It's been a decade since a 19 year old upstart named Roger Federer mowed down King of Grass Pete Sampras in the 4th round of Wimbedon. In the ten years hence, Roger Federer has figured in seven finals at the All England Club, much like his idol Sampras. Whether or not is year's event will feature a match we look back on as a changing of the guard remains to be seen. As in 2001, we might not even know that definitively when the tournament's over. Federer lost his next match that year to Tim Henman and then dropped his 2002 first rounder to the injury-crossed Mario Ancic. Since then he's only missed the final once, last year, when he was upended by eventual finalist Tomas Berdych.
Another man who's spent a few Sundays at Wimbledon is two time defending champion Rafael Nadal. The Mallorcan native has reached the final in four of the last five years, only missing the final weekend when he missed the whole tournament in 2009.
Federer and Nadal have defined this era accounting for the last eight Wimbedon titles, will another era start at this year's event or will the last decade's greatest champions extend their dominance into the '10s. Every tournament delivers its share of fluky occurrences, take Novak Djokovic's momentum sapping four day mini vacation in Roland Garros, but an educated look at the draw is the closest thing we have to a crystal ball. Let's see what the 2011 Wimbledon men's singles draw reveals:
Rafa Nadal was done few favors in his bid to capture a third Wimbledon crown. He leads a thoroughly stacked first section of the draw. Even the underinspired Nadal who showed up in Paris should have enough to get past American veteran Michael Russell. Next comes Pablo Andujar who played tough, but ultimately capitulated, to his countryman at the same stage of Roland Garros. Nadal should survive that test, but then come some flamethrowers with big-bombing Canadian breakout Milos Raonic looming round three and a potential showdown versus re-emerging top dog Juan Martin Del Potro in round four. For his part, Del Potro has never gone past the 2nd round at Wimbedon before, but we suspect in a section where the highest seed is Gilles Simon and a host of qualifiers reside, Del Potro will make good, meeting Rafa in the Round of 16. At the quarterfinal stage all eyes are on last year's losing finalist Tomas Berdych. If the big Czech can't cash in, Mardy Fish, Philipp Kohlschreiber, Fernando Verdasco or veteran Radek Stepanek may await Nadal. Don't bet on it, though. There are a lot of guys in his path who could upset the defending champion, especially that slightly punchdrunk version of Nadal we saw at Roland Garros, but it's his section to win or lose.
Super Fan Special, Best 1st Rounder: (21) Verdasco vs. Stepanek
Popcorn Match: 3rd Round: (1) Nadal vs. (31) Raonic
Dark Horse: Raonic
The winner of this section will go a long way toward fulfilling some long stifled hopes, considering the boldfaces include Andy Murray, Andy Roddick, Gael Monfils, Marin Cilic and Thomaz Bellucci. Dunblane's favorite son Andy Murray headlines the second quarter of the draw. He's coming in on a hot streak having found his game on the clay of Monte Carlo and most recently, hoisting the hardware last week at Queen's Club. Murray should find his way past Daniel Gimeno-Traver of Spain and the winner of Tobias Kamke/Blaz Kavcic (though, really, how can you pick against a guy named Blaz) with relative ease. Then Murray will likely face a tricky third rounder against the winner of the Croatian Grass Championships @ Wimbledon between Ivan Ljubicic and Marin Cilic. Murray should then see the winner between heralded players who seem to consistently come up small on big stages in Richard Gasquet and Stanislas Wawrinka. It doesn't matter who fills the draw line, Murray wins that match. The bottom half of the section is headlined by 8 and 9 seeds Andy Roddick and Gael Monfils respectively. Roddick should cruise until his potential third round tilt with Feliciano Lopez. Monfils similarly should have smooth sailing until he matches up against “Dr.” Ivo Karlovic for the right to take on Roddick. I say, Roddick gets through and then plays Karlovic for the right to try to ace Murray off the grass.
