in the second round, but getting past Murray in the semis will be a tall order. Murray would be a massive favorite on Friday, June 8.
One could make a very reasonable argument that while Djokovic is the heavy favorite to win the title, Murray has the best chance of making the final.
Djokovic is the best player in men’s tennis by a large margin, but in terms of a path to the final, Nole faces more genuine hurdles than Murray.
Milos Raonic — a 2014 Wimbledon semifinalist whose movement has improved this year — could win a major title if his body can remain intact… but that’s been a problem in 2016. He outplayed Murray in most of an Australian Open semifinal, but an injury suffered in the fourth set scuttled his chances. More nicks and bruises have bothered Raonic, making it hard to think he’ll put everything together at the All-England Club, but if his health cooperates, he’s the biggest title threat outside the Big Four (not Wawrinka).
Raonic, newly consulted by John McEnroe (who is essentially an assistant coach for Wimbledon), could face Djokovic in the quarterfinals. Everyone will — and should — expect Djokovic to win, but much as a man named Richard Krajicek served Pete Sampras out of the 1996 Wimbledon quarterfinals, Raonic has a puncher’s chance of doing the same to Djokovic.
Federer is not yet fit enough — or in sufficient form — to wrest Wimbledon away from Djokovic, but perhaps the Swiss can play his way into form through the first five rounds. Federer on grass is not a piece of cake — not ever. A Raonic-Federer two-step is not an easy-breezy route for Djokovic before the final.
This tournament offers the appearance of a drama-free event. Djokovic and Murray should make their way to the final, just as they did in Australia and France. Federer being removed from Murray’s half of the draw in all three instances created such a pronounced lack of ambiguity. This tournament, on the surface, feels like Dullsville, Great Britain.
Yet, to borrow a certain turn of phrase, “This tournament could be entirely uninteresting… until it isn’t. It could be tedious… until it isn’t.”
If anyone pulls an upset, consider how new the final is likely to be.
If Federer moves to the final, Federer will have “18 and 8” on his mind, trying to win one more major and a record-breaking Open Era total of Wimbledon championships, surpassing Sampras. If Raonic is a finalist, he’ll make a major final for the first time. McEnroe’s coaching stock will rise. The prospect of a Raonic-Murray final would put McEnroe and Lendl in the same Wimbledon coaching box, which would send the London tabloids into a flight of ecstasy.
If Wawrinka or Kyrgios power past Murray and play on July 10, they will appear in their first Wimbledon final. Wawrinka would play for a third leg of the career Grand Slam, giving him a chance to play for the full collection of major trophies at the U.S. Open later this summer. That’s a story with box-office punch. Kyrgios is not a fan favorite, but it remains that if he makes his way to the final, the “next generation” of tennis would produce its first major finalist, creating the idea (if not necessarily the reality) that tennis players outside the Big Four (and Wawrinka) can compete for the biggest prizes in the sport.
This is a story of contradictions, so we’ll close with one more.
Let’s say we get the predictable and obvious Djokovic-Murray final, anyway. The matchup might be familiar to the point of boredom, but the backdrop of Brexit — and a multi-national, continental situation which has implications for Murray’s Scottish identity — would create a one-of-a-kind emotional backdrop to the Wimbledon final. Murray could play a horrible and emotionally distracted match… or he could fly on the wings of eagles and soar, riding a unique brand of adrenaline.
Wimbledon 2016: As far as the men are concerned, a boring tournament could very easily unfold, and yet one glitch in the matrix could unfurl a world of dazzling and riveting possibilities.