Who will be the Wimbledon Don and Donna?

An analysis of the leading contenders and dark horses.

Roger Federer rested through the clay season and is raring to go at his favourite championship, Wimbledon.   -  AP

Someone old and someone young will have their fortnight in the Wimbledon sun. The gentlemen boast a venerable Big Five — as impenetrable as it is formidable. The ladies in waiting should capitalise on a wide-open field —missing superstars Serena Williams (pregnant) and Maria Sharapova (injured) — to produce a first-time champion.

READ: Federer-Djokovic in potential semifinals

Let’s look at the leading contenders and take a sneak peek at the dangerous dark horses and see if you agree with this fearless forecast.

Alexander Zverev: “I can’t think of any reason why Zverev can’t be a great grass-court player,” asserted Mary Carillo, the astute Tennis Channel analyst. Justin Gimelstob, her TC partner, seconded the idea. Rafael Nadal called the 20-year-old German “a future No. 1.” Zverev notched his biggest title at Rome where he upset Novak Djokovic 6-4, 6-3 in the final. The inconsistency of youth showed at the French Open where he suffered a disappointing first-round loss to Fernando Verdasco.

The slender 6’ 6” Zverev has also beaten Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka and reached a career-high No. 10 in May. If Sascha plays as much as possible inside the baseline, attacks the net often to capitalise on his effortlessly powerful serve and aggressive groundstrokes, and doesn’t let inevitable bad stretches deflate him, he can beat anyone. Prediction: Semifinals.

Changing face of SW19

Dominic Thiem: “I don’t prepare Thiem for Club Med,” said coach Gunter Bresnik. “I prepare him for the jungle.” Thiem faced the ultimate jungle animal in ferocious Rafael Nadal in the French Open semifinals. Nadal ate him up 6-3, 6-4, 6-0. No. 8-ranked Thiem, who trains in the Austrian forest by carrying large logs on his shoulder, has plenty of power to thrive on grass. At Roland Garros, he whacked the fastest serve (141 mph) and boasted the fastest forehand (averaging 84 mph).

This talented shot-maker can quickly go from spectacularly brilliant to recklessly erratic. Unless the mild-mannered, 23-year-old Thiem shortens his ultra-long backswings, positions himself closer to the baseline, and plays better percentage tennis, he won’t win Wimbledon this year or any year. Prediction: Quarterfinals.

Andy Murray: Whatever happened to the Sir Andy Murray — he was awarded British knighthood in 2013 — who captured his second Wimbledon title and second Olympic gold medal last year? He’s already suffered nine losses this season, matching his 2016 total, with the latest to 90th-ranked Jordan Thompson at Queen’s, a Wimbledon tune-up event.

“I got to No. 1 in the world at the end of last year and there’s been some times this year where it has been difficult to keep up the motivation and set new goals,” confided Murray, who has only one title and no wins over a top-8 opponent. Murray has also regressed because his passive style allows aggressive players, including serve-volleyers like Mischa Zverev at the Australian Open, to overpower him. Prediction: Round of 16.

Stan Wawrinka: After Wawrinka outlasted No. 1 Andy Murray in the French Open semifinals, John McEnroe rightly said, “We should absolutely call it the Big 5.” In fact, since the start of 2014, only Novak Djokovic has captured more major titles, six, than Wawrinka’s three. But the 32-year-old Swiss has fared poorly at Wimbledon, reaching the quarterfinals only twice in 12 appearances.

Ramesh Krishnan on Wimbledon

So “Stanimal,” the reverential nickname Federer gave the rugged Wawrinka, hired Paul Annacone, who previously coached superstars Pete Sampras and Roger Federer, both seven-time Wimbledon champs. It’s too late for Annacone to make major changes. Stan’s lightweight serve returns and long backswings are ill-suited for grass. Even so, Wawrinka’s brute power makes him dangerous on any surface. Prediction: Quarterfinals.

Rafael Nadal: Rafa captured his two Wimbledon crowns way back in 2008 and 2010. After reaching five Big W finals in five appearances from 2006 to 2011, he hasn’t made the quarterfinals since then. Injuries plus physical and mental exhaustion after winning French titles have been the main reasons. With new coach Carlos Moya, Nadal has regained his awesome forehand, added power and depth to his backhand, and varied his serve smartly to keep returners off balance.

