Case can be made for any of the Big Four winning Wimbledon
The grass has been cut, the strawberries have been picked and the public address system has been tested. As the All England Club prepares to open its gates this morning for the start of the 125th Championships, what price on the first announcement beginning: "The latest news from the Met Office..."
After two successive Wimbledons blessed by glorious weather – an inevitable consequence of the building of a retractable roof over Centre Court – the next few days promise a return to more familiar scenes on the other courts with the ground staff rushing for the covers as the heavens open. The weather forecast is not as bad as was feared a day or two ago, but some interruptions look inevitable.
The Centre Court roof, of course, ensures that there will always be play, a relief, no doubt, both to broadcasters and to those television viewers who can recount every point of the 1980 McEnroe-Borg tie-break ball-by-ball or who used to live in fear of Cliff Richard being handed a microphone again.
Besides, not even the weather could cast a pall over what promises to be a memorable tournament. While the return of the Williams sisters and the resurgence of Maria Sharapova will revive what had been flagging interest in the women's game, the focus of the next fortnight will be on the four men who have strengthened their domination of men's tennis in the last year and reinforced the view that this is a golden age for the sport.
You could make a case for any of the big four holding aloft the winner's trophy in 13 days' time. Rafael Nadal, the defending champion and world No 1, has won the title in his last two visits and reached the final in the two before that, losing to Roger Federer on both occasions. Federer himself, having seen his run of seven successive appearances in the final ended in the quarter-finals last year, looked in excellent shape at the French Open and would love nothing more than to win his seventh Wimbledon title, equalling Pete Sampras's tally.
Nevertheless, for most of this year the game's big two have been overshadowed by the extraordinary achievements of Novak Djokovic, whose six-month unbeaten run of 43 matches was finally ended by Federer in Paris. The 24-year-old Serb will replace Nadal as world No 1 if he reaches the final here, even if the Spaniard wins the title.
Last but not least, can Andy Murray finally end Britain's 75-year wait for a Wimbledon champion? The 24-year-old Scot, who plays Spain's Daniel Gimeno-Traver this afternoon, has reached the semi-finals two years in succession and has never had better preparation for his home Grand Slam tournament, having followed up the best clay-court campaign of his life with victory in the Aegon Championships at Queen's Club last weekend.
Nadal, nevertheless, remains the player to beat. The 25-year-old Spaniard, who opens the tournament on Centre Court against the American Michael Russell, has increasingly got the measure of Federer, even though the surface will favour the Swiss over the next fortnight, and has beaten Murray here twice in the last three years without dropping a set. The biggest imponderable could be the form of Djokovic, who has not been at his best on grass in the past but has taken the sport by storm on all other surfaces this year.
Asked yesterday to assess the form of the big four, Nadal said: "We're playing well. I think Novak has had a fantastic season. The first six months were really unbelievable. Roger has had a very good season, especially at this last tournament at Roland Garros. He played fantastic. Andy too. He had a very good start in Australia. Afterwards he had one month that was probably a little bit tough for him, but he had a fantastic clay-court season and won Queen's.
"I did very well in the first six months. I lost a few matches, but the defeats were all in finals. I won three and I won Roland Garros a few weeks ago. That was a very important title for me. And I'm here. Forget about the past. Just looking at this tournament, it's always going to be a big challenge, but I love playing on grass. I love playing in this fabulous place, so I am excited to be back here."
With a potential third-round confrontation against the big-serving Milos Raonic perhaps in mind, Nadal added: "The only problem on grass sometimes is if you play against a big, big server, because the game is too fast and it's not nice to play. You feel that for a lot of games you don't touch the ball."
Following his exertions in the clay-court season, including the successful defence of his French Open title, Nadal looked exhausted when he lost to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga at Queen's but has been revitalised by a break back home.
"I've played fantastic rounds of golf," he laughed. "The best two weeks of my life in Majorca. I went out for one day for a party with friends and I stayed with my family. I spent the weekend with friends, family, relaxing a little bit. That was something I needed. I hadn't spent a weekend at home since February, so I needed it. I enjoyed it a lot."
Now, however, it is back to work. "I love to play big matches," Nadal said. "I love to play in big stadiums like here, historic stadiums like Wimbledon. So for me, tomorrow, when I start playing the first match of the tournament on the Centre Court, it is a dream. That's my inspiration, trying to live these moments."
Fantastic four: form and fitness of the leading contenders to win the men's singles
By Paul Newman
Rafael Nadal (Spain, aged 25, world No 1)
Form Until defeat at Queen's, had reached final of last seven tournaments. Lost to Djokovic in four successive finals but went on to retain French Open title
Fitness Has had no recurrence of past knee problems but looked exhausted at Queen's
Wimbledon pedigree In his last four appearances has lost only two matches, both against Federer in finals
Strengths Huge forehand, hit with fearsome top spin. Plays big points superbly and is game's greatest competitor
Weaknesses Volleying has improved, but can still be reluctant to come to net
Novak Djokovic (Serbia, aged 24, world No 2)
Form Did not lose a match between end of November and French Open semi-finals. Has won seven titles already this year
Fitness Suspect in the past – as shown by some mid-match retirements – but has managed schedule well this year. Past problems with allergies solved by switch to gluten-free diet
Wimbledon pedigree Has reached semi-finals twice (2007 and 2010) but has not looked his best on grass
Strengths Speed, agility, improved serve, powerful backhand
Weaknesses Hard to identify any, but does not volley as well as Federer or Murray
Roger Federer (Switzerland, aged 29, world No 3)
Form Has not won a Grand Slam title since last year's Australian Open but has shown improved form of late, particularly when reaching French Open final
Fitness Pulled out of pre-Wimbledon grass-court tournament at Halle after tough campaign in Paris but no problems now
Wimbledon pedigree Impeccable. Has won title six times and defeat in last year's quarter-finals ended run of seven successive appearances in final
Strengths Forehand, variety of serve, volleys, big-match temperament
Weaknesses Rarely comes up short against the lesser talents but loses more matches than he wins against Nadal and Murray
Andy Murray (Britain, aged 24, world No 4)
Form Followed best clay-court season of his career with victory at Queen's Club in first outing on grass this year
Fitness Hurt ankle tendon in French Open and has been nursing it ever since. Little sign of a problem at Queen's, but seven rounds of five-set matches could take toll
Wimbledon pedigree Improved progress every year until beaten by Nadal in last year's semi-final, a second successive loss at that stage
Strengths Backhand (sliced and two-handed), return of serve, speed
Weaknesses Forehand can be unreliable. Can sometimes be too passive in his approach
In true British summer fashion the forecast for today is for showery outbreaks of rain. Top temperatures will be 17°C and humidity at 91 per cent. There will be a light breeze (5mph southerly).
Live action: BBC 2: 12pm-3.25pm, 5.50pm-8pm. BBC 1: 1.45pm-6pm
Highlights: BBC 1: 8-9pm
Federer 2-1, Nadal 5-2, Djokovic 4-1, Murray 6-1, Del Potro 25-1, Tsonga 33-1, Soderling 50-1, Roddick 50-1.
S Williams 3-1, Sharapova 9-2, V Williams 8-1, Li 8-1, Kvitova 9-1, Wozniacki 10-1, Azarenka 16-1 Zvonareva 16-1 Odds: William Hill
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