For most folks, Tennis is synonomous with the two weeks of beautiful, fast paced, and low-bouncing play at Wimbledon. Since it’s hard to watch tennis during the rest of the season, and not well-covered compared to sports like football, a lot of people will be unaware of the context of the season, and what has lead up to the fortnight of the Championships.
Well I watch loads of Tennis and so am happy to provide a Guide to Wimbledon 2019! I’m starting this week with the men’s singles, because it’s been more predictable on the men’s tour this year than the surprising environment on the women’s side (i.e I want an extra week to prevaricate and change and re-change my predictions for the women’s singles title)
P.s – Lots of my ideas are ‘inspired’ by the wonderful coverage provided by The Tennis Podcast – they do daily pods during Wimbledon and I’d highly recommend following them during this years tournament and beyond.
The Season so far…
The season started much the way the last one closed; with relentless domination by world number one Novak Djokovic. The Serbian stormed to the first rand slam of the year; the Australian Open, after barely losing a set en route. His most impressive victory was in the final, as he dismantled his greatest rival, Rafael Nadal, in straight sets. Nadal was uncharacteristically helpless in the face of Djokovic’s game, and an enjoyable tournament therefore came to a familiar end, as Djokovic claimed his seventh title in Melbourne and his fifteenth grand slam overall, moving him clear of Pete Sampras in the all-time grand slam winners list.
The next big tournaments of the year are the ‘sunshine swing’ – the two week double-header of Indian Wells and Miami. Nadal and Djokovic both struggled after taking breaks, and so these tournaments were dominated by the third of the historic triptych, Roger Federer. Federer made it to both finals, and despite losing a brilliant match to Dominic Thiem in the desert tournament, he romped Miami, looking utterly imperious while doing so.
Austria native Thiem (my current favourite player and not-so-secret man crush) deserved his title in Indian Wells, the biggest of his career so far. Known as a clay court specialist, Thiem has adapted his game to hard courts in the past couple years and was able to play some great stuff in the spring hard court tournaments.
He took his good form into the clay court swing, where he defeated Nadal in Barcelona en route to a title there (beating the Spaniard in the eponymous stadium, ‘Pista Rafa Nadal‘). Nadal made a slow start on clay this year, losing in Monte Carlo and Madrid, before finding his best form in Rome, as he beat Djokovic in a strange but compelling three set match to clinch the title.
This set things up nicely for the second grand slam of the year, the French Open at Roland Garros. Nadal is the greatest clay court player of all time, but Djokovic had had the edge over his rival the past year, and was going for a calendar grand slam – the feat of winning each of the four majors in a row, and therefore holding the four biggest crowns in tennis simultaneously. Thiem was a genuine contender in Paris, having made the final the year before, and Federer had returned to the clay and was looking pretty handy himself.
In the end we had another familiar outcome as Nadal claimed his 12th French Open title, and eighteenth grand slam overall. Djokovic and Thiem played an epic five-set and two-day semi final, with the Austrian triumphing in the end. Nadal dispatched his other great rival, Federer, in his own semi final, ending a four year and four match losing streak against the swiss genius. The final was competitive for two sets, but in the third and fourth sets Nadal roared to victory with a storm of amazing backhands, punishing forehands and some simply outrageous volleys.
The numbers Nadal has accumulated can make the his win this year seem almost automatic, but his slow start to the clay court season shows again what a magnificent competitor and amazingly resilient human Nadal is. Roland Garros is the most physically demanding of all the slams, and Nadal’s dominance at it is one of the greatest achievements in Tennis history.
The Contenders at Wimbledon
That’s the season up to now, so who’s gonna take the biggest one of them all, the single’s crown in The Championships at Wimbledon? On the men’s side there are two names that stand out
Djokovic is, to my mind, the favourite. Defending champion, four time winner, world number one , great grass court game, unmatched fitness and competitive instinct; he’s got it all. My one doubt comes from his mentality; having failed in his quest for a second calendar slam it would be understandable if he had a dip in form or motivation.
