The Bottom Half Blues
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EASTBOURNE, England—In the two weeks since the French Open, I had come to think that there was no clear favorite for this year’s Wimbledon men’s title. I had also come to think that there wouldn’t be a major surprise, either. Each of the Big 4 had a chance, and only the Big 4 had a chance. Rafael Nadal had won at Roland Garros, Andy Murray and Roger Federer had gotten their games together by winning grass-court tune-ups, and Novak Djokovic was still No. 1 in the world and had been a few points, and a stumble into the net, from beating Nadal in Paris.
Now that the draw is out, I still believe all of those things, but, based on their respective roads to the final, the chances of each of the Big 4 winning it all doesn’t look quite as equal. The bracket is bottom heavy, with Nadal, Federer, and Murray in one half, and Djokovic alone in the other. I wasn’t in favor of bumping up Rafa’s seed unilaterally, but this is the consequence of leaving him below David Ferrer, the man he just steamrolled in the French final and is 20-4 against lifetime: Nadal and Federer, who are in the same quarter, may have to beat three members of the Big 4 to win the title, while Djokovic will have to face just one.
All of that is a long way off, of course. Is there anything or anyone that could derail a Big 4 pile-up two weeks from now in London? Let's take a glance ahead.
Djokovic, the 2011 champion here, may be the envy of Rafa and Roger at the moment, but he’s got a tough opener against Florian Mayer. At No. 33, the unorthodox German is the highest-ranked unseeded player in the draw. Tough, however, is a relative term in the era of 32 seeds—Djokovic hasn’t lost a set to Mayer in their three meetings. If anything, that this is considered a difficult first-round match is proof that the Grand Slams should go back to seeding just 16 players.
Djokovic hasn’t lost before the semifinals at a Grand Slam since 2010; can anyone end that streak here? There are two players in his quarter who have beaten him this season: Tommy Haas, whom he would play in the fourth round, and Tomas Berdych, whom he would play in the quarters. Berdych also beat Djokovic here in the 2010 semifinals, but he lost early in Paris and Queen’s in the last month, and he has his own (relatively) difficult opener against Martin Klizan.
First-round matches to watch: Gilles Simon vs. Feliciano Lopez; Bernard Tomic vs. Sam Querrey
Sleeper, who may keep sleeping: Richard Gasquet, a former Wimbledon semifinalist who is having one of his best seasons. He’s scheduled to play Berdych in the fourth round.
David Ferrer Disrespect Watch is on high alert at the moment. Basically, it’s as if the French finalist doesn’t even exist in this draw. Not that the disrespecters are wrong, exactly—he’d be the first to tell you that he shouldn’t be seeded fourth above Rafa, and few would pick him to beat Djokovic if they were to meet in the semis here.
But Ferrer is where he is, and his draw looks smooth through the first three rounds. The other contenders in his quarter have to feel pretty good about their fates as well. At first glance, Juan Martin del Potro, the second-highest seed in this section, and a bronze medalist on grass at the Olympics last year, may be the biggest beneficiary. Though on closer inspection, maybe not: He lost badly to Ferrer in the fourth round round at Wimbledon in 2012.
Young’uns to watch:
—Grigor Dimitrov has a good draw and might play del Potro in the third round.
—Kei Nishikori would get the Argentine in the round of 16.
—Milos Raonic, while he’s been slumping, remains a threat with his serve; he could play Ferrer in the fourth round.
As the No. 5 seed, Rafael Nadal was the wild card in this draw. He was bound to make one of the Top 4 seed’s lives miserable, and that Top 4 seed turned out to be Roger Federer. Rafa and Roger, who have played three finals here, two of them all-time classics, could play their first Grand Slam quarterfinal against each other. On the whole, they could probably do without the novelty...
Nadal starts with Steve Darcis of Belgium; Rafa leads their head to head 1-0. Other players in the vicinity are Igor Andreev, who owns a win over Nadal on clay, of all things, and 25th seed Benoit Paire. Also on this side are John Isner and Stan Wawrinka.
Federer will start against Victor Hanescu; Roger has dropped one set in their five matches. After that he could get Fabio Fognini or Lukas Rosol in the third round, and Radek Stepanek or Jerzy Janowicz in the fourth. The second-highest seed on this side is Nicolas Almagro.
In other words, Rafa and Roger have the toughest quarter, but they’re lead-up to it isn’t that scary on paper. Who’s likely to win if they do play? Federer leads their head to head on grass 2-1, and he would have a distinct advantage if there’s rain and the court is covered. But Nadal has won both of their matches this year easily. If I had to choose—and I do—I'd say Nadal’s confidence from this season in general, and his 6-1, 6-3 win over Federer in Rome specifically, make him a razor-thin favorite as of right now.
First-round matches to watch: Jerzy Janowicz vs. 18-year-old Brit Kyle Edmund; Lleyton Hewitt vs. Stan Wawrinka.
Where does all of that leave Andy Murray? Probably not feeling too bad: For this millisecond, at least, he isn’t the No. 1 topic of conversation at Wimbledon. Murray opens with Benjamin Becker. Muzz won their only meeting, last week at Queen’s, 6-4, 7-6 (3). After that, there’s nothing obviously troubling on the immediate horizon—the second seed in Murray’s half is Janko Tipsarevic.
Still, Murray hasn’t gotten off entirely lightly. His scheduled quarterfinal opponent is Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who gave him all he could handle on grass last year at Wimbledon and this year at Queen’s. If there’s a player outside the Top 4 who can be called a plausible pick to win it all, it’s Jo. Or at least it was before we saw his draw; he could be forced to beat Murray, Nadal/Federer, and Djokovic to hold the trophy. Nothing like winning your first major the hard way. Things don't even start off that smoothly for Tsonga: He opens against the talented David Goffin, and could play Ernests Gulbis in the second round.
Also here: Marin Cilic, 10th seed and Queen’s runner-up. He’s in Tsonga’s half.
New name to enjoy saying, for a day or two: Bastian Knittel, of Germany. He plays Juan Monaco first.
Semifinals: Djokovic d. Ferrer; Nadal d. Murray. Rafa has lost just one set in his three previous matches with Murray at Wimbledon, two of which were semifinals. If Murray plays Federer, I’d make Muzz a slight favorite to win.
Final: Nadal d. Djokovic