The sun shines brightly on the pristine grass at SW19 as Wimbledon, devoid of ranking points but full of intrigue, is set to kick off on Monday. Two of the main draw’s biggest personalities – Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams – were confirmed at the last moment, and the men’s World No. 1, and three of the women’s Top 20 are barred from participating in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Top seeds Novak Djokovic and Iga Swiatek, both coming into the Championships in polar opposite form, are the overwhelming favourites. The pressure of expectation weighs heavily on both as they open the play on Centre Court on Monday and Tuesday respectively.
There are questions to be asked about the form and level of each of the heavy favourites though, leaving the door slightly open for fans to see a first-time winner lift the trophy this year.
The Big 4 monopoly
The men’s singles title at SW19 has been won by one of Djokovic, Nadal, Roger Federer, or Andy Murray every single year since 2002. That streak is showing no signs of letting up either, with Djokovic and Nadal the top two seeds, and Murray a big dark horse, floating unseeded in the main draw this year.
Djokovic is the bookmakers’ favourite: the three-time defending champion, chasing a seventh London crown, having been more dominant on grass than any other player. But while the Serb came into SW19 last year with a surge of momentum and expectations behind him, it has been a muted run-up to the third Major of the year.
Djokovic’s 2022 season has been a mess, to say the least. His contentious anti-vaccination stance, which caused his notorious deportation from Melbourne ahead of the Australian Open, has been an unwelcome distraction, and also failed to allow him to compete freely all over the world. He has played only 21 matches, and as things stand, will not be travelling to New York for the US Open.
Creating momentum from scratch at a Major is something Djokovic has done before, and he has been handed a relatively easier draw. The 35-year-old has avoided any dangerous floaters in the early rounds; Nadal, Matteo Berrettini, Stefanos Tsitsipas, and Felix Auger-Aliassime are all in the other half, and Hubert Hurkacz is in the other quarter.
Nadal, on the other hand, is fresh off a record-extending 14th French Open title and 22nd Grand Slam and halfway to the Calendar Slam for the first time in his career, all enough to make him the customary favourite. But the chronic foot injury that sidelined him last year, and drove him to use pain-killing, foot-numbing injections during his recent Parisian triumph, is a cause for concern.
The 36-year-old has said the new radio frequency treatment has alleviated the pain, but only the first week of action will indicate whether he is moving and hitting the ball with power and freedom. With a fourth-round against 2017 finalist Marin Cilic looming, he will need to find as much match-sharpness as he can find early on.
So, with Daniil Medvedev and Alexander Zverev out, who is likely to lead the charge to break the Big 4’s hegemony of the Wimbledon crown? Last year’s finalist Berrettini is the top contender. The Italian, whose massive serve and forehand combination seem tailor-made for grass, would have been an outside-favourite a few months ago, after he missed the clay season for an operation in his right hand. He’s unbeaten ever since his return though, with titles in Stuttgart and the Queen’s Club making him one of the tournament favourites.
Some other names have already been mentioned, the big-serving Hurkacz, who beat Federer in straight sets in the quarterfinal last year, and the well-rounded and powerful Auger-Aliassime are both threats. Even Tsitsipas, usually out of touch on grass, picked up form by winning the title in Mallorca this week. In his form though, it is hard to look past Berrettini among the first-time champion contenders.
Can Swiatek keep her run going?
First-time Major champions are not a novelty on the WTA Tour, which regularly throws up early upsets and surprise title-winners at the biggest events. That has not been the case in 2022 though.
Ash Barty, local hero and big pre-tournament favourite, won the Australian Open earlier this year and then announced her shock retirement. Poland’s Iga Swiatek has taken over the reins in fine fashion ever since.
The 21-year-old has been on a 35-match winning streak that started in Doha back in February and lasted all the way through to the recent French Open. Her powerful game and aggressive tactics are yet to find a match, and her overwhelming dominance on the women’s tour is reminiscent of a certain American making her comeback over the next fortnight.
Swiatek is yet to prove herself on grass though. She could not go past the fourth round at SW19 last year, the only times she has ever won a main draw match there. Her power is an asset, and with a crucial and versatile return of serve in her armour, there is no reason she cannot make the necessary tweaks to excel on grass, but nerves can play a part in bringing her down.
Primarily among her challengers, is third seed Ons Jabeur. The Tunisian became the first Arab to break into the top 10 this year, but squandered her outside favourite status at the French Open with a first-round loss. With a title at the Berlin tune-up though, she will be hoping for a more impressive showing this time around.
A trio of former Wimbledon champions – Simona Halep, Angelique Kerber, and Petra Kvitova – all of whom have been handed confidence-boosting draws, will all have their eyes peeled for the top players to slip up. Kvitova, in particular, after overcoming a tough field to emerge with the title at Eastbourne this week.
Serena Williams too makes her long-awaited return to the tour, no matches in exactly one year barring a few rounds of doubles at Eastbourne last week, but self-belief intact. The American has a new coach and looks calm and fit. Winning in London is a tall order, but if momentum is under her belt, the now World No. 1204 can be a handful for anyone on her day.
Emma Raducanu, whose fairytale story to the US Open title last year began at Wimbledon, will be looking for inspiration from a partisan British crowd willing her on every chance they get. With a tough first-round encounter against Alison van Uytvanck and injury and fitness issues plaguing her first full year on tour though, it looks a big ask.
Chief among the dark horses is Beatriz Haddad Maia, a relative unknown on the tour whose 12-match winning streak resulted in back-to-back titles in Nottingham and Birmingham, and becoming the 23rd seed in the main draw at SW19. While still untested on the big stage, she is one to watch to go deep in the draw.
Wimbledon starts at 6 PM IST on Monday, June 27 on Star Sports and Hotstar.