LONDON—Is luck the residue of hard work? Or is it just fortunate to be the beneficiary of the actions of others? These are the kind of questions that surface when looking at what’s happened to the top half of the Wimbledon gentlemen’s singles draw, and how much the wheel of fortune has spun its way in Roger Federer’s favor.
The top half took a major hit today when third-seeded Marin Cilic was beaten by 82nd-ranked Guido Pella. After all, Cilic, runner-up here a year ago, had extended Federer to five sets in this year’s Australian Open final and also held two match points against him in a 2016 Wimbledon quarterfinal. Cilic joined such other prominent top half casualties as sixth-seeded Grigor Dimitrov, Dimitrov conquerer Stan Wawrinka and 17th-seeded Lucas Pouille.
Of those who remain and pose the biggest threat to Federer, they mostly fall into two categories: shot makers and servers.
First, the shot makers. Start with veteran Gael Monfils, the lively athlete who, when inspired, can greatly challenge anyone in the world. Monfils played impressive tennis to take down compatriot Richard Gasquet on day one. And certainly he will entertain and attempt some daring shots should he and Federer meet. But to truly topple the king over the course of a long match? Doubtful.
At the opposite end from the experienced Monfils is 19-year-old Stefanos Tsitsipas, a livewire of an all-court player who has just started to come into his own this year. Like Monfils, Tsitsipas plays with exceptional passion. One suspects Federer would greatly enjoy the challenge of taking in this young hopeful’s best shots and daring him to come up with even more. Or will the man from Greece be cowed by the occasion? Either way, Federer-Tsitsipas is my utopian top half semi—artists and warriors, aging genius versus teen prodigy.
WATCH—Match point from Federer's second-round win over Lukas Lacko:
But the more likely Federer opponent will come from the big servers—a flock that includes 2017 Wimbledon semifinalist Sam Querrey, eighth-seeded Kevin Anderson, 2016 Wimbledon runner-up Milos Raonic and ninth-seeded John Isner. Each surely has to fancy his chances to strongly challenge Federer. Even if the grass has gotten slower, it’s hardly a picnic to return any of these serves on any surface.
If past precedent counts for much, then of this quartet, Raonic should draw the most confidence from being the last man to beat Federer at Wimbledon, taking him down in the 2016 semis—a loss that ended Federer’s entire year. More recently, the Canadian extended Federer nicely in the finals of Stuttgart, losing that encounter, 6-4, 7-6. Of these four, Raonic also has the most wins over Federer, beating him three times in 14 meetings.
Querrey’s equity comes from his recent strong efforts at SW 19. In 2016, he took down the defending champion and world No. 1, Novak Djokovic, on his way to the quarters. A year later, he repeated that twin effort, this time versus Andy Murray—and going even further to reach the semis.
Though 0-3 against Federer, what Querrey also has going for him is his nonchalant competitive demeanor, a riverboat gambler quality (and also an improved backhand). As he’s demonstrated frequently the last two years at Wimbledon, this is a man willing to take his cuts. The right day, a bolt or two in a tiebreaker—and suddenly Sam can soon become Sam the man.
WATCH—Match point from Federer's first-round win over Dusan Lajovic:
Rangy, powerful and skilled in all parts of the court, Anderson (0-4) is the consummate professional, always looking to enhance his game—a devotion that paid off last year when he reached the finals of the US Open. The thinking here, though, is that Anderson often lacks that extra X-factor to take him over the line in a big match. Is this the scar tissue of past losses? Or is it merely that when tight, Anderson will hit his forehand too flat?
And then there’s Isner (2-5). Surprisingly, Isner has never reached the round of 16 here. But as seen earlier this year when he took the title in Miami, Isner has made considerable improvements to his game—adding the kind of attacking mindset and skills that can pay off quite well at Wimbledon. And, in an emotional twist, Isner now is feeling liberated, having fought off two match points in his five-set win over Ruben Bemelmans. An unshackled Isner can pose extremely challenging questions. If Tsitsipas-Federer is a poet’s dream, Isner-Federer is an economist’s reality: the marketplace of competition and big serves figures to speak loudly.
And yet, as we have seen so much over this 18-month Federer late stage blossoming, it’s difficult to see how any of these players can truly topple him. The shot makers are either too old and limited (Monfils) or too young and unseasoned (Tsitsipas). And the servers? Let’s not forget how skillfully Federer blunted Andy Roddick in three Wimbledon finals and how much Federer has exposed the limited arsenal—speed, power, variety—of so many who’ve sought to topple him at Wimbledon.
This seems sure: whoever keeps Federer from reaching the finals will likely have to play the match of his career.
Strokes of Genius is a world-class documentary capturing the historic 13-year rivalry between tennis icons Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. It is timed for release as the anticipation crests with Roger as returning champion, 10 years after their famed 2008 Wimbledon championship – an epic match so close and so reflective of their competitive balance that, in the end, the true winner was the sport itself.