Lords of the lawn show their expertise
Shock results prove value of grass-court pedigree in early rounds of tournament
Monday 29 June 2009
It is said that Wimbledon's courts have been slowed down so much that there is little difference between competing here and playing on the hard courts at the US or Australian Opens. It is said that the uniformity of playing surfaces and the advances in string and racket technology have produced a generation of baseline metronomes.
It is said that serve and volley is all but dead and that today's leading men play in much the same way – with much the same results – wherever they are playing and whatever the surface. Try telling that to Juan Martin del Potro, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Nikolay Davydenko, the three highest men's seeds to go out in the first week of Wimbledon. In the last year Del Potro has climbed 60 places to No 5 in the world rankings, but for the third Wimbledon in succession the Argentine went out in the second round, swept aside by Lleyton Hewitt (below), a former champion at the All England Club and still a master of grass-court tennis despite his position at No 56 in the world order.
Tsonga, in contrast to Del Potro, has a decent record on grass, but the world No 9 came up against the man mountain of men's tennis, Ivo Karlovic, who proved that a huge serve remains the most telling weapon in the thick of a grass-court battle. The Croat, who is the tallest player in the game at 6ft 10in, smashed 46 aces past Tsonga, who dropped his serve only once but still lost in four sets.
Davydenko, twice a semi-finalist at both the US and French Opens, is one of the most consistent players in the game and had won all eight of his previous matches against Tomas Berdych. However, in seven previous visits to Wimbledon the Russian has been past the second round only once, when he reached the fourth round two years ago. The result? Berdych, a former quarter-finalist and through to the second week here for the third time in four years, beat a player nine places above him in the rankings for the loss of seven games.
The differences between playing surfaces may be less of a factor than they were in the past, but the evidence of the first week here underlines the fact that grass-court pedigree still counts, which is why Roger Federer remains the favourite to win his sixth All England Club title next weekend, particularly in the absence of the injured world No 1 and 2008 champion, Rafael Nadal.
Before the tournament one of the big questions was whether Federer's success at the French Open, which completed his set of Grand Slam titles, would see him arrive in a more relaxed mood than ever, or whether he would show the nerves of a man knowing that victory would take him past Pete Sampras's all-time record of 14 Grand Slam crowns. Through the first week Federer has looked as calm as a Swiss lake on a still summer's afternoon.
Who can stop the five-times champion? Robin Soderling, beaten by Federer in the French Open final three weeks ago, is next. The Swede might suffer fewer nerves than on their last meeting, but it is hard to see a different outcome. Karlovic's thunderbolts or Fernando Verdasco's crashing forehands could pose a threat in the quarter-finals, but Novak Djokovic would probably present the greater test in the semi-finals.
Djokovic, who lost his world No 3 ranking to Andy Murray two months ago, has not had the easiest of times since winning his first Grand Slam title at the Australian Open last year. He was beaten by Marat Safin in the second round here 12 months ago, but since losing his first set last week to Julien Benneteau has won nine sets in a row. Today Dudi Sela should provide no greater threat than his 5ft 9in frame would suggest, while you would not expect Tommy Haas or Igor Andreev to trouble Djokovic unduly in the quarter-finals.
Hewitt, who is in the other half of the draw, is the only former winner in the field apart from Federer. While the Australian remains a fine player on grass it remains to be seen whether he can sustain the level he reached in beating Del Potro. The 2002 champion's fourth-round match today against Radek Stepanek should be a joy for the purists, while a potential quarter-final against Andy Roddick, who must first beat Berdych, would be an intriguing contest. Roddick's grass-court record is every bit as impressive as Hewitt's. The American lost to Federer in the 2004 and 2005 Wimbledon finals and, like Hewitt, is a four-times winner at Queen's Club.
Although Roddick's three subsequent appearances at the All England Club have ended in comparative failure the world No 6 is looking in his best shape for years, his new coach, Larry Stefanki, having advised him to lose weight over the winter.
On form and ranking Roddick would be the favourite to emerge from his quarter of the draw, while the same criteria would see Murray line up as his semi-final opponent. Murray's draw looked good a week ago and has become more enticing since the defeats of Safin and Fernando Gonzalez, who could have met him in the quarter-finals, the stage at which the Chilean beat him in the French Open.
Gonzalez's conqueror, Juan Carlos Ferrero, now meets Gilles Simon, the world No 7, the winner to face Murray or Stanislas Wawrinka in the quarter-finals. Murray beat Ferrero in the semi-finals at Queen's Club a fortnight ago, has not dropped a set in his last three matches against Simon and has a 6-2 winning record against Roddick, having won their last two meetings.
None of the players will be looking further than their next match, but for the rest of us there is the enthralling prospect of a Federer-Murray final. There has been nothing in the first week to suggest a more likely line-up.
Court circular: First-week highlights at the All England Club
*Player of the week: The five-times champion Roger Federer, who hit top form from the moment he set foot on his favourite lawn in the world.
* Performance of the week: Lleyton Hewitt's masterclass in victory over Juan Martin del Potro, the world No 5.
* Statistic of the week: Ivo Karlovic's 46 aces, which pummelled Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, the No 9 seed, into submission.
* Surprise of the week: Israel's Dudi Sela reaching the fourth round. The 24-year-old had never won a tour match on grass before last week.
* Quote of the week: "Yeah, it's surprising. I mean, you don't get that every day." Andy Murray on receiving a letter from the Queen congratulating him on his victory at Queen's Club.
* Player of the week: Venus Williams, who has looked all but unbeatable in her three straight-sets wins.
* Performance of the week:The straight-sets victory by the German teenager Sabine Lisicki over Svetlana Kuznetsova, the French Open champion.
* Statistic of the week: The number of games – none – dropped by Victoria Azarenka against Ioana Raluca Olaru.
* Surprise of the week: American Melanie Oudin, ranked No 124, beating Jelena Jankovic, a recent world No 1.
* Quote of the week: "You don't understand the heat in Florida. I needed a sweater out there." Venus Williams after beating Carla Suarez Navarro on a scorching Saturday.
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