Monday, June 13, 2005

Roger Goes For Three Straight Wimbledons

The most coveted Grand Slam gets underway next Monday at the All England Club in London. Swiss spectacular Roger Federer will attempt to win his third consecutive Wimbledon. If the 23-year-old world number one can achieve the feat, he will become almost as synonymous on grass as American legend Pete Sampras. Sampras won a remarkable seven of his men's all-time best 14 slams there.

While it still would pale in comparison to Pistol Pete, if Roger wins again, he can match Sampras' run of three straight Wimbledons ('93 - 95) at the same age. It would also be his fifth career slam in the last three years, which ironically began with a straight set conquest of Aussie Mark Phillippousis.

In a disappointing season by Federer's standards, having been eliminated in the semifinals at both the Australian and French championships, he will have plenty of incentive to hoist the trophy again.

Amazingly, despite a brilliant record of 51-3 with seven titles this year, it doesn't measure up because Federer is now judged on how many slams he wins. If he were to fall short on grass, it would be considered a major disappointment for the world's best player. The great players raise the bar and that's where Federer is in his career.

So, who will challenge him in his quest for a three-peat?

Last year's runner-up in a hard fought four set final and second seed Andy Roddick should be one of his adversary's prime competition at this year's event. The 22-year-old American is the game's hardest server and possesses a dynamite forehand in his arsenal. He hasn't won a major since the '03 U.S. Open and should be determined to win his second career slam. He recently won his third straight championship at Queens Club in London, a warmup event. With disappointing results thus far, a semifinal defeat in Sydney to Lleyton Hewitt and a second round exit at Roland Garros, Roddick has much to prove.

Soon to be married Aussie Lleyton Hewitt also will be returning for this year's third slam. After a great showing back home, losing to Marat Safin in four at the Australian Open final, the 24-year-old third seed missed the French Open with a thigh injury. But the fiery competitor is finally back on the court and will look to make a run at his second Wimbledon and third career slam. Hewitt was the last man besides Federer to win at the All England Club, when he defeated David Nalbandian in straight sets for the title three years ago.

The enigmatic Safin took Australia by storm, finally capturing his second slam after more than a four year drought since taking the 2000 U.S. Open over Sampras. The 25-year-old Russian has finally matured and could be primed for a run on grass. After his thrilling five-set semifinal victory over Federer in Australia, he put everyone on notice that he was back. Recently, Federer exacted some revenge at Halle, Germany, besting Safin in three hard fought sets. It was his third straight year with a win there and 29th consecutive win on grass. Roger's last defeat came to Mario Ancic in the first round of '02 Wimbledon. Ancic could be a threat this year as last year he made it all the way to the final four before losing to Roddick in five.

Another contender could be London's own Tim Henman, a four-time semifinalist at the event. Now a seasoned vet, the 30-year-old Henman will be seeded sixth. This could be one of his last opportunities to make a run at the title. The British faithful will be solidly behind their man in his attempt to become the first Englishman to capture Wimbledon since 1936 when Fred Perry took the title.

Teenage Spanish sensation and French Open champion Rafael Nadal will be seeded fourth despite not being known as a grass court player. The clay court specialist will try to build on his impressive season. Though he doesn't have a huge serve, Nadal carries a lethal forehand and can run down any shot. His flambuoyant personality should serve him well in unfamilar surroundings.

Former 1992 champion and eight-time grand slam winner Andre Agassi pulled out of the tournament for the second year in a row with a nerve injury. The same injury was too much for the popular American star to overcome in a five set first round loss to Jarkko Nieminen at the French Open. At age 35 and needing cortisone shots just to get back on the court, it looks more and more like retirement could be on the horizon. It would be sad to see such a great player leave the sport not on his own terms. But it doesn't make sense for him to continue playing with such discomfort. Time will tell.

Other players who will not be competing are Carlos Moya and Gaston Gaudio due to shoulder injuries.

