Seeds on dangerous ground as the heat takes hold

The start of the second week marks the beginning of the business end of the tournament and the big names left had better look out. By Paul Newman
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The Independent Online

Welcome to Wimbledon Mark II. After its traditional day of rest on the middle Sunday the All England Club will open its gates this morning for the start of the second week. "You almost have to view it as a new tournament," Andy Murray said as he looked forward to his fourth-round match against Richard Gasquet. "You have to be fired up for the first ball on Monday."

Players at every Grand Slam tournament talk about aiming to get into the second week. At the Australian, French and US Opens, where play is continuous through the fortnight, the phrase has little meaning. At Wimbledon, provided the weather has not played havoc with the schedule, reaching the second week means crossing a clearly defined boundary.

In theory – and this year in practice – the third rounds of both the men's and women's singles are completed by Saturday night, giving everyone a rest day on Sunday and paving the way for arguably the best day of the whole tournament. All 16 players in both the men's and women's singles play today on middle Monday. For the remaining top seeds, who start meeting each other for the first time, the serious business begins after a week of matches against lower-ranked opponents.

In an age when the vast majority of players do not even see a grass court for 11 months of the year, seedings can mean very little at Wimbledon. Look at what Venus Williams (below) achieved in winning the title in 2005 and 2007, when she was seeded No 14 and No 23 respectively.

Goran Ivanisevic famously won Wimbledon in 2001 after gaining entry to the tournament with a wild card and in the following year only two of the top 16 seeds – Lleyton Hewitt and Tim Henman – made it to the fourth round, with Roger Federer (first round) and Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi (both second round) among the players who made early departures.

This year six of the top 16 men have lived up to their seedings, Federer (No 1), Rafael Nadal (2), Gasquet (8), Marcos Baghdatis (10), Murray (12) and Stanislas Wawrinka (13). All will tread warily today. Gasquet and Murray face each other, Baghdatis meets Feliciano Lopez, one of three Spanish left-handers remaining in the draw and a player who loves playing on quicker courts, and Wawrinka, takes on the revitalised Marat Safin, who would have every reason to fancy his chances of making it to the semi-finals.

Although Federer is taking on a former champion in Lleyton Hewitt – the Australian is the only other former winner in the draw and was the last man other than the Swiss to win the title – Nadal looks to have the tougher task against Mikhail Youzhny.

The Russian has won four of his 10 matches against the Spaniard, knocked him out of the US Open two years ago and beat him 6-0, 6-1 in their last meeting in the Chennai final in January. They met at the same stage here last year, when Nadal recovered to win from two sets down. The world No 2 will appreciate the size of his task, though his grass-court game has improved noticeably since last year, a fact that was underlined when he beat Ivo Karlovic, Andy Roddick and Novak Djokovic at Queen's Club to take the Artois title a fortnight ago.

There has been little in the first week to suggest we are not heading for a third successive Federer-Nadal final. The world No 1 has not dropped a set in his first three matches, even if he has yet to lift the question marks that have hung over him since illness disrupted his start to the year. Nadal was taken to four sets by Ernests Gulbis but swept Nicolas Kiefer aside in his next match. Considering how close he got to beating Federer last year, the ever-improving Nadal still has the look of the next champion.

If Djokovic, Roddick and David Nalbandian head the high-profile list of early losers among the men, the exits of Ana Ivanovic and Maria Sharapova, the first and third seeds respectively, inflict a deeper blow on the female side. Following the retirements in the last year of Justine Henin, Martina Hingis and Kim Clijsters, the women's game needs its two most glamorous and marketable players to figure prominently at its biggest events.

Nine of the top 16 women's seeds have made it to the second week, but at this stage it is hard to see the eventual winner not being a Williams sister.

Neither Serena nor Venus have been at their best so far, but you learn never to write them off. They have won six of the last eight titles here and could yet meet for the third time in a Wimbledon final.

Just as importantly, their closest rivals have been less than convincing. Jelena Jankovic, the world No 2, has been limping through in familiar fashion (the Serb was walking around the All England Club yesterday wearing a substantial knee support), Svetlana Kuznetsova (No 4) never convinces on grass and Elena Dementieva (5) has struggled to put away moderate opposition. The strongest challenge to the Williams sisters could yet come from teenagers like Agnieszka Radwanska or Victoria Azarenka.

The continuing success of the Williams sisters – not to mention the progress of Bethanie Mattek, who meets Serena today – provides some consolation for American tennis after the poor showing by the country's men.

For the first time since 1926 only one American reached the third round. Bobby Reynolds, the world No 102, lost to Lopez on Friday.

One of the joys of Wimbledon is its ability to throw up unlikely heroes and heroines and the first week will be remembered for the bold exploits of players like Alla Kudryavtseva and Zheng Jie – conquerors of Sharapova and Ivanovic respectively. The second week, however, is when the big names should come out to play.