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Steve's Weblog

An incurable tennis addict, Steve Flink has been following the game since 1965, the year he first went to Wimbledon and the U.S. Championships. Flink is a Senior Correspondent for Tennis Week Magazine, a publication he joined in 1992. From 1972-82, he put his photographic memory to use as a statistician for CBS, NBC and ABC. He has been a consultant and writer for the International Tennis Hall of Fame since 1994 and is a member of their Nominating Committee. Steve is the author of The Greatest Tennis Matches of the 20th Century. Flink's recall of match history is unsurpassed.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Wimbledon Projections

Now that the men’s and women’s draws are out, I am ready to make my forecasts for Wimbledon. I believe Roger Federer will garner a fifth straight singles championship on the Centre Court and Justine Henin will take her first title to complete a career sweep of the majors.

Let’s look closely at the draws. Federer should win his first two matches with relative ease, but could meet No. 26 seed Marat Safin in the third round. Safin has been a big disappointment all year long after making significant strides in 2006. He has played some respectable tennis along the way but has not done himself justice. But if--- and this is a big if--- he can make his way safely through the first two rounds, he might relish the chance to face the world No. 1. This is not to say that Safin will be overflowing with confidence coming into a meeting with Federer, but he would probably cast aside any inhibitions and he just might remind us all again what a great player he can be.

Safin did topple Federer in that epic, five set semifinal at the Australian Open in 2005 and he is one of the few players in this sport who can stand toe to toe with Federer and hold his own from the baseline. His two-handed backhand is a superb shot and he can do a lot of damage with that shot in crosscourt exchanges with Federer, forcing a lot of backhand errors from the No. 1 player in the world. If we are fortunate enough to get this third round duel, I think it might be a dandy. But the nod here goes to Federer in four tough sets.

In the round of 16, Federer will probably take on the very capable Dmitry Tursunov, the No. 21 seed. Tursunov might need to get past Tommy Haas and James Blake to earn the right to play Federer, but the Russian is coming off an impressive semifinal appearance at Queen’s Club and he is in good form. He could well take a set off Federer, but I can’t see Federer losing that match. In the quarterfinals, Federer figures to meet No. 5 seed Fernando Gonzalez in a repeat of the Australian Open final. Gonzalez has not been able to play at the lofty level he reached in Melbourne, but he knows what he is doing on every surface. He will test Federer for a set, but I still see him bowing in straight sets.

It is not easy to select Federer’s potential semifinal opponent. No. 3 seed Andy Roddick--- who lost to the Swiss in the 2003 semifinals and the 2004-2005 finals--- is the most likely to emerge from a tough section of the draw and make it to the penultimate round. Roddick will, however, have his work cut out for him. In the round of 16, he could take on Ivan Ljubicic, who always pushes Roddick hard. They would inevitably play at least two tie-breaks and maybe more, because these are two of the biggest and best servers in tennis. In the tight situations, though, I see Roddick holding up marginally better and he should win that match in four sets.

If that is the case, Roddick would probably play the gifted yet streaky Richard Gasquet. Gasquet has probably the best one-handed backhand in the game and he is a brilliant shot maker, but he remains a less than stellar match player. He might play Andy Murray in the round of 16 but Murray--- if he does not pull out of the tournament--- will be coming in cold after being out with a wrist injury. He could well lose in the third round to the winner of the tournament’s most appealing first round match which pits four time former semifinalist Tim Henman,32, against former world No. 1 Carlos Moya, who is 30.

Another intriguing match would be a potential second round collision between Gasquet and his fellow Frenchman Nicolas Mahut, who just reached the final at Queen’s Club, defeating Ljubicic and Nadal and reaching match point before losing a gripping final with Roddick. Gasquet will need to pull out all the stops in that match but I see him surviving in five tumultuous sets. In any event, I look for Roddick to overcome Gasquet to set up that semifinal appointment with Federer. Roddick is 1-13 lifetime against his towering adversary, including those three defeats at Wimbledon from 2003-2005.

Nevertheless, I think he would play a whale of a match if he gets another crack at his nemesis. After playing well in a four set loss last year to Federer in the U.S. Open final and then squandering three match points in a round robin contest in Shanghai, Roddick imploded against a top of the line Federer in the semifinals of the Australian Open in January. He did not compete well. But they have not met since, and Roddick knows full well that Wimbledon--- despite his prior setbacks against Federer--- is one of his best chances to succeed against the four time champion. In the end, I look for Federer to prevail in five sets.

Rafael Nadal has a remarkably tough draw. The No. 2 seed opens against the big serving Mardy Fish, who could make it interesting--- at least for a while--- with his attacking tactics. Nadal might have to play the dangerous Robin Soderling of Sweden (the No. 28 seed) in the third round. Next up on the list could be Mikhail Youzhny (the No. 14 seed) who beat the Spaniard at the U.S. Open in the quarterfinals last year and then again upended Nadal earlier this year on hard courts.

Defeating the likes of Soderling and Youzhny would only put Nadal into the quarterfinals. Waiting for him there might well be the big hitting Tomas Berdych, the No. 7 seed. Although Nadal took apart Berdych earlier this season on clay in Monte Carlo, he well remembers losing to Berdych twice last year in faster conditions. Berdych was just victorious on the grass in Halle and is very hard to contain with his flat, penetrating ground strokes, most notably his excellent two-hander. If he plays Nadal, I see him winning in five sets.