Bracket Breakdown: In Federer's bracket, if he does run into trouble, it could be against Swedish bomber Joachim Johansson. If Johansson can serve his way through the bottom half, he could wind up meeting Federer in the quarters. Despite being seeded 11th, Johansson might be the most dangerous player in that bracket. He is an imposing figure with a huge serve and Roddick-like forehand. That should give him a shot on the fast surface. One slam note: Federer's last two semi defeats at the Australian and French came on his opponents' birthdays. Ironically, Johansson turns 23 on July 1st. If you believe in that kind of karma, keep a close eye on that if they meet.

Hewitt's bracket is loaded with stiff competition. He could wind up playing American nemesis James Blake in the second round. In the past, their matches have been heated but Hewitt has always prevailed. He could wind up meeting American Taylor Dent in the fourth round. Much will depend on Dent's health. In the bottom half, Safin could have his hands full in the second round against '03 finalist Philippoussis. Last year, after a first round exit, the Russian proclaimed that he'd never return to play there. Well, if he is to meet Hewitt in the elite eight, he'll probably have to go through Philippoussis and Ancic.

Nadal's bracket doesn't have many great grasscourt players. However, if he is to advance, he could play Frenchman Richard Gasquet in a third round rematch of the French. If he gets by him, '02 finalist Nalbandian could be waiting in the round of 16. The top half of the draw is wide open. Highest seeds are Guillermo Canas, Thomas Johansson and Tommy Haas. It's possible that form won't hold. If it does, Canas could meet either Johansson or Haas in the fourth round. If there are upsets, a darkhorse like Max Mirnyi or Andrei Pavel could get through to meet either Nadal or Nalbandian in the quarters.

Roddick's bracket is filled with quality grasscourt players. In the bottom half of the draw, Roddick could meet Croat Ivo Karlovic in the second round. This would not be an easy challenge considering Andy defeated him in two tiebreaks at Queen's for the title. If he gets by him, the third round should be a breeze. But the round of 16 could pose a problem if Xavier Malisse comes through. He would have to get by Guillermo Coria in the second round and possibly Ivan Ljubicic in the next round. The top portion consists of Henman, Sebastien Grosjean and David Ferrer. Henman should cruise through the first two rounds and could play Alexander Popp or big server Wayne Arthurs in the third round. If Ferrer gets through his first two matches, he could square off against Grosjean for a chance to get to the round of 16. Henman should probably meet Grosjean for a chance to play Roddick in the final eight.

Picking The Final Four: It's hard to pick against Federer. He should cruise through the first four rounds before he's challenged in the quarterfinals by Johansson. Look for Roger to prevail in four to reach the semifinals.

Hewitt is projected to face Safin. But don't expect it to happen. Safin's draw will drive him nuts. If he gets by Philippoussis, Ancic will be waiting in the fourth round. Considering that this is Ancic's best surface and he made the semis last year, look for him to take out Safin and set up a potential classic quarter against Hewitt. With contrasts in styles, it should go five. Logic would point to Hewitt's grit and stamina wearing down the bigger player. But this is Ancic's match to lose. I'll pick him in an upset.

I like Nalbandian to eliminate Nadal if the French Open champ gets there. He could meet Haas or Johansson for a chance to get to the final four. Nalbandian should beat either.

Roddick should get through the first four rounds. He'll meet the winner of Henman-Grosjean. It's hard to pick against Henman in that atmosphere. But Grosjean is a tough opponent which probably means it will go the distance. I'll take Henman because I think he's got one last run in him. Against Roddick, that would be a epic battle between the big server and the beautiful striker of the ball up at net. But Andy's draw is easier. He should be able to wear down Henman and prevail in four despite the overwhelming support for Tim.

In what promises to be a great match, look for Federer's experience to win out against Ancic. Roddick should get by Nalbandian in a grueling five set marathon much like their U.S. Open semi showdown a couple of years ago.

Final Prediction: Championship rematches rarely occur. Especially at the All England Club. But I feel these are the two best players on this surface. If it comes down, look for it to go five this time. I still like Federer to prevail and take his third straight Wimbledon. It should be thrilling.


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