Fan Special, Best 1st Rounder: (27) Cilic vs. Ljubicic
Popcorn Match: Monfils vs. anybody frankly, but since his match with Karlovic will likely be half a snoozer, QF (4) Murray vs. (8) Roddick
Dark Horse: Sergiy Stakhovsky
It feels funny to have to search for Federer's name in a draw, but here he is at the bottom of the third quarter. He will cruise pa Mikhail Kukushkin and Adrian Mannarino in the first and second rounds, then 28th seed David Nalbandian if the Argentine actually keeps his date with Federer. In the 4th round, Federer could take on Mikhail Youzhny, slumping John Isner, slumping Nicolas Almagro or maybe even Somdev Devvarman. I'll peg Youzhny to play the role of cannon fodder for Der Fed here. The top is loaded with talent, starting with 7th seed, Mr. Consistency, David Ferrer. Ferrer should have an easy first rounder vs. Benoit Paire, but could have a tough go against s'Hertogenbosch semifinalist Ivan Dodig in the second. 30 year old Fernando Gonzalez is back here in a post hip surgery rehab start, this is only his 2nd main draw appearance this year and unfortunately, he drew flashy, but inconsistent Ukraianian Aleksandr Dolgopolov. Talented former junior No. 1 Grigor Dimitrov is also here and could face flashy, but inconsistent Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in a match every afficionado will find themselves drawn to. This is the toughest section to call because while they can't match the day-to-day or even year-to-year consistency of Federer, or to a lesser extent, Ferrer, there are a ton of, I'll say it again, talented, flashy players, who could produce a shocking "any given day"...could, but in all likelihood, won't.
Fan Special, Best 1st Rounder: (22) Dolgopolov vs. Gonzalez, see Gonzo's ridonkulous forehand before the 30 year old Chilean calls it a career. For the record, Isner/Mahut II will be like every bad Hollywood sequel this summer, just as mediocre as the original, without the one reason to care (the longevity)
Popcorn Match: 2nd Round: (12) Tsonga vs. Dimitrov
Dark Horse: Dimitrov
Novak Djokovic. Nuff said. There's a lot of talent here, no doubt. Lleyton Hewitt was the last man prior to the beginning of the Federer/Nadal hegemony to win Wimbledon. James Blake went to Harvard. Dmitry Tursunov may have a second career in comedy writing. Kei Nishikori is knocking on the door of being the highest ranked Japanese man ever and has Brad Gilbert imparting the Xs and Os of winning ugly. Michael Llodra is near his career high singles ranking and has won the doubles here before. Robin Soderling is ranked 5th with the big, flat strokes and bomb of a serve that should translate well to grass, on paper. Fact is, Djokovic is here and he will either be bounced in the first round by talented Frenchman Jeremy Chardy or go at least into the final four.
Here's the evidence, Djokovic hasn't played a tournament on grass this year or at all since he lost to Federer in Paris, but he won 43 matches in a row before that loss. He reached two Wimbledon semis before he was superhuman, and in an exhibition the other day against Gilles Simon (seeded 15th here), Djokovic won, 6-1, 6-2. Anyone who's ever seen an exhibition knows that players generally keep it cordial, there are lots of 6-4, 7-5 and 7-6 sets even if the losing party is far removed from their best stuff. It's why I hate exos, but that's another topic for another day. Djokovic beat the snot out of the Frenchman, and he did it purely for fun. When it's time to get down to business in the third round how do you think Marcos Baghdatis is going to fare? There's a chance Djokovic won't quite be at match speed playing his first eounder and if Chardy keeps it close, just maybe memories of Djokovic/Federer in Paris may surface. I wouldn't bet on it. The luck of the draw is that Djokovic's avoided most of the lower ranked guys who have the games and gumption to play him toe-to-toe early. And like every champ, he'll only get better as he approaches the business end of the event.
Fan Special, Best 1st Rounder: Nishikori vs. Hewitt
Popcorn Match: QF: (2) Djokovic vs. (5) Soderling
Semifinalist: (2) Djokovic
Dark Horse: not Djokovic, OK, fine, big-serving Kevin Anderson
Yeah, all those words to ultimately pick chalk. The fact is, there are potential upsets out there for the top dogs, but they would be more fluky than due to bad matchups or flagging form. The roof that went up over Centre Court should keep the ability to handle British weather from playing a significant role in the Championships, meaning we should (and probably will) be left with the four best players in the draw at the end of the fortnight.
Semifinals: Nadal d. Murray, Djokovic d. Federer
Final: Nadal d. Djokovic
Prediction: Djokovic will reach World No. 1 by making the Wimbledon final, he will avenge his loss to Federer in Paris, he will reach his first final at Wimbledon,.my gut is telling me though that Djokovic may have a bit of an emotional letdown after. I also think that Nadal is still the superior player on this surface and he will be playing with something to prove. He might not get up every day with the same fight he did when he was new to the tour, but if he's playing two Sundays from now against the man who inflicted four straight losses upon him, he will find the fight. He will take that fight to Djokovic and win another titanic showdown in SW19.