Rafael Nadal has re-calibrated his game and with the surge of confidence in the wake of his record 10th French Open title, will be a real tough competitor.   -  AFP

 

In his first six French Open matches, 84% of his first shots after his serves were forehands, which allowed him to dictate rallies regularly. As former world No. 1 Jim Courier colourfully put it, “When Nadal gets a first-ball forehand against you, you’re in a world of hurt.”

Nadal also leads the ATP Tour in return games won at 38.8%. His net game is equally impressive: against Wawrinka in the FO final, he won 90% of his net approaches (18 of 20). Most important, he’s won eight of his last nine matches against Top 5 players at majors. These gaudy stats, Nadal’s ideal blend of power and patience, and his relentless competitiveness point to great success at Wimbledon. Prediction: Final.

Novak Djokovic: “Can anyone stop Djokovic?” was the common refrain after the splendid Serb won his fourth straight Grand Slam title at the 2016 French Open.

Novak Djokovic seems to have lost focus, but with his skills should at least make the semi-finals.   -  REUTERS

 

With 12 majors and momentum galore, many experts then believed it was only a matter of time before he surpassed Nadal’s 14 and even Federer’s then-record 17. Since that career apex, Djokovic has floundered, aside from gaining the 2016 US Open final.

After Thiem thrashed a dispirited Djoker 7-6, 6-3, 6-0 in the French Open quarters, Tracy Austin, a Tennis Channel analyst, criticised his “shocking capitulation” in the final set. “It was shocking considering Novak usually competes point in and point out. Does Novak need a break now?” Who knows? Maybe not even Djokovic.

At a career crossroads, Djokovic fired his entire longtime team of coaches and trainers in May and asked former champion Andre Agassi, who also experienced deep, character-testing valleys, for guidance during the first week of Roland Garros. Prediction: Semifinals.

Nick Kyrgios: Those observers heartened by 22-year-old Kyrgios’ increasing maturity this year had to be disappointed by his lacklustre second-round loss to Kevin Anderson and subsequent racket-smashing rampage at Roland Garros. More disheartening, though, were his post-match comments. Kyrgios explained that he doesn’t train much on clay in Australia “because it makes my cars dirty.”

Wimbledon and Leander-Mahesh breakthrough

Hip, shoulder, knee, and elbow injuries have also plagued the super-talented, rocket-serving Australian this season. At the Aegon Championships, his woes went from bad to worse when he suffered a nasty fall, reinjuring his sore hip, and forcing him to withdraw against Donald Young.

His mental game is equally problematical. At Indian Wells, Kyrgios confided, “I can play great tennis. And I can do some stupid things. The problem for me is to find the motivation every week.”

Alexander Zverev has loads of talent and on his day can be a pretty tough customer.   -  AFP

 

Three years ago, as a wild card ranked No. 144, Kyrgios overpowered Nadal to reach the quarters in his sensational Wimbledon debut. Don’t expect much from him this year. Prediction: Third Round.

Roger Federer: After Murray and Djokovic dominated 2016 and Wawrinka grabbed the US Open, who could have imagined that 35-year-old Federer and 31-year-old Nadal would reign during the first half of 2017? After all, Federer hadn’t won a major since the 2012 Wimbledon and Nadal not since the 2014 French Open. Giving us immensely enjoyable (and nostalgic) moments, Federer captured the Australian Open, Indian Wells, and Miami, while archrival Nadal racked up his 10th Monte Carlo, 10th Barcelona, 5th Madrid, and record 10th Roland Garros titles.

Refreshed and injury-free after taking off the entire clay-court season, The Mighty Fed, with a career record 86.4 winning percentage on grass, has yet another weapon in his versatile arsenal: an improved backhand that he relishes hitting from inside the baseline. The 18-time major champion quipped that his new goal is 20, but a more immediate goal is to break the current Wimbledon record of seven titles he shares with Pete Sampras. As he demonstrated by easily capturing his ninth Halle title recently, Federer still possesses the sublime athleticism, subtle tactics, and grass-court skills to do it. Prediction: Champion.

