LONDON—Is it possible to have a dominant Big 4, and a void at the top of the game? That’s what it feels like as the men head to Wimbledon this year. Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray, and Roger Federer are seeded No. 1 through No. 4, have collectively won virtually every Grand Slam played over the last decade, and seem to be in at least passable physical condition. But would you put your money on any one of them individually to win the tournament?
Djokovic is coming off a tough defeat in Paris, and has lost his last five Grand Slam finals outside of Melbourne. Nadal hasn’t been past the second round at Wimbledon since 2011. Murray has a new coach and hasn’t reached a final, let alone won a tournament, all season. And Roger Federer is going to be 33 in a little more than a month. In a way, a win by any of them individually would be a surprise.
Here’s a look at the roads that the Big 4 will take to get to that title, and which blades of grass in the draw might trip them up along the way.
Novak Djokovic, finalist here in 2013 and semifinalist in 2012, has been bumped from No. 2 to No. 1 seed by Wimbledon's grass-court formula. Which is nice for him, even though the only practical benefit is that he doesn’t have to look all the way down to the bottom of the draw to see his name.
Djokovic, despite a recurrence of his recent wrist pain, should like what he sees in his draw. He usually does; the 2011 Wimbledon champion has been to the semis or better of every Grand Slam but one since 2010. He starts against Andrey Golubev, and could play his practice partner from yesterday, Radek Stepanek, in the second round. Stepanek beat Andy Murray last week in Queen’s, but hasn’t beaten Djokovic since 2006.
Djokovic’s record is almost as good against the second seed in this quarter, Tomas Berdych; though one of the Czech’s rare wins over him did come in the Wimbledon semis in 2010. But Berdych can’t count on a rematch with Nole quite yet; he might have to play the man who thrashed him in Paris and eliminated him from Wimbledon two years ago, Ernests Gulbis, in the fourth round. Whether Gulbis himself can last that long is another story. The French Open semifinalist and newest member of the Top 10 doesn’t have a history of dealing well with success. That trend has continued this month: Gulbis lost early in Queen’s, and has already gambled away most of his Paris prize money.
Also here: Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. The Frenchman, who could play Djokovic in the round of 16, has had a rough year, but he typically comes to life at Wimbledon.
Coaches Note: If Boris Becker is ever going to be useful to Djokovic, it should be here, at the place he once called "My House."
How will Andy Murray react to playing his first Wimbledon as defending champion? He would likely tell you, “I have no idea. I’ve never done it before.” What we do know is that his record at his home Slam has been consistently excellent, and his draw to the semis is a good one. Murray will open the tournament on Centre Court against David Goffin. The other top seed in his section is Fabio Fognini, never known to be a force on grass. And the second best player in this quarter, David Ferrer, had to fly home this week to a see his doctor about a stomach problem. The Wimbledon seeding process, which moved Murray from No. 5 safely up to No. 3, obviously did its job.
One-hand tied behind their backs: Grigor Dimitrov and Dominic Thiem, single-handed specialists, could meet in the second round. They’re in Ferrer’s half.
First-round match to watch: Dimitrov vs. Ryan Harrison, who qualified. They’ve gone different ways as pros, but both have shown their potential here in the past.
Dangerous for a day: Dustin Brown. The crowd-pleasing German starts against Marcos Baghdatis.
This, you would have to think, is the one Roger Federer has been waiting for. No male player since Ken Rosewall has gone all the way at a Grand Slam after age 32, and Federer has won Wimbledon more than any other event in his career. If not now, when?
Federer’s draw should give him a chance. He’ll start against fellow over-30 Paolo Lorenzi; the second seed in his half is the slumping Jerzy Janowicz; and the second seed in this section is the also-slumping Stan Wawrinka. Federer’s biggest threat could come in the second round from Julien Benneteau, who was two points from beating him here in 2012.
How about Stan, once also known as the Man, and still ranked No. 3 in the world? The prospects look bleak. He lost in the first round in Paris, and hasn’t won a match at the All England Club since 2011—that includes two first-round losses at Wimbledon and one at the Olympics. No wonder he was bumped down to fifth seed this time.
Also here: Feliciano Lopez, finalist in Queen’s and grass-court lover.
He's No. 1 in the world, but it would be easy to write off Rafael Nadal right now. Each of the last two years, after winning the French Open, he’s lost early at Wimbledon, and he didn’t look much better in his only match in Halle last week, a quick defeat to Dustin Brown. Plus, Rafa has what qualifies as a fairly difficult draw in the era of 32 seeds. He'll start against Martin Klizan, a quality left-hander, and after that he could get the man who stunned him here two years ago, Lukas Rosol. Ivo Karlovic, no one’s idea of a fun day on the courts, may still be lurking in the third round.
But this is Nadal, a two-time Wimbledon champion, and he has sounded determined to right the grass ship this year. Plus, the man he’s supposed to meet in the quarters, Milos Raonic, while theoretically dangerous, has yet to find his way on grass.
Also here: Kei Nishikori. He’s in Raonic’s half.
First-round match to watch: Nadal vs. Klizan
Second-round match to watch: Nadal vs. Rosol