All eyes on Federer

Everything is in place for another edition of everybody’s favourite tournament, The Championships. Just don’t expect a reprise of last year’s final. That would be asking too much, writes Kunal Diwan.

Roger Federer must be licking his chops. A week before the most charming annual show in tennis is scheduled to begin, the sinister diagnosis of ‘inflammatory tendonitis’ has crept its way into the copies of most tennis journalists posing as clairvoyants.

Experiencing downtime with knee trouble attributed to his high-impact, chase-down-everything game, Rafael Nadal — that lubricated tennis machine of the perpetual motion variety (or so we thought) — has finally run out of juice.

As a result, the All England Club may throw open its doors this season without the defending champion in residence.

“I have been playing with pain in my knees for some months now, and I simply can’t go on like this,” Nadal was reported as saying in The Times. “I won’t play unless I am 100 per cent fit.”

Now picture this: No Nadal for Roger Federer’s first shot at a record-breaking 15th Grand Slam. And we all know what deeds the Majorcan’s absence can spur the Swiss to, especially now that the deficiency of The Elusive French has been remedied.

“The monkey is off Roger’s back and he’ll play, not with abandon, but with excitement, enjoyment and freedom,” the great Rod Laver prophesied in The Telegraph.

Only a handful of players have considered the Centre Court to be their rightful domain: Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe, Boris Becker, Pete Sampras and, of course, Federer are figures whose identity and persona have been constructed on the manicured foliage of SW-19.

But last year, something incredible happened, confirming everybody’s worst fears. An armour-plated Spanish scull scuppered Federer’s ship in dying London light in a storied encounter — ending the latter’s 65-match winning cruise on grass with a near-five-hour slaying of the old guard.

Federer fell when that vital last step would have taken him past Borg’s five consecutive Wimbledon wins, and by taking out the lion in its own den, Nadal completed his hypnotic mastery over the teary-eyed Swiss. In the assumed non-appearance of his most enduring enemy across the net, there are many who expect a record-breaking romp for Federer this year. Andy Murray enters Wimbledon as the first British winner at Queen’s since Bunny Austin in 1938. That Austin made the All-England final the same year presages well for Murray who has indicated aggression from the back court with pin-point forehands and is riding on the confidence of four titles this year.

A dedicated legion of supporters on Mount Murray may assist the Scotsman to go one better on his 2008 quarterfinal appearance, but any possibility of a home-grown champion in the centenary year of Fred Perry’s birth appears remote.

A surly second round victim last year, Novak Djokovic’s claim to grasscourt fame was his loss to Nadal in the Queen’s final in 2008. The Serbian, who was pounded out of contention in two Masters finals (Monte Carlo and Miami) by Nadal earlier in the year, saves his best for the majors, making him a shoo-in for the second week of The Championships despite his unease at the net.

Marat Safin and Andy Roddick, tamed by advancing years and marital bliss respectively, are going through their concluding motions, hopeful of that one moment of past brilliance sneaking through years of accumulated false starts. Both serve big and pose a genuine threat on grass, though the American has been found wanting in shoring up his all-round game to match the devastating efficiency of his service.

Discounting a host of prospective gate-crashers — the vastly-improved Juan Martin del Potro, Gilles Simon and Fernando Verdasco — little appears to stand between Federer and his sixth Wimbledon crown. But looking ahead has its own pitfalls, and those who count on the currents to chart a course for the future are those most susceptible to be caught in a rebellious undertow. Like the incomparable Laver cautioned: “Federer will be Wimbledon champion again next month UNLESS someone catches fire like Robin Soderling did against Nadal.”

Speaking of fire, sparks are expected to fly in the combustible women’s draw. Pretty young things in prettier dresses are known to generate flash-point temperatures (think Simona Halep), but their primary agenda, aside from revving things up with a combination of danglers and drop-volleys, would be to end the Williams sisters’ hegemony at Wimbledon.

Defending champion Venus Williams will have her second pop at a hat-trick of titles (after sister Serena spoiled her party in 2002), even as her sibling appears to be her closest rival on grass. The two have won seven Wimbledon singles crowns between them and only once in this millennium (2006) has a Williams not figured in the women’s final.

The Racquet Rapunzels of Eastern Europe will be led by Russia’s Dinara Safina, who would look to legitimise her number one ranking with a first major title after three losses in the finals, the latest of which was a 6-4, 6-2 drubbing at the hands of Svetlana Kuznetsova in the French Open.

World number five Kuznetsova would ideally want to add an All-England crown to the French and U.S. Open she already possesses. Serbian Jelena Jankovic is after the same thing as Safina: a first major that would vindicate her former number one player status.

Jankovic’s compatriot Ana Ivanovic and the of late, off-colour Maria Sharapova could cause a ripple or two. Sharapova, of course, won her first Slam at Wimbledon as a 17-year-old in 2004 but an indifferent 2009 after a long hiatus from the game has dipped her zeal on court.

So much, then, to look forward to this year, but for every point of positivity there is a balancing act of negation. While the new retractable roof on Centre Court promises an end to exasperating rain delays, no breaks for inclement weather also extinguish the secret hope of hearing Sir Cliff burst into “Evergreen Tree” in the stands. Seeds will breathe easy as another debatably fond relic of The Championships, the ‘Graveyard of the Champions — Court No 2’, has been dealt a death blow with the arrival of a new, sunken court with more seating.

Then there is the grassy ‘Mount Murray’, in existence through progressive rechristening via ‘Henman Hill’ and ‘Rusdeski Ridge’, to bolster British ambition. Fans should cheer up too as the daily ground capacity has been extended by 3,500, allowing more star-struck backpackers to loll about the lawns.

Everything is in place for another edition of everybody’s favourite tournament. Just don’t expect a reprise of last year’s final. That would be asking too much.