Damien Kayat gives us his in-depth preview for the Men's Wimbledon Championships.
2021 ATP Tour
Grand Slam Tennis
Men’s Wimbledon Championships Preview
All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, London, England (Outdoor Grass-courts)
28th June- 11th July
At the risk of sounding far too glib, I feel that the pandemic robbed me of one of my richest pieces of nostalgia last year: Wimbledon. During the 2001 Championships, I was 13 years of age. I remember fanatically imploring Goran Ivanisevic to prove John McEnroe wrong in (which he did).
But it was the 4th round match between Federer and Sampras that had the most significant impact on men’s tennis. In a moment that is now seen as the symbolic passing of the torch, the 19-year-old Swiss star dethroned Wimbledon demigod Pete Sampras in five epic sets.
Now Federer has eclipsed Sampras’ Wimbledon tally of seven Wimbledon Championships. He will be going for an unprecedented 9th All England title this year.
While he wouldn’t admit it in polite conversation, he must be secretly relived that arch-nemesis Rafa Nadal has chosen to skip this year’s proceedings. In fact, the pugnacious Spaniard will not feature at either Wimbledon or the Tokyo Olympics- much to Mats Wilander’s chagrin.
But much of the media attention will surely be fixated on Novak Djokovic. The five-time Wimbledon Champion is aiming to join both Federer and Nadal atop the Grand Slam tree with 20 titles.
More astonishingly, he is gunning for the highly coveted ‘Golden Slam’, which will be a first in the history of men’s tennis. Steffi Graf is the only player in history to win all four Slams in a calendar year along with the Olympic Gold Medal (she won gold at the 1988 Seoul Olympics to complement her Slams).
And most onlookers would agree that he has already surpassed his greatest hurdle: the French. To outplay Rafa in those last three sets sent a message to the entire world. The primary question left is whether his body- at 34- can withstand the onslaught of the upcoming months?
If he were to hypothetically win Wimbledon and Olympic Gold, what will he have left during the North American hardcourt swing? Let’s take a look at my picks to contest this week.
The Icons- Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer
Who could possibly forget the 2019 final between these two legends of the game? Djokovic saved two Championship points to prevail in what would become the longest Championship match in the history of the event.
What are the chances for these two legends this year? Novak Djokovic is the obvious frontrunner. The defending champion has wisely chosen to eschew singles preparation this year. He has instead decided to get his grass-court bearing in doubles competition in Mallorca.
For guys like Djokovic and Nadal, there is little need for surface transition events – it is muscle memory at this point. Furthermore, of the 32 men set to be seeded this year, only Djokovic, Federer, Bautista Agut, Goffin, Dimitrov and Isner have ever progressed as far as the quarterfinals here.
Only Federer and Djokovic have done it more than once. Djokovic is absolutely a worthy favourite this year.
Now what of Federer? It was a ballsy play to pull out of his 4th round match at the French to preserve his body for this event. It means he needs to deliver.
I just have huge doubts about the Swiss maestro this week. His preparations in Halle were hardly ideal as he lost his 2nd round match to Auger-Aliassime. He now boasts a 4-3 win-loss record since returning to the tour.
But past players such as Alex Corretja and Mats Wilander have pointed towards his poor movement and irritable attitude. He will need a resounding first week to get into his rhythm this year. Victory here would rank alongside Tiger’s victory at Augusta in 2019.
And look, that’s not beyond the great man. But I also wonder how much scar tissue he still carries from that 2019 final defeat. Could an early exit make this Federer’s Wimbledon swansong?
The Next Gen (or next when): Stefanos Tsitsipas, Danil Medvedev, Alex Zverev
Dominic Thiem has withdrawn from Wimbledon due to a wrist injury. Not that it would have mattered, the Austrian has inexplicably fallen off a mountain this season.
Stefanos Tsitsipas is now the buzz-name in men’s tennis. Everything about him radiates future Wimbledon champion. He even looks like a physical amalgamation of Bjorn Borg and Roger Federer.
His catlike movement and power off both wings complement his big serve beautifully. I do think he may have benefited from some grass-court preparation this year.
The Greek hasn’t progressed beyond the 4th round here previously and the quick turnaround may prove quite jarring for the 22-year-old. Still, he certainly has the tools to compete this year.
Danil Medvedev hasn’t progressed beyond the 3rd round here before and I wouldn’t suspect much better from him this year (though he is currently through to the Mallorca Open semi-finals).
I’m more inclined to lean towards Alex Zverev as the primary threat to Novak this year. This may appear a slightly controversial selection. Zverev has also never progressed beyond the 4th round here.
But he has reached two grass-court finals before. Moreover, he beat Federer on grass as a teenager. But the thing I admire the most about Zverev is his Grand Slam progression.
In three of his last four Slams he has made it to the quarterfinal stage or better. That includes a loss in last year’s US Open final. His serve has become a dominant weapon over the past two years and could help him dictate matches this year.
The Dark Horses: Matteo Berrettini, Felix Auger-Aliassime and Marin Cilic
I have gone down the route of grass-court specialists this year. 2019 US Open semi-finalist Matteo Berrettini could very well pose the greatest threat to Djokovic this week, despite not possessing a household name as of yet.
His huge serve and massive forehand help him dictate points. He is also not averse to throwing in the serve-and-volley, which is almost sacrilegious in this day and age of baseline butchery.
He also has huge grass-court chops. He won the Stuttgart title in 2019 and is fresh off a Queens victory this year. Berrettini has enjoyed a solid season. He won in Serbia before a brilliant run to the final in Madrid.
He then backed that up with a quarterfinal run in Paris, once again highlighting his Grand Slam pedigree. That victory in Queens just makes him a no-brainer.
Big serving Canadian Felix Auger-Aliassime has looked in tremendous form on grass this year. He lost in the Stuttgart final (for the second time) before a semi-final run in Halle.
He is also a previous semi-finalist at Queens. His run in Halle crucially included a momentous victory over Grass-court icon Roger Federer. He now possesses a career 14-5 win-loss record on grass.
He has flattered to deceive on the Grand Slam stage but now may be primed for a bigger challenge. His new coach Toni Nadal (Rafa’s uncle and former coach) could be the man to help the Canadian unleash his full potential.
Marin Cilic is a real wildcard this week. Currently ranked outside the top 32 in the world, Cilic really represents a nightmare early opponent for anyone this year.
The Croatian has really struggled to regain the consistency that made him such a force in the tennis world over the last decade. But he can always be counted on to perform on this surface. He is fresh off a Stuttgart title and quarterfinal run in Halle.
The 2017 Wimbledon finalist (debilitating blisters, anyone?) has a further three quarterfinal appearances at SW19. Cilic is also a four-time Queens finalist, winning the event as recently as 2018. I think that Cilic is a strong dark-horse contender this year.
Verdict: Can you really look past Novak?
So, it very much looks like Djokovic’s Championship to lose this year. That victory in Paris was one of triumph over adversity. Novak should be able to use that to propel him to victory here.
New York will be the tougher nut to crack- Nadal will be fresh and rearing to go then. Sidenote: here’s to hoping that Andy Murray can put a solid run together this year, even if Murray Mound isn’t heaving due to Covid protocols.
I’ve never been the greatest fan of the surly Scot. But he is certainly one player who could have nicked a further three or four Slams from the ‘Big Three’, had injury not intervened.