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WIMBLEDON, England -- The star heading into this wildly anticipated fortnight at the All England Club isn't a person -- it's a thing.
It's the bottom half of the men's draw, that 64-player slice of real estate that seems to find itself oddly overpopulated with Grand Slam singles champions.
Because David Ferrer had the audacity to reach the French Open final a few weeks ago, Rafael Nadal saw his ATP World Tour ranking slip to No. 5. That meant Rafa could land anywhere when the chips came out of the drawstring bag Friday. And so, because of the luck of the draw (or was it the reverse?), we have No. 2 Andy Murray, No. 3 Roger Federer, No. 5 Nadal and No. 6 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga all in the same half.
So, doing the math based on previous performances here, the next four best players after No. 1-ranked Novak Djokovic are in the bottom half.
|Roger Federer has a few obstacles, mainly Rafael Nadal, to contend with in his quarter of the draw.|
"I think it's going to be a great Monday for tennis," said Djokovic, who plays his first-round match Tuesday.
Actually, he meant to say great for Novak Djokovic -- and fans of tennis.
For Federer, not so much. He's the defending champion here, having beaten Murray in last year's final. Given his recent history, though, this seems like a big ask.
"For me, it's not even worth the talk," Federer said Sunday, "because it is what it is. It's not like [Nadal is] unseeded. He is seeded within the top eight. So you don't face him in the first round. Quarterfinals are still a long way away, if you like.
"It was never supposed to be easy winning Grand Slams."
Saturday, ESPN analyst Darren Cahill had a question. Has Federer ever had to beat Nadal, Murray and Djokovic to win a tournament? The man who coached Andre Agassi and Lleyton Hewitt to the No. 1 ranking wanted to know.
He immediately called Greg Sharko, the ATP's peerless number-cruncher. The answer? It happened once, at the 2010 Barclays ATP World Tour Finals in London. But those matches weren't in succession -- and it didn't happen in a Grand Slam.
"Nobody said it was going to be a walk in the park," Federer said. "I'm ready for the challenge. I like tough draws. I don't shy away from them. There's, anyway, no control over it. All you can control as a tennis player is who you play and who you face. I have a very difficult draw with Rafa being in my quarter. My focus is on the first round."
All four big-shots in the bottom half have interesting matches. Federer plays Victor Hanescu, whom he has beaten in all five of their matches. Still, Hanescu took a set from Federer in their 2010 meeting at Indian Wells. Murray just played Benjamin Becker in the quarterfinals at Queen's and escaped with a 6-4, 7-6 (3) victory. In Nadal's only meetings against Steve Darcis, Tsonga and surprising 22-year-old Belgian David Goffin -- who won two matches here a year ago -- he handled each of them decisively.
Fun fact: The bottom half has three former champions -- Federer, Nadal and Hewitt -- the most one half as seen in eight years.
Last year, Serena Williams lost in the first round of the French Open, and a year later played with an exceptional fury in winning her second championship at Roland Garros. Nadal got smoked here in the second round by Lukas Rosol. Does he come in with some extra fire?
"No," Rafa said, succinctly. "That's tennis. That's the good thing about the sport: Sometimes you lose, sometimes you win. Last year I played here because [this] is a tournament that I love, but I was not ready to play here. That's the real thing."
Nadal said he took a shot to kill the pain in his left knee. And then he was forced to take the next seven months off to rehabilitate a torn patella tendon. Now, if he gets that far, Rafa is facing a brutal road to a third title Wimbledon title.
"You are talking about Andy and Roger probably, but I don't see them before quarterfinals and semifinals," Nadal said. "So I have a long way to work before that. My view is if I arrive to quarterfinals, [it] is because I will be ready."
Meanwhile, the Brits, quite frankly, are feeling pretty good about themselves over here.
The London tabloids have been moved to ask this sports trivia question: When was the last time Great Britain could boast the holders of both American Grand Slam tournaments in golf and tennis? That would be 1903, when Willie Law Anderson and Laurence Doherty held those titles, respectively.
Yes, Murray and now Justin Rose are your reigning US Open champs. However, that isn't exactly relevant at the moment.
Even if Murray manages to get past Tsonga in the quarters, Rafa or Roger likely will be waiting for him. Federer, of course, beat him in this final a year ago, and Rafa has won their past four semifinal meetings in a major, two of them here.
"I'd rather Rafa and Roger were on the other side of the draw, but they're not," Murray said. "And then, yeah, you just deal with that. Hopefully I'll be able to put myself in a position where that becomes relevant, because that would mean getting to the semifinals.
"And I'd love to be there."