Who will rule on grass?
Known for its pristine grass courts, adherence to tradition and near-deification of past greats, Wimbledon, the third grand-slam of tennis in this calendar has begun! Though two of the past champions, Roger Federer and Petra Kvitova, are the favourites in their respective draws, the smart money is still strongly against them, because both the men's and women's tennis tours are harder to predict today than they have been in years. Federer, the 35-year-old seven-time Wimbledon champion, has posted a stunning 24-2 record this season. At the Australian Open, he won his first major since 2012, and last week he claimed the title at the grass-court warm-up in Halle, for the ninth time in his career. With a newly aggressive backhand, he has now defeated Rafael Nadal, his long-time rival, three times in a row—a feat he had never accomplished in the pair's 34 previous meetings. Yet it remains unclear whether Federer has truly come close to regaining his peak form. At the end of last season, men's tennis reached its baseline-grinding apex in the rivalry between Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic, each of whom has won the Wimbledon twice in the past four years.
After opening the season with a tantalising three-set final in Doha, in which Djokovic triumphed, both lost early in Melbourne. Neither man has been a factor since, winning only one title each. Federer has not met either one in 2017, facing top-ten players other than Nadal only three times. According to Elo, a rating system that awards points based on the quality of opponents faced, Federer still trails Djokovic, in large part because most of his 24 wins in 2017 have come against middling competition. After an encouraging run to the semi-finals at the French Open last month, Murray looked to be returning to the form that earned him the world's top ranking last fall; bettors also briefly.
After an encouraging run to the semi-finals at the French Open last month, Murray looked to be returning to the form that earned him the world's top ranking last fall; bettors also briefly favoured him over Federer for the Wimbledon title. Even Murray's indestructible return game failed to show up that day, ending a nearly two-year streak of 136 straight matches, in which he won at least one of his opponent's service games. Murray is currently struggling with a hip injury, and has since withdrawn from the pre-Wimbledon exhibition event at Hurlingham. The other three members of the men's top five have problems of their own. While Djokovic's struggles have dropped him to fourth place in the official ranking table – a position he hasn't held for nearly eight years, Nadal has yet to play a grass-court match this year. He had elected to rest following his comprehensive run to his tenth French Open title, and has not beaten a top-ten opponent on the surface since 2011.
Similarly, Stan Wawrinka, the Roland Garros runner-up, who has ridden a late-career surge to three major titles, has never been a threat on grass courts. The same transition is taking place on the women's tour, at a much faster pace. Like Federer, Kvitova may have as much to worry about with youngsters than she does with her traditional rivals. After 20-year-old Jelena Ostapenko broke through with a shock French Open title last month, three 21-year-olds made moves at the first four grass-court warm-up events. Donna Vekic of Croatia upset Johanna Konta, a home favourite, in Nottingham. In a season filled with the unexpected—no top seed has yet won a title at the Premier-level or above—the success of Kvitova's comeback has been one of the biggest surprises.
Even though she has yet to face a top-ten opponent this year, her past success on grass courts—she won the Wimbledon title both in 2011 and 2014—makes her a formidable opponent. Two weeks from now, members of tennis's old guard may well assume their usual positions hoisting hardware at the All-England Club. But as the elites of the men's tour loosen their grip, and the next generation of women force their way into the mix, the pantheon of Wimbledon greats will soon need to make room for some new names.