Dark Horses: Karen Khachanov, a heavy-hitting, 21-year-old Russian with the playing style of compatriot Marat Safin but without the playboy lifestyle, will break through by toppling a seed or two. Thanasi Kokkinakis, a 21-year-old Australian ranked a lowly No. 698 due to injuries for the past 21 months, stunned No. 6 Milos Raonic at Queen’s and will prove that was no fluke at the Big W. Jiri Vesely, a 6’ 6” lefty from the Czech Republic, who upset Thiem to make the fourth round last year, will ambush a high seed again this year.

The grass-court phenomenon

The Women

Jelena Ostapenko: The 20-year-old Latvian, a 100-1 longshot, shocked everyone, including herself, by winning the French Open. Ostapenko’s tour de force was no fluke, avers 18-time major champion Chris Evert.

Jelena Ostapenko, the surprise French Open champion, is a fighter to the core and this trait should keep her in good stead.   -  AP

 

“I was around watching (Martina) Hingis come up and (Steffi) Graf come up and (Monica)Seles come up, and I just see something special in this young lady, and the fact that she’s so fearless,” said Evert, now an ESPN analyst. “But what I like even more is her hunger, and you can see it on her face. She really wants this badly and is going to go to any length to win. I love that attitude, and it’s the attitude with the power and the short angles — she has a game to back it up. I think she’s very special.”

Grass is her favourite surface, and Wimbledon her favourite tournament. Blasting both winners and errors in profusion is her modus operandi. It will take her far again. Prediction: Final.

Angelique Kerber: The 29-year-old German’s decline has been even more precipitous than Murray’s. Consider this: Last year she dethroned Serena Williams by winning two majors — the Australian and US Opens — and reaching the final at Wimbledon, the Rio Olympics, and the WTA Finals.

Though Kerber is still clinging to the No. 1 ranking, she hasn’t won a title this year. Even more dismaying, the highest-ranked player she’s beaten is No. 25 Carla Suárez Navarro. Her counter-punching style and swift court coverage can only take Kerber so far. Unless this lefty adds power to her serves and groundstrokes, she has little chance to make the second week. Prediction: Round of 16.

Elina Svitolina: Last year Elina Svitolina was the only player to defeat both world No. 1s — Serena Williams at the Rio Olympics and Angelique Kerber at Beijing. This year the 22-year-old Ukrainian entered the French Open with a perfect 5-0 record against top 5 players. The fifth-seeded Svitolina seemed certain to add to that when she led third-seeded Simona Halep 6-3, 5-1. But Halep staved off a match point and Svitolina collapsed and lost 3-6, 7-6, 6-0. Chalk it up to a painful learning experience.

The steadily improving Elina Svitolina has a wonderful game sense.   -  REUTERS

 

The steadily improving Svitolina, who has captured a Tour-leading four titles this season, has plenty of assets. “Her shot selection is excellent,” praised all-time great Martina Navratilova. “She knows when to pull the trigger. She really understands the game. Also, her shots have more power (now). Her biggest improvement is mental. Now she holds it together when things go wrong.” If she is not hampered by a painful heel injury, she’ll have a big Wimbledon. Prediction: Semifinals.

CoCo Vandeweghe: When CoCo gets hot, watch out! The 6’ 1” blonde Californian demolished world No. 1 Angelique Kerber 6-2, 6-3 at the Australian Open where she reached the semis, her best result at a major. Recently Vandeweghe debuted in the top 20 and made a grass-court statement by crushing No. 7 Johanna Konta 6-1, 6-3 at the Birmingham Classic.

She walks and talks with a swagger, and she smashes shots — and rackets occasionally — with a ferocity that reveals her strong, take-it-or-leave-it personality. As she told Tennis magazine, “I get so many comments, good and bad. I’m not going to be everyone’s favourite. I know who I am.”

CoCo Vandeweghe is full of self-belief and aggression.   -  AP

 

That self-confidence, her powerful serve and forehand, and her past success on grass — her only two titles came at the ’s Hertogenbosch tournament — justify the Tennis’ cover story title, “CoCo Vandeweghe: America’s best shot to conquer the All England Club.” Prediction: Semifinals.

