Hotly contested Wimbledon will give meaning to 2008 tennis season.

By Wyman Meers

Sport is essentially a heightened state of being. It magnifies the great pressures and critical stakes that elicit passion without the intrusion of everyday monotony. A reflex reaction can change the outlook of a tennis match as easily as a single decision can alter the course of a life. Such moments of resonance are permanent within us, be they a handful of memories connected to define a life or a hall of champions erected to enshrine immortals.

There is a glorious absurdity in this reality. For everyday folks and world-class athletes alike, it is patently unfair to have the majority of one’s history relegated to inconsequence.

Yet when a journeyman notches the greatest win of his or her career with the hard-won upset of a title contender, the glory is intense but inevitably fleeting. And history books do not laud the perennial semifinalists nearly so much as they do a one-time champion. It is for this reason that each of us fights for the highest hanging and most delicate fruit. We long for a definition that can only be found in our actions, in our loves or in our profession. Unmistakably, for those lives devoted to tennis, winning Wimbledon is the single most defining accomplishment possible.

The Gentlemen

Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic are the world’s top three players, respectively. The threesome collectively holds every major title in tennis. Federer is defending champion at Wimbledon and also the reigning U.S. Open winner; Nadal won his fourth consecutive French Open less than a month ago; and Djokovic collected his first major in Australia this year. There is precious little hope for any man outside of these three to take the title. Going into the event, the more pressing question seems to be whether or not the trophy will change hands within this group and – if so – what the implications will be thereafter.

Roger Federer has won Wimbledon for five consecutive years as part of his mounting quest to be defined as the greatest player in the history of the sport. That honorary crown seemed all but inevitable at the close of last season, as the elegant Swiss finished 2007 a mere three major titles shy of Pete Sampras’s benchmark of fourteen Grand Slams. In 2008, however, the gap between Federer and the rest of the men’s field has closed. Roger still sits atop the world rankings and is gunning for what would be a modern era record with his sixth consecutive Wimbledon victory. Still, the fact remains Federer is yet to win a major this year and his place in finals is no longer a foregone conclusion.

This season has been Federer’s most challenging since he assumed the mantle of world’s top-ranked player. Unable to catch a break, Federer’s Wimbledon draw is relatively unfavorable. Sweden’s Robin Soderling is talented enough to make Federer’s second round tricky. France’s Gael Monfils gave Federer all he could handle in the semis at Roland Garros and potentially awaits in the third round. Looming in the fourth round is either the dangerously unpredictable Chilean, Fernando Gonzalez, or Australia’s Lleyton Hewitt. Almost unbelievably, Hewitt – the 2002 men’s singles champion – is the last man not named Federer to win Wimbledon. All of these pitfalls must be overcome simply to reach the quarters, where Federer would most likely face underachieving but potent Czech Thomas Berdych, grass court capable Spaniard Fernando Verdasco or dark horse bet Philip Kohlschreiber of Germany.

Novak Djokovic should be well-rested and awaiting Federer in the semifinal, should the five-time champ overcome all his early tests. Djokovic seemingly has the easiest path to the semifinals, although a likely second-round match against two-time Slam champion Marat Safin has to be taken seriously. For all his natural talent, however, Safin has never been at his most comfortable on grass. Other threats floating around in Novak’s section could come from lefty Feliciano Lopez or the 6’10” tall Croat, Ivo Karlovic.

American Andy Roddick opens up the bottom half of the draw and, as a two-time runner-up, should be the favorite to advance to the semifinals from this quarter. Although Andy’s countryman James Blake, Russia’s Dmitry Tursanov, underappreciated Ivan Ljubicic and even veteran Jonas Bjorkman are all undoubtedly dreaming of sneaking through the quarter of the draw that is mercifully without Federer, Djokovic or Nadal.

Second-seeded Nadal is the in-form player and has pushed Federer to come up with his best tennis in the past two Wimbledon finals. Nadal humiliated Federer in the final of the 2008 French Open and then went on to dismiss Roddick and Djokovic on route to winning his first ever grass court title at the Artois Championships in London. His march to the Wimbledon final now seems all but certain; nonetheless, Nadal’s quarter is heavy with inconsistent but talented players who may pose a threat if they get hot. Potential bumps in the road may come from American John Isner, upstart Ernests Gulbis of Latvia, German Nikolas Keifer, nemesis Mikhail Youzny, 2007 semifinalist Richard Gasquet or one-time major contender Tommy Haas. Should he win, Nadal will become the first man since Bjorn Borg to win the French Open and Wimbledon titles back-to-back.

The Ladies

The women’s game, meanwhile, is every bit as chaotic as the men’s game is uniform. The newly crowned French Open champion, Serbia’s Ana Ivanovic, has risen to number one in the world and will look to corral a sea of contenders as she attempts to define herself as leader of the pack. The draw has been kind to Ivanovic, with no obvious threats in her immediate path; however, Wimbledon has a way of bringing the best out of its former champions like no other tournament in the world.

Two-time Wimbledon champion Serena Williams can be extremely dominant on grass and will surely have something to say about Ivanovic’s intentions. Although her draw reads tough on paper, with scheduled matches against 2006 champion Amelie Mauresmo and last year’s runner-up Marion Bartoli, neither Frenchwoman should offer much resistance against Williams. Bartoli, in particular, looks to be a non-factor who likely will not live up to her billing as the eleventh seed. World number four Svetlana Kuznetsova of Russia could mount a challenge in the quarters, but Serena is overdue for a good tournament and should be a lock for the semifinals.

The third quarter of the women’s draw is anchored by the third seed and reigning Australian Open champion, Maria Sharapova, who claimed this title back in 2004 by absolutely blitzing Serena Williams in the final. Sharapova has a reasonable draw but should keep her eyes on former quarterfinalist Nadia Petrova of Russia and youngster Victoria Azarenka en route to a potential quarterfinal match with French Open runner-up Dinara Safina or 1999 winner Lindsay Davenport, who comes into the tournament nursing her son and yet another injury.

Defending champion and four-time winner Venus Williams is only seeded seventh, which is odd considering Wimbledon’s history of selective placement for players with favorable records on grass. Regardless, Venus saves her best tennis for the grass each year and – outside of unpredictable talent Daniela Hantuchova – has little to fear before a projected quarterfinal against second-ranked Jelena Jankovic. Jankovic has reached the semifinals of the two previous Slams this year and notably dismissed Venus in 2006, when Williams was also defending champion.

The Truth

No prize in tennis is more coveted or more recognized worldwide than the Wimbledon title. Past tennis greats have defined themselves as legends with their wins at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club. For two weeks champions will fight to extend their legacy while hopefuls dream of making a permanent imprint on the sport that defines them.

Yet sport, as life, is most difficult in its very simplicity. Opportunity is rare, even when it seems as abundant as blades of grass. Tennis players advance through a tournament knowing that for every victory there is a simultaneous defeat and, ultimately, only a select few are crowned as champions. This truth informs the human condition. This truth inspires the human dream. This truth is Wimbledon.


Men’s Semifinals: Federer d. Djokovic; Nadal d. Roddick
Men’s Final: Nadal d. Federer

Women’s Semifinal: Serena Williams d. Ivanovic; Venus Williams d. Sharapova
Women’s Final: Serena Williams d. Venus Williams

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