WIMBLEDON, England -- Defending champion Roger Federer is coming into Wimbledon as a big favorite. Federer has won 17 consecutive matches on grass going back to 2003 through the defense of his title in Halle this year.
He's playing as well and looking as good as he did this time last year. He's by far the most comfortable grass-court player in the game. He can transition to the net better than anyone in the top 10 today. Plus, he can simply nullify a player's serve, as he did last week against Mardy Fish in the final of Halle. Federer knows exactly what it takes to win on this surface because he's done it before. If he plays close to his peak, there is no one who can beat him on grass.
Andy Roddick also defended his title at Queen's. He has a draw that sets up very well for him to reach the second week. Interestingly, coming into last year's grass-court season, he didn't feel like he could be successful on grass, and felt highly uncomfortable on the faster surface. His then new coach, Brad Gilbert, convinced him that the goal for the 2003 grass-court season was to go 12-0. Roddick made it to 10-0, until he lost to Federer in the semifinals of Wimbledon. Gilbert made Roddick believe that his serve, which is the biggest in the game, alone could make him successful on grass. Add that to his ground strokes and return of serve, and his chances are that much better. Now, Roddick feels like he's a legitimate contender to win this title.
If Roddick can keep his first serve percentage in the high 60s, he'll hold his serve without any problem. That means, he'll just need one break a set, and sometimes not even that, to win the match. Fortunately for Roddick, he can't meet Federer before the final.
With upset after upset at the French Open, there are some contenders you might not expect in this Wimbledon list.
One guy who has shown talent and flair while playing but has never been able to put together long winning streaks is Paradorn Srichaphan. There's no question that clay courts are his least favorite surface, but in Paris he was highly entertaining to watch in his loss to Alex Corretja. With Srichaphan's game, which is centered around his powerful serve and his athletic style of play, there's no reason why he can't be one of the best grass court players on tour.
Instead, he sometimes tends to try to be too good or too flashy. He would rather play a low-percentage drop shot than play the ball to the open court to set up an easy volley winner. When his game is on, he's one of the most fun and exciting players to watch. But time and only four career titles have shown that he takes a lot of losses throughout the course of his year.
If Srichaphan can get through a tough first round against Ivo Karlovic, who ousted Lleyton Hewitt in the first round last year, we should see Srichaphan in the round of 16 against Federer, which will be the match to watch.
It's time for Hewitt to make his move and leave his footprint on men's tennis again. Wimbledon 2002 was his last major title, and that also was the last time he finished ranked inside the top 10. Tennis needs him to get back to where he once was. He had a solid showing at the French Open and has a great draw to have a solid showing here.
With Hewitt's return of serve, which is his major strength on grass, he poses a threat to any big server. Because today's game, although it has a lot of big servers, only has a handful of true serve and volleyers, this could be a tournament that Hewitt could win again. He has a good test in the first round against left-hander Jurgen Melzer. He should get through that match, but big lefty servers always pose problems for players with a two-handed backhand like Hewitt's. But expect to see him in the final eight.
Grass courts are Fish's favorite surface. His first real test will come in the third round against Jonas Bjorkman. Though Fish is not 100-percent healthy, having pulled out of Nottingham with a shoulder injury, he's got to be pretty happy with his form after reaching the final of Halle. Fish's game is predicated on his serve. When his serve is on, so is his game; when his serve is off, he doesn't hang around long. This is his year to make his mark at a major.
Frenchman Sebastien Grosjean is surprisingly an excellent grass-court player. He's not a player known for his serve, and he doesn't particularly care to come into the net very much. Instead it's his huge forehand and speed on court along with the mental savvy to know how to win on grass courts that make him a threat. Grosjean has reached two consecutive finals at Queen's and made a semifinal appearance last year at Wimbledon. He's another player with a great road to the quarterfinals.
For no reason other than he told me that there's no doubt in his mind that he can win this title, Mark Phillippoussis is a serious contender. He hasn't played particularly well in 2004, but when you're the defending finalist, you come in feeling inspired. It's an event like this that could revive his year. As long as he plays with the aggressiveness and the heart that he played with last year, he might indeed win this title. He'll have to be better than he was last year, though, because right now people aren't afraid to play him. In fact, some people think he is a pretty good draw. He has to put the fear back into his opponents, and it could start here against qualifier Christophe Rochus in the first round.
MaliVai Washington, a tennis analyst for ESPN, reached the 1996 Wimbledon final.