Garbiñe Muguruza: “Muguruza is not a problem-solver,” rightly pointed out former world No. 1 Lindsay Davenport. “That’s something she has to learn in matches when things aren’t going well. Great players figure out how to win when they don’t have their A games.” The 23-year-old Spaniard is not a great player yet, though she can occasionally play great tennis. She proved it by reaching the 2015 Wimbledon final and winning the 2016 French Open. Unfortunately, the 6’ power hitter hasn’t captured a title since then.

Slick grass could bring out the best in Muguruza’s game and reverse her slide from a career-high No. 2 to her current No. 14. She’s dedicated, fit, and competitive. If Mugu takes Davenport’s advice and regains her mojo, she’ll start turning her mediocre year around. Prediction: Quarterfinals.

Petra Kvitova: Seldom has a tennis comeback from such a severe and traumatic injury been so swift and successful. When Petra Kvitova was attacked by a knife-wielding intruder in her Prague apartment six months ago, some feared her tennis career was over. Her surgically repaired left hand, she concedes, will never be 100 percent again — she lacks feeling in one finger.

With a wonderful attitude and rigorous training, the 27-year-old power hitter is suddenly playing beautiful tennis again. “I’m always trying to look positive on the things, so everything bad is for something good,” said Kvitova. “So I feel that I maybe love tennis even more than before because I know what it means for me.”

Amazingly, in only her second tournament since returning, two-time Wimbledon champion Kvitova won the Aegon Championships final. Winning a third Big W would be even more amazing, but she’ll have to wait at least until next year for that. Prediction: Quarterfinals.

Johanna Konta: As Andy Murray learned in 2013 when he became the first British man to win Wimbledon since Fred Perry in 1936, the pressure on Konta will be enormous. No British woman has captured her nation’s home tournament and the world’s most prestigious one since Virginia Wade in 1977. For an introspective and intense competitor, much like Murray, this burden of great expectations can prove overwhelming. The 26-year-old late-bloomer has won just one match in five Wimbledon appearances.

Even so, the athletic and quick, 5’ 11” Konta, currently ranked No. 7, should end her Wimbledon woes this fortnight. She won the Sydney title, made the Australian Open quarters, and then captured her biggest title at Miami by defeating No. 3 Simona Halep, No. 11 Venus Williams, and No. 12 Caroline Wozniacki. She recently showed her grass-court prowess by reaching the Nottingham final. Prediction: Quarterfinals.

Karolina Pliskova: Pliskova’s steady progress at Grand Slam events was further confirmed when she reached the French Open semifinals — despite a previous 2-5 record there on clay, her least successful surface. At the 2016 US Open, her breakthrough tournament, she escaped a match point to outlast Venus Williams and then upset Serena Williams for her best career victory to make the final where Kerber defeated her in three close sets. “Pliskova really has great temperament and fighting spirit,” noted Evert. “You don’t know if she’s winning or losing.”

The Wimbledon grass should help Karolina Pliskova’s high-risk, high-reward game.   -  AP

Now ranked a career-high No. 3, the 6’ 1” Czech has a lot to prove on grass, never having advanced past the second round at Wimbledon. Pliskova has more than enough offence to offset her lack of speed and agility. She led the WTA Tour with 530 aces last year and leads with 249 this year. Flat, booming groundstrokes also produce plenty of outright winners and force opponents to err. Grass should help Pliskova’s high-risk, high-reward game. Prediction: Champion.

Dark Horses: Keep an eye on four young players. Seventeen-year-old Czech lefty Marketa Vondrousova has skyrocketed from No. 420 to No. 78 this year. Eighteen-year-old American CiCi Bellis has notched big wins over 2012 Wimbledon runner-up Agnieszka Radwanska, Timea Bacsinszky, and Kiki Bertens. Donna Vekic, a teen standout who burned out, has rebounded at age 21. At the Aegon Open, Vekic upset Shelby Rogers, 2015 French Open finalist Lucie Safarova, and Konta. Finally, the fast-rising Anett Kontaveit started 2017 ranked No. 121 and now ranks No. 36. The 21-year-old Estonian won 's-Hertogenbosch, reached the quarters at Rome where she stunned Kerber, and made the quarters at Stuttgart where she upset Muguruza. As they say in Estonia, Kõik võib juhtuda! (Anything can happen!)