Neil Harman previews the greatest show on grass
Ten years on from the men’s singles final to end all men’s singles finals – when the courts at Wimbledon had been deliberately slowed and played right into Rafael Nadal’s hands – the heat-wave currently engulfing London is forecast to continue through the entire fortnight. The Centre Court roof is likely to be stationed permanently in the ‘off’ position.
Flaming June has become still in-flame July, with burning moors across the north of the England and brown patches everywhere else a serious risk should anyone discard a lighted match. Wimbledon has installed new water top-up machines across the grounds at just the right time – typical of their minute attention to detail.
Those from the London fire brigades who act as honorary stewards for the fortnight, may be casting anxious looks at the court surfaces, for the athletes are going to leave a trail of blistering footprints on the grass that is bound to suffer a heavy toll, as diligent as the ground-staff are.
Who does the prevailing weather conditions favour? The courts are going to be playing faster than normal – few can doubt that. On the men’s side, players like Argentina’s Juan Martin Del Potro, a former semi finalist, and both Marin Cilic – who won the title Queen’s for a second time in mid June – and Milos Raonic have reached the finals in SW19 so they may be looking ahead with bolstered confidence.
In the case of Raonic however, his physical frailty is a balancing concern. He withdrew from his last event mid-match and playing best of five set matches in unremitting heat when you are enduring the odd niggle is not a favourable prospect.
The hopes of success for Canada – short term as well as long – are going to be better served by flashy left-hander Denis Shapovalov, not least when his devil of a draw was eased on the eve of the championships by a decision which shook the British game rigid.
Everything had looked rather good for Andy Murray in the two weeks leading up to the tournament. After 324 days without a competitive match as he struggling to nurse a long-standing hip complaint, Murray stepped back into competition at Queen’s Club and was drawn to face Nick Kyrgios, a match fraught with intrigue. Murray took the Australian to three sets but as the match neared its completion, the courtside sense was that the 31-year-old was asking his body for more than it could deliver.
That loss, plus another in Eastbourne to his replacement as the British No.1, Kyle Edmund, was chalked down to him not being match-tough enough. He seemed upbeat on the All England practice court but the eve-of-event conversation with his fitness team required absolute honesty on all sides and the decision was taken ‘with a heavy heart’ for him to withdraw.
He said: “If I had to stop [playing at all] tomorrow I’d be pretty gutted with that because I still love competing, I love the sport. I enjoy watching it. I enjoy the travelling. There’s nothing about it that I’d be looking forward to giving up really. I want to keep playing as long as I can, providing I’m physically capable of doing that, and not in a lot of pain and discomfort.”
Murray remained hopeful that he would play a full US hard court season leading up to the US Open in August but hips and hard courts are hardly congenial bedfellows.
[quote]What is becoming more and more apparent is that we are nearer to the end of a great career than many suspected.[/quote]
The loss of Murray is a blow to all concerned, not least in the British game except those in his section of the draw from where Shapovalov will start to believe a little bit more in his own hopes. First, though, he has to find a way through the ‘French-Brit’ Jeremy Chardy.
Chardy, a native of Pau in France, has re-located to London and is coached at the JTC centre in Chiswick by James Davidson, one of Britain’s finest. Chardy is not a name you necessarily want to find alongside yours in the draw, for he has already had 12 wins on grass inside a month, including the ATP Challenger title in Surbiton [last year he had 18 victories the entire season, so this is remarkable form] He is back inside the top 50 for the first time in two years. Shapovalov be warned.
My suspicion is that we may well have a first time men’s champion. Roger Federer was tetchy in the tournament in Halle, losing in the final to Borna Coric of Croatia. Rafael Nadal has not played in competition since winning his 11th French Open. Novak Djokovic is still looking for his personal nirvana. If his body stands up, I have a sneaky sense that Del Potro can prevail.
On this tenth anniversary of the wondrous Nadal- Federer final – won 9-7 in the fifth set in dwindling light by the Spaniard for his first success at the tournament – it is equally wondrous that the pair remain the No.1 and No.2 seeds [Federer is behind Nadal in the official rankings but climbs one place above his rival because of Wimbledon’s grass-court formula for seeding fairness].
Don’t talk fairness to Dominika Cibulkova. The Slovak, a former semi-finalist, has been bumped from the 32 seeds because Wimbledon wanted to grant their seven-time champion Serena Williams a seeded position, though she is currently ranked No.183 having taken time away from sport to give birth to her first child last September.
Cibulkova said she had earned her spot among the seeds by virtue of her sustained work throughout the years. Wimbledon had to weigh the appropriateness of Williams not being seed and upsetting someone they’d probably struggle to put a face to the name. They chose the former, as one expected they would. To add a little bit of insult, they then drew Serena a first round opponent, Arantxa Rus of the Netherlands ranked No.107 and will almost certainly give her a Centre Court first round date to boot.
And how did Serena spend the Saturday before the Championships? Watching the Duke of Sussex playing polo in Windsor Great Park with her husband and daughter in the company of the Duchess. The big question is, will Meghan visit the All England Club by means of reciprocation? The chairman’s wife would love that!