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Dani's Picks: Experience to aid Novak Djokovic, Serena Williams at Wimbledon
Former No. 5 Daniela Hantuchova also predicts big results from Greek stars Stefanos Tsitsipas and Maria Sakkari.
Published Jun 27, 2021
Looking at a pair of Wimbledon draws that featured few certainties, former world No. 5 Daniela Hantuchova was left looking to phone a friend.
“I almost wanted to ask my Instagram followers for help making predictions!” she joked on Sunday.
A great many players have made major breakthroughs since the last grass-court major took place in 2019; a few will even make their main-draw debut at SW19. Now more than ever, Hantuchova predicts, experience will prevail through the coming fortnight.
“On grass, I always say the more years you play on it, the better you become. I remember playing Martina Navratilova in Eastbourne during one of her singles comebacks in the early 2000s. She was in her 40s at the time, but I was freaking out at the thought of playing this nine-time Wimbledon champion on grass even though I was half her age and the favorite to win. Still, players with that amount of grass court experience just know what it takes in how to cover the court, what shots to choose and when. All of that just comes with years of being on the surface.”
Starting off with one certainty and branching out into the more opaque scenarios, the psychic-adjacent Slovak goes forth with some bold predictions ahead of the third major of 2021:
Novak DJOKOVIC (SRB): I know many people think this tournament will come down to Novak or Roger Federer, but looking at the draw, I’m not even putting Roger in my Top 3 picks. There is nothing like match play, and for Roger, it’ll be so important for him to get through the first week and, if he can manage that, he’ll deserve to be as big of a favorite here as he’s ever been. I just think it’ll be interesting to see how he performs through the first few rounds.
For Novak, there’s a combined advantage for him in that Rafael Nadal is not playing and Roger doesn’t have the same number of matches he’s used to ahead of a Wimbledon Championships; don’t forget, he’s won Halle ten times! With those two factors in his favor, it wouldn’t surprise me if Novak goes on to win all four Slams and the Olympics. He’s absolutely a level above everyone else and it couldn’t have been tougher for him in Paris, beating Rafa and then being two sets down to Stefanos Tsitsipas in the finals, but he still found a way. Seeing him off the court and how he was, emotionally, I sense he’s in a really good place and arguably even fitter than when he was when he first came onto tour.
Even though he’s getting older, he has that much more experience on grass compared to his younger rivals, and that’s huge in helping him feel more confidence. He’s mentally and physically in a different league compared to the field so I’m picking him for everything he plays the rest of the year!
Serena WILLIAMS (USA): You can never, ever write off Serena—especially on grass. For me, Serena at Wimbledon isn’t too different from how Paris turns Rafa into a completely different player. At her best, she was absolutely untouchable on this surface. I remember some years where the serve was working and she could take the returns even earlier than usual; it all combined to make her that much more explosive and aggressive on every point. When she played like that, there was certainly nothing I could do on the court. If she can make it through the first few rounds without wasting too much energy, she’s got a shot because she knows what it takes to win there, and there’s nothing like going back to a place where you’ve achieved that level of success. It all comes down to the serve. In her last few Grand Slam finals, the serve just wasn’t working, and that’s the shot that unlocks the rest of game.
The younger girls are hitting much harder than they were a decade ago—some, arguably, as hard as she can—and that’s making a bit of a difference for her when she, for example, played Elena Rybakina at Roland Garros. Her speed of shot, off the ground and especially on the serve, was once so much greater than anyone else. She also doesn’t necessarily have the same aura she once had at her best because when you lose these kinds of matches, other players begin believing they can win, as well. That locker room respect is hard to gain and easy to lose; and no one’s had it longer than her.
Still, Serena has that undeniable fighting spirit, and there’s nowhere she turns it on better than at Wimbledon. To beat Serena on Centre Court, you really have to come up with something special to take it from her.
Stefanos Tsitsipas (GRE): Stef is a phenomenally hard worker with incredible discipline. He’s getting more mature with each result, so perhaps two years ago, I might have said a loss like what he took in Paris would take him weeks or even months to recover from. Now, he’s on a different mental plateau and I believe he’s able to take heart in being two sets up on the best player in the world in a Grand Slam final and feel like it only came down to a few points here and there in the third set.
