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Friday, June 21, 2013
Federer, Nadal in each other's way

By Howard Bryant
ESPN.com

The oldest, most prestigious tennis tournament in the world has arrived with perhaps the most unpredictable road map. World No. 1 Novak Djokovic lost surprisingly easily here to Roger Federer in the semifinals last year and, after losing in the Roland Garros semifinal to Rafael Nadal, he did not play a grass warm-up tournament. Nadal, of course, was beaten by Lukas Rosol a year ago, didn't play for seven months only to return to win seven of the nine tournaments he has played in, including his eighth French Open title.

Nadal didn't play a grass tuneup, either, and the big intrigue is his seed (No. 5), which will guarantee him a quarterfinal battle with Federer, should the two handle business.

Defending runner-up Andy Murray skipped the French Open with a bad back to prepare for a Wimbledon championship. He played a tuneup at Queen's Club and beat Marin Cilic in a three-set final.

Finally, there is the defending champ, seven-time Wimbledon winner, 17-time Grand Slam winner Federer, who had gone longer into a calendar year without winning a title until he won at Halle last week, and has looked more vulnerable than ever against the top players, with one huge caveat: He's now on grass, and that could provide the slight tilting of the odds back toward his favor.

Even the next tier of challengers has question marks, making this Wimbledon perhaps the first without a clear favorite since 2004. Nevertheless, a look at the draw:

First quarter

Novak Djokovic
Good news for world No. 1 Novak Djokovic. He arguably has the easiest draw of all the big four behemoths.
If Federer's road to the quarters at Roland Garros appeared, at first glance, to be a green wave (you know, that lucky stretch of consecutive green lights you sometimes get in the city when the gods are smiling), the same is true of Djokovic. His first-round match against Florian Mayer could be tricky, and so could a potential fourth-round joust with Tommy Haas (which would be their third meeting of the year).

But Djokovic, like in Paris, has high motivation and is the best player in the world. He was plagued with personal issues he said affected his play here last year when Federer dispatched him in four odd sets. And when Haas knocked the Serb out of Miami, he easily telegraphed between the lines that it wouldn't happen again. Djokovic raised his level when the two met at Roland Garros and beat Haas. Haas is better on grass, but Djokovic going out in the fourth round would be a stunner.

In the bottom of the quarter, we have to wonder just whom Tomas Berdych, the 2010 finalist, angered. Having already been bounced in the first round at Roland Garros by dangerous floater Gael Monfils (who withdrew from Wimbledon with personal problems), his draw is a killer. Berdych has big-serving Slovakian Martin Klizan (who demolished Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga at the US Open last year), and, if Berdych survives that, he could face big-serving German Daniel Brands, who scared the daylights out of Nadal in Paris. And if Berdych survives that, he could face 6-foot-8 Kevin Anderson, against whom Berdych is 8-0. Their matches are battles. Anderson is fighting a shoulder injury, however.

Top-ranked American Sam Querrey (seeded 21st, below John Isner), played a terrific match last year against Cilic and is also someone to watch in the first round as he takes on star-crossed Australian Bernard Tomic. Querrey could be dangerous.

Big-man tennis has its flaws, but it is most dangerous on grass. Just ask Nadal. Berdych got the mother lode here.

Prediction: Djokovic cruising through

Second quarter

It is so fashionable to pick on David Ferrer because he is 0-14 lifetime against Federer, 5-11 (with four straight losses) to Djokovic and 5-21 against Nadal.

But Ferrer is hell on everyone else, as evidenced by his straight-sets semifinal shredding of Tsonga at Roland Garros. Ferrer made the quarters at Wimbledon last year, losing an eminently winnable four-setter to Murray (three of the four sets were tiebreakers). He lost in Holland strangely to Xavier Malisse, and he has tough fights ahead in a potential third-rounder with unpredictable shot-maker Alexandr Dolgopolov. Ferrer is proof that the steak is better than the sizzle.

This draw has good player contrasts. Ferrer and Philipp Kohlschreiber are the best two players on tour under six feet tall, and both seem to relish punishing big men. It was Kohlschreiber who sent Isner boiling to defeat at the US Open past 2 a.m. last year. They will get their chance, for Milos Raonic is in their portion of the draw, and waiting in the quarters possibly, is Juan Martin del Potro, whom Ferrer dissected in three sets here last year.

In addition to the big men, there are athletes (Kei Nishikori) and craftsmen (Michael Llodra and Andreas Seppi) and showmen (Dolgopolov, Grigor Dimitrov). A Dimitrov-del Potro third-rounder would be something to look forward to, as well.

Prediction: This quarter is filled with land mines, but I like a Ferrer-Dimitrov quarter, with Ferrer reaching the semis again.

Third quarter

Oh, the possibilities here! Obviously, the dream matchup would be Federer-Nadal in the quarters, but there are dangerous grass-court big men here. How electric, for instance, would it be to have a Rosol-Federer third-round match? Or even a Rosol-Nadal quarterfinal rematch? The third quarter is where the floaters live. In Nadal's portion, there is Isner, who could play Nadal in the fourth round but not before having to go through Stanislas Wawrinka, who himself has grinding one-time Wimbledon winner Lleyton Hewitt in the first round.

There's another big man out there, Poland's 6-foot-8 Jerzy Janowicz, who is just waiting to have one of those big-serving, grass-court days. The Janowicz 138 mph serve followed by a drop shot is kind of annoying, but he's another very taxing match.

Inside the draw, there is tormented Nicolas Almagro, who might just meet up again in the third round with Radek Stepanek, the underdog who beat him in the Czech Republic-Spain Davis Cup final this past fall, and a Rosol-Fabio Fognini matchup in the second round would be fun theater.

But the people want Nadal-Federer. The question (Nadal hasn't played a match on grass since losing to Rosol) is whether they'll get it.

Prediction: Maybe I'm giving big-man tennis on grass too much credit, but I have no feel for this one at all. Is it wimping out to pass? OK, heart says Federer; mind says Nadal, who has the easier draw, even on grass. Nadal beats Federer at this stage in their careers.

Fourth quarter

Andy Murray
Andy Murray skipped the French Open. Will he be ready for the daunting pressure of Wimbledon?
If Djokovic has the easiest draw to the quarters, Murray's is a close second. There's not much to see here early, except in monitoring Murray's health. There are players trying to find their way back to being dangerous (Janko Tipsarevic) and one looking for consistency (Mikhail Youzhny, who lost to Federer in the Halle final). Murray's real test wouldn't come until the quarters, when he could face Ernests Gulbis; Cilic, whom he beat at Queen's Club; or a rematch of last year's semifinal with Tsonga.

Tsonga, meanwhile, is getting close. After being upset by Klizan at the US Open, the Frenchman lost a tough five-set quarterfinal to Federer in Melbourne, then beat Federer at Roland Garros before losing to Ferrer in the semis. He's a notoriously slow starter, and, if he's not careful, Gulbis could beat him. A Cilic-Tsonga fourth round would be good for the ace count, as well.

Prediction: Murray, after Tsonga loses to Cilic.

Semifinals: Djokovic over Ferrer; Murray over Nadal.

Final: Murray beats Djokovic (even though the Fred Perry references went away last year!).