This weekend, the eyes of the sports world will be trained on suburban London, SW19 to be exact, home of the Championships, Wimbledon. Even American sports fans have the opportunity to get into the act here. While the Australian Open goes head-to-head with NFL playoffs, Roland Garros falls in the midst of NBA and NHL playoffs and the US Open final is played on the first Sunday of NFL season, Wimbledon owns the July 4th weekend, only splitting mindshare with midseason baseball. That might even be a tagline for next year's coverage: Wimbledon, there's nothing else on!
In any event, the news coming out of the venerable All England Club is a major plus for broadcasters; even NBC, whose typically strong coverage has been overshadowed by their inexplicable, archaic reliance on tape delay. (Note: As usual, NBC will air the finals live under the "Breakfast at Wimbledon" moniker.)
So who's going to win this thing...? Read on for my 2011 Wimbledon Finals Predictions
Gentlemen's Final: (1) Nadal vs. (2) Djokovic
The battle for the men's crown will pit the present and future World No. 1s against each other. The man who's held the rankings crown for the last year, Rafael Nadal and the man whose impeccable 47-1 year upended the ATP status quo, Novak Djokovic.
Truth be told, Novak Djokovic's already a winner this Wimbledon. He's made his first final at the All England Club, he's come back strong after the bitter disappointment of his loss to Roger Federer Paris and snatched the World no. 1 ranking away from Nadal. Yes, there's the matter of a large gold cup and a $1.76MM check, but Djokovic can be satisfied however his Wimbledon ends.
Grass might be considered Djokovic's weakest surface, but in that same way that Federer's weakest surface is clay. He's easily one of the top three guys on grass, but it's the one surface where it's been hard to consider him the best (so far). Djokovic's the clear leader on hardcourts at the moment, a smidge behind Rafa on clay, but his grass resume (two Wimbledon semifinals prior to this year) remained a touch incomplete.
Indeed, while Djokovic dominated his competition on the clay of Roland Garros until his loss to Federer, he has been pushed to four sets at this Wimbledon by Marcos Baghdatis, Bernard Tomic and in the semifinals versus Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. A player often characterized as cocky, Djokovic's aura over the fortnight has been cautious, measured. Perhaps the result of his budding maturity, perhaps the humbling on Chatrier is still too fresh. Whatever the reason, Djokovic is winning his matches here on the court, not in the locker room. That's not a bad thing, I mean, he's still winnning them.
It's often discussed that Rafael Nadal has played Roland Garros seven times and won it six times, which is an absolutely amazing feat. Of course, the grass of the All England Club isn't the clay of Roland Garros. Nadal wasn't a natural born killer on this other earthy surface. He had to learn how to play on grass, move his court positioning further forward, hit a bigger serve, etc. To wit, his record at Wimbledon isn't quite as strong, he's played seven times and reached five finals, winning twice to date. Not exactly shabby.
It's rare that a No. 1 as strong as Nadal has ever had his back so proverbially pinned against the wall. Nadal's year thus far, three titles including his sixth at Roland Garros and four other finals would typically be enough to extend a player's lead at No. 1, not watch it evaporate. Nadal hasn't done a ton wrong this year, 45-7 isn't a bad effort. It's just up against Djokovic's 47-1.
The subplot is that Djokovic has truly earned the No. 1 ranking that the ATP computer will bestow upon him on Monday. After coming into 2011 with a 7-16 record versus Nadal including that demoralizing loss in the US Open final, Djokovic beat the Man from Mallorca four consecutive times this year including twice on the clay. No big deal? Wrong. Since 2005, Nadal is 202-8 on clay with 2 of those losses coming this year...to Djokovic.
This is a new day though, the two best players in the world won't have their sixth Grand Slam meeting on the clay, but on the lawns of Wimbledon.
Both players have a ton to play for, Djokovic is playing to win his first Wimbledon crown, his first major outside of Australia. He's playing to further legitimize his No. 1 ranking by taking Wimbledon from the soon-to-be former No. 1. He's playing to solidify his newfound dominance over his Spanish rival. Nadal is playing for history. A win tomorrow would tie him with Bjorn Borg having won 11 majors and three Channel Slams (French Open & Wimbledon in the same year). He's also playing for pride, the No. 1 ranking is gone, but after four straight losses to the Serb, Nadal is ready to get back on solid footing against the Serb going into the hardcourt season.
Who wins? Djokovic is on fire against Nadal of late. He may be the only player that can finely mix controlled aggression and mind-blowing defense at the perfect level to get past Nadal on a regular basis. On the other hand, Nadal is the superior grass court player in this matchup, the lefty serve that terrorized Djokovic at the US Open will be a bigger weapon on this slick surface, his backhand slice should be more of a weapon than the liability it would be on a hard court and he's got revenge on his mind. Nadal also has a 5-0 record in their meetings at major tournaments.
Maybe he'll go out guns blazing against Nadal, but Djokovic has played a fairly cautious tournament thus far. Nadal, on the other hand, has played to win. He withstood Andy Murray's hot start, Juan Martin del Potro's strong charge and even his own lapses against Mardy Fish. The No. 1 ranking is gone, but the goal is winning the biggest tournaments, no?
Prediction: Nadal in four sets
Ladies' Final: (5) Sharapova vs. (8) Kvitova
Saturday's ladies' final will pit 2004 champion and future Hall-of-Famer Maria Sharapova versus rising Czech star and World No. 8 Petra Kvitova. First off, from a big picture standpoint this is a matchup that shows a women's tour (finally) in the ascendancy. Kvitova, 21, is in the same generation as Caroline Wozniacki, Victoria Azarenka, Anastasia "Alphabet Soup" Pavlyuchenkova and Agnieszka Radwanska. While none of those players have won a major title just yet, each has established herself as a consistent top 15 player. They're an admirable list for the Scrabble points alone, but let's be honest, Radwanska is a pure counterpuncher who lacks the power to play at the game's absolute highest levels. Pavlyuchenkova's meteoric rise seems to have stalled, while Azarenka and Wozniacki seem equally adept at social media management and snatching defeat out of the jaws of victory.
Kvitova follows Wozniacki, as the 2nd player of her generation to make a major final and the first to do so in nearly two years. The big-hitting Czech lefty is not a stranger to deep runs at Wimbledon having made the semifinals last year in her third appearance. She also came into Wimbledon on a run of form, 32-6 this year, she won titles this year in Brisbane, Paris (Indoors) and Madrid before making the finals at Eastbourne on grass last week (losing in three sets to Marion Bartoli). Boding well for her future, she faced down many of the talents of her generation and sent them packing this tournament. Alexa Glatch, No. 19 Yanina Wickmayer, Tsvetana Pironkova who ousted Venus Williams and No. 4 Azarenka all fell at Kvitova's hand. That kind of run against her contemporaries has me thinking that Kvitova will be a contender at Wimbledon for years to come.
Who wins? My pre-tournament pick was Kvitova and there's a part of me that wants to just stick to my guns for consistency's sake. I'll admit, the "I told you so" factor is tempting, but when push comes to shove, I'm a facts guy. Kvitova's beaten stronger opposition this tournament, has been playing lights out tennis all year and has shown an affinity for the grass. Sharapova is a proven champion and a warrior, but I can't shake the feeling that under pressure her serve is going to crack like an egg.
Prediction: Kvitova in three sets