Who would Berdych meet in the semifinals? I believe it will be Novak Djokovic, the No. 4 seed. Djokovic could find himself matched up against Ivo Karlovic, the 6’10" Croatian who is surely the most dangerous floater in the draw. The towering Karlovic seems to serve out of a tree and he has improved the rest of his game significantly, but I still envision Djokovic winning the crucial points and gaining a well earned win. Next up for Djokovic would be 2002 champion Lleyton Hewitt in the round of 16. Hewitt would fight him with all of his immense heart, but in the end Djokovic would be too versatile off the ground and his serve is a much larger weapon. So I look for Djokovic to win that one in four sets. Meanwhile, 2006 semifinalist Marcos Baghdatis, the No. 10 seed, should have a fierce test with No. 23 David Nalbandian. Bagdhatis should win in five sets, and then could meet No. 6 seed Nikolay Davydenko. That could be another bruising contest but Bagdhatis is more comfortable on the grass and he would win in four sets.

So I am picking Djokovic to beat Bagdhatis in four sets to set up a semifinal with Berdych. Djokovic will use his more versatile skills to win in four sets over Berdych to reach his first major final. He will then make a go of it against Federer and take the first set, but Federer will find his range and start picking his rival apart, attacking at all the right times. Federer will thus become only the second man in modern times along with Bjorn Borg (1976-80) to win five men’s titles in a row.

And what of the women? The biggest shame of all is that two-time former champion Serena Williams and world No. 1 Henin are on a collision course for a quarterfinal meeting. It was unfortunate that these two great players--- who have collected 14 Grand Slam tournament singles titles between them--- had to play each other in the quarterfinals of the French Open. They should meet no earlier than the semifinals, and a final round duel would be the most fitting.

Serena is seeded seventh. A good case could have been made for her to be seeded among the top four. But this will be fascinating to see how the two champions respond. In Paris, Henin easily dismissed Williams in straight sets with a solid, workmanlike performance. She is clearly the better player on clay. On grass, Serena would appear to have the edge. The one time they met at Wimbledon--- in the 2003 semifinals--- Serena beat Henin 6-3, 6-2. Serena’s first serve will be the key to the outcome. If she can be concentrated on serve, get at least 60% of her first serves in, and control the tempo from the baseline with her forehand, she would stand a good chance of winning.

But I think Henin is primed for this tournament. She has been in the finals twice, losing in three sets to Venus Williams six years ago, and then deteriorating after winning the first set against Amelie Mauresmo last year. If she can keep attacking as she did last year on the grass, she will demonstrate that no one in the business of women’s tennis volleys better. She has to take the upper hand whenever possible against Serena. I think Henin will win a stirring encounter 4-6, 7-6, 7-5.

In the bottom section of that top half of the draw, the surging Jelena Jankovic figures to come through to reach her third semifinal at a Grand Slam event and her second in a row. Jankovic will need to work hard to beat No. 16 seed Shahar Peer in the round of 16 but she should get through that one in three sets. In the quarters, she would conceivably face either 1997 champion Martina Hingis or more likely Anna Chakvetadze, the No. 8 seed from Russia. Jankovic will get the job done against either player, and then earn a semifinal with Henin. Henin will win that one in straight sets, following up on her emphatic triumph over Jankovic in the French Open semifinals.

No. 2 seed Maria Sharapova has been progressing nicely after being out with a shoulder injury for so long. Her semifinal showing at Roland Garros was unexpected, and it gave her some much needed match play. Then she lost narrowly to Jankovic in the final on the grass in Birmingham. Sharapova has played great tennis at Wimbledon year after year, winning the title in 2004, reaching the semifinals the past two years. She could have a tough match in the fourth round against either Venus Williams or Dinara Safina but on current form Sharapova should prevail.

I look for No. 5 seed Svetlana Kuznetsova to play Sharapova in the quarters. That would be a hard fought contest but Sharapova would win in two close sets to advance to the semifinals. It is difficult to predict Sharapova’s semifinal opponent. Pushing hard will be 2006 champion Mauresmo and French Open finalist Ana Ivanovic. Mauresmo could be in trouble against No. 14 seed Nicole Vaidisova if they play in the round of 16 but the Frenchwoman would squeeze that one out in three demanding sets. Ivanovic might have to deal with No. 11 seed Nadia Petrova in the fourth round, but Petrova has been injured too often and has not been at her best this year. So I look for Ivanovic to reach the semifinals.

Sharapova-Ivanovic would be a repeat of the French Open semifinals, which Ivanovic won with sweeping assurance. I look for Sharapova to turn the tables and win in three entertaining sets.
So then we would have a terrific final between Henin and Sharapova. Henin would surely like to make amends for losing in straight sets to Sharapova in the 2006 U.S. Open final. If Sharapova serves magnificently and belts her ground strokes with enough depth and velocity to keep Henin at bay, she would earn a second title on the Centre Court. But I am picking Henin to win the tournament with a 7-5, 3-6, 6-4 win over the Russian.


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