Federer is the best grass court player of all time and has won Wimbledon more than any other male player. Nuff said really. He’s shown this year that he still can compete at the top level and win big titles. I don’t think he can beat Djokovic over five sets, so I’d put him behind the serb in terms of favourites.
Outside of those two, it’s hard to make a case for other top players being in the mix. Nadal is still an amazing player, and his epic semi final against Djokovic last year shows he can cut it on grass, but his early round form in Wimbledon has been dodgy since 2012. Last year was the first semi final he made there since 2011. If he can dodge grass court specialists in the first three or four rounds and gain confidence he could still play a big part in the business end of the championships.
Other recent grand slam finalists and winners have struggled on grass and therefore it’s hard to see them taking the Championships. Thiem is still adapting to the surface, which is so different from his beloved clay. Stan Warwrinka is coming back into form after injury, but he is, by his own admission, poor on a lawn court. Juan Martin Del Potro could do something, but he has recently had an (extremely depressing) injury setback and wont play this year”s championships.
There are some big serving, big forehand-ed top players you’d expect to make a dent on grass, which rewards big shots and serves, but none are currently playing near the level required to win a slam. Last year’s semi finalists Kevin Anderson and John Isner are in poor form at the moment, and 2016 finalist Milos Raonic is struggling with injury still, unable to play consecutively for long enough to really hit peak performance. The big three are still the three favourites
Young Players to watch
We might be light on new champions in the men’s game, but there is a surfeit of exciting young talent on the tour, three of whom I shall give you a quick introduction to.
Stefanos Tsitsipas is enjoying a breakthrough year. A 21 one year old greek who hits a nasty one handed-backhand, Tsitsipas has claimed some big scalps; beating Roger Federer in the Australian open, and Nadal on clay in Madrid. He has a brilliant variety to his game; slices, drop-shots, a willingness to attack the net. He also has an enjoyably unpredictable temper, that can add some spice to matches.
I still think he is too under-developed on grass to really bother the latter rounds of Wimbledon, but when Stef gets playing it is a sight to behold. The match him and Stan Wawrinka had at Roland Garros this year was one of the best tennis matches I have ever seen. If he manages to unwind that one-handed backhand, and can attack with his serve and forehand, he could do something at the Championships.
Alexander (Sasha) Zverev is the young player who has the greatest success on tour thus far. He has won three masters series titles – the tournaments a rung below the grand slams in prestige and prize money. The big hitting, tall, and fire-y German also won the fifth-biggest prize in men’s tennis last year when he claimed the ATP Tour Finals title in London, beating a (tired-looking) Novak Djokovic in the final.
I have my doubts about Sasha Zverev as a contender this year. He has been in poor form since winning the Tour finals in November, and has been very grumpy and chippy in press conferences. He also hasn’t really done anything at grand slam level – two meek quarter final exits in the French open are his best performances. If he sorts his attitude out and starts playing with the aggression that he really ought to play with, he might yet have a breakout Wimbledon
The player really making waves at the moment is 18-year-old Canadian sensation Felix Auger-Aliassime. The teenager has made three finals this year, and while he is yet to win a senior title, his game, his mentality, his shot selection, and his competitive instinct are all signs of a mature head on his young shoulders.
Tennis is a very physical game these days, and it is therefore difficult for young male players to make a dent at grand slams, required as they are to win five set matches. Best of five is a great format, but makes it hard for a player as green as Auger-Aliassime to progress deep into these tournaments. Keep an eye on him though, he might just be the next big thing in men’s tennis.
Other young stars to look out for include Croatian Borna Coric, big hitting Russians Karen Khachanov and Danil Medvedev, entertaining north Americans Frances Tiafoe and Denis Shapovalov, and even Italian wildcard Matteo Berettini.
I suspect we will have a familiar winner in the men’s final this year, but the tournament is packed with enough emerging talent and intriguing narratives to still make it an exciting draw.
Having said that, the women’s game is definitely more interesting-watching at the moment, and much more competitive. Tomorrow I’ll do my best to introduce the, ludicrously open, women’s tour. Hope to see you then!