He admittedly has this philosophical side and I like how he feels comfortable sharing his deeper thoughts with us and show his personality. So many fans can relate to him and become part of his life, and ultimately, I feel he feeds off that energy. He enjoys the fan support and it was obvious how well he played with the fans in Paris. Having crowds back at Wimbledon will be huge for him.
Maria SAKKARI (GRE): I’m such a fan of her as an athlete as much as a tennis player—starting with how much effort she puts in off the court. I would never want to be near her at the gym! But it’s so cool to see that hard work finally paying off to defeat Iga Swiatek at Roland Garros. It was obviously a tough learning experience to lose in the semifinals after being so close, but she has to come away from that knowing she can do it; it was literally one point that stood in her way. I hope that gives her confidence instead of putting her down, although I’m sure the days after that match were hard on her.
She’s super prepared for every tournament she comes to play, and she does all the right things to give herself opportunities to succeed; I’m a huge fan of players who maximize their potential the way she does.
Angelique KERBER (GER): She’s one who knows how to win Wimbledon, and has to be high on confidence after winning an emotional title at home in Bad Homburg.
The only thing that worries me is the reality that she isn’t one of the youngest players. Hopefully, she recovers well, and after not winning that much, the muscles may be hurting that much more than if you were coming off a physical week with a lot of momentum. Physically, it takes time getting used to winning so many matches again. If she can move well and be sharp with her footwork, she has that priceless experience on her side.
Matteo BERRETTINI (ITA): I was in Queen’s Club and so I can tell you firsthand just how hard Berrettini can hit the ball on grass. It’s unreal how he can adapt his game to this surface. It’s fascinating to see this group of Italian men, who may traditionally have been more partial to clay, do such a good job adjusting to grass.
His big serve opens up the court for his forehand, but I’m also impressed by how he’s improved his slice backhand over the past couple of weeks—starting in Madrid, where he played so well to make the final. There were some pretty good players in Queen’s Club and I couldn’t believe how comprehensively he outplayed each of his opponents that week.
There’s nothing like the confidence that comes with winning a grass-court warm-up event. I always felt you get those few extra free points off that momentum alone; in years where I won Birmingham or performed well before Wimbledon, I felt like, unless it was Serena Williams or one of the other top players, I can’t lose.
Alex DE MINAUR (AUS): I love the way he was able to play last week to win Eastbourne. His first-round against Sebastian Korda is absolutely on my radar as one of the early ones to watch when the tournament gets underway; whoever comes out of that one could end up being a big challenge for Tsitsipas starting off the second week.
Anett KONTAVEIT (EST): Watching her in Eastbourne, I absolutely love the way Anett is playing at the moment. She can really go deep as long as she remains solid off the ground. She doesn’t have any weaknesses that I can see; she’s a complete player, but it all comes down to belief. She works hard off the court, so the more she can put herself in these situations against top players, the more likely she’ll finally beat one and that will make all the difference. I feel like she’s on the cusp of achieving something really special.
Ons JABEUR (TUN): She’s finally putting everything together, and I think she’s more mature than she used to be, because it requires a certain level of maturity to choose the right shots at the right time. She’s so much fun to watch because of the variety, but being solid is what wins you matches, and that’s a balance she was able to strike so well in Birmingham. Percentages on grass are so important, so as long as she doesn’t start feeling the need to do too much out there, she can keep this momentum going.
Ugo HUMBERT (FRA): I first saw him play last year in Paris-Bercy at the Masters event and really enjoy his game. He’s in a section with Félix Auger-Aliassime, but this Frenchman’s got so much potential, and again, that feeling of winning a title on grass—and your first title at that—you can come to Wimbledon feeling like one of the favorites regardless of where you are in the draw.
Lorenzo SONEGO (ITA): Like Matteo, he’s clearly adjusted his game big-time to the grass and shook off the disappointment of bowing out early in Roland Garros to finish runner-up to de Minaur in Eastbourne. I haven’t had a chance to listen to his song yet, but I have a feeling what the DJ will be playing around the grounds if he goes far this week!
Jelena OSTAPENKO (LAT): Here’s another former Grand Slam winner, and I think winning Eastbourne will be something she can carry to Wimbledon, where she’s made the semifinals in 2018. When you’re in the second week of a Slam and some less experienced players may get tight, I wouldn’t expect her to. It was nice to see how much winning Eastbourne meant to her, because it clearly took her a while to adjust to being a Grand Slam champion, and she’s come a long way. She’s a strong returner and isn’t afraid to go up the line.