Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
Following the recently-concluded zaniness that was the French Open, will tennis order be restored at Wimbledon over the next few weeks?
Roland Garros was dominated by upsets (and more upsets), as evidenced by dismissals of the defending champions (Juan Carlos Ferrero and Justine Henin- Hardenne) over the first two rounds and exits by the top seeds (Roger Federer and J H-H) by the end of round three.
Big surprise French Open titles were captured by unseeded Argentine Gaston Gaudio and steady sixth-seeded Russian Anastasia Myskina, but don't expect either one of these players to run the table at the venerable All England Club, where big-time power is usually the name of the game. The dirt- loving/grass-hating Gaudio definitely won't title at Wimby, considering he pulled out of the event last week, citing a "foot injury."
Several men have the ability to win seven straight matches on grass, but the top contenders at SW19 figure to be reigning champ Roger Federer, U.S. Open titlist Andy Roddick, British crowd favorite "Our Tim" Henman and former Wimbledon titlist Lleyton Hewitt.
Federer captured his first Grand Slam title at Wimbledon 2003.
Federer currently owns the Wimbledon, Australian Open and Masters Cup titles and is fresh off a grass-court victory in Halle, where be handled American Mardy Fish in the final at last week's Gerry Weber Open. The world No. 1 "Fed" ruled Wimby a year ago, capped off by a straight-set victory over big Aussie Mark Philippoussis in the marquee final.
The Fed's a brilliant 39-4 this season, including a perfect 5-0 on grass, and it should come as no surprise that he's my pick to secure another Wimbledon crown, despite coming off a disappointing third-round loss at the hands of former world No. 1 "Guga" Kuerten at the French. The Grass, however, is a completely different ballgame than red clay, which is Federer's least-favorite surface, even though he excels on all coverings -- grass, dirt, carpet, hardcourt or otherwise.
Roddick certainly has a near-perfect grass-court game, highlighted by his unrivaled first serve which was clocked at a record 153 mph at Queen's Club just last week. But unfortunately for the slugging American, if me meets up with the Fed at Wimby, the elegant Swiss is a laughable 5-1 lifetime against him, including a relatively-easy straight-set victory in the semifinals at the All England Club a year ago.
Henman is playing some of the best tennis of his career right now, as evidenced by his shocking run into the French Open semis earlier this month. The serve-and-volley star typically loathes the red clay and thrives on the faster surfaces, such as his beloved grass, making his trek in Paris all the more remarkable.
The talented Henman has a shot to finally win a Wimbledon crown, but I think he'll need a favorable draw and the ability to overcome nerves in order to do so. He's reached Wimbledon's final four on four occasions, but has yet to secure a berth in the coveted final.
Could this be the year?
And don't discount Hewitt at the AEC. The fiery Aussie may not be at the top of his game right now, be he's always dangerous, loves playing on grass and, of course, hoisted the Wimby trophy just two years ago by pasting Argentine David Nalbandian in the final.
Hewitt was shocked by 6-foot-10 Croat Ivo Karlovic in his opening match on the storied Centre Court a year ago, marking one of the biggest upsets in Grand Slam history.
Some other gents have a chance to claim Wimbledon glory, most notably Nalbandian, Sebastien Grosjean, Marat Safin and perhaps Fish, but I wouldn't quite list any of these guys as "favorites." Safin was the January Aussie Open runner-up to the mighty Federer.
By the way, clay-court wizard Guillermo Coria, the French Open runner-up to his countryman Gaudio, will be lucky to make it out of the first week at Wimbledon. His game simply does not translate on grass.
I can guarantee that two-time finalist Andre Agassi won't win his first Wimbledon title since 1992, considering the legendary American withdrew from the event this week, citing a nagging hip injury. Agassi has lost his last four matches, dating back to March, and is still seeking that elusive 800th match win of his stellar career. He gave way to unknown Frenchman Jerome Haehnel in the opening round at the French and followed that up with a setback against young Russian Igor Andreev at the Stella Artois tourney last week.
It's difficult to say whether or not we'll see "Double A" at Wimbledon again, but hopefully he can get his act together for a push at the U.S. Open this summer.
On the women's side, some of the usual suspects will be on hand at the AEC, but the No. 1 Henin-Hardenne and her fellow Belgian Kim Clijsters will not be among them, as J H-H will skip the event as she continues to recover from a viral illness and Clijsters remains on the sidelines with a wrist injury that recently required surgery. Henin-Hardenne won three of the last five Grand Slam titles, beating Clijsters in a trio of all-Belgian finals.
The obvious favorites at SW19 appear to be Serena Williams, Venus Williams, Amelie Mauresmo, Lindsay Davenport and Jennifer Capriati, but if the capable Myskina can avoid mistakes, just as she did to beat the likes of Venus, Capriati and Elena Dementieva at Roland Garros, she'd have to be considered a serious contender.
The powerful Serena is the reigning two-time Wimbledon champion, having beaten Venus in the last two all-sibling finals there. She still appears a bit rusty, however, following her lengthy layoff following knee surgery, but she has to be my pick to three-peat next month. The six-time Grand Slam champ is certainly due for another major title, with her last one coming at Wimbledon a year ago. She skipped the 2003 U.S. Open and missed this year's Aussie Open before failing to title at Roland Garros a couple weeks back. Serena lost to Capriati in the French quarters, and also lost to Capriati in a semifinal in Rome just prior to the wacky French extravaganza.
Will Myskina follow up her French Open title with a Wimbledon crown?
The Williams sisters account for the last four Wimbledon titles, with Venus winning in 2000 and 2001 and Serena prevailing in 2002 and 2003. Davenport captured the event in 1999, which means American-born women currently own a five-year stranglehold on the sport's most-prestigious tournament, this after going 17 years without a championship at the AEC (Chris Evert, 1981).
Serena is trying to become the first woman to win three straight Wimbledons since Steffi Graf turned the trick from 1991-93 and will attempt to become the first American-born woman to corral three straight titles at the All England Club since Billie Jean King accomplished the feat from 1966-68.
Venus is in the midst of a Grand Slam drought, having failed to produce such a title since the 2001 U.S. Open. She's a four-time major champion, but it's tough to add to your Slam total when you're no longer the best player in your family. I expect that trend to continue at Wimbledon '04.
Mauresmo has a beautiful game, but she just doesn't seem to be able to get over the proverbial hump to go all the way at a major. She hasn't reached a Slam final since her only such trip at the 1999 Aussie Open.
Davenport has a perfect game for the grass, but the oft-injured star was slowed by, what else, an injury in her fourth-round French Open loss against Dementieva and hasn't reached a Grand Slam title match since winning her lone Aussie Open crown in 2000. She'd be a gutsy pick...so I'm not going to pick her.
Capriati is playing strong ball of late, but she hasn't been able to "finish" in recent Slams, as evidenced by her shocking semifinal loss against Myskina in Paris two weeks ago. And who can forget last year's memorable U.S. Open semi when she let J H-H off the ropes with her first U.S. Open final within her grasp. Those losses are always in the back of your mind, and perhaps even in the front.
Who are the ladies' Wimbledon darkhorses you say? The French Open runner-up Dementieva and her fellow Russians Svetlana Kuznetsova and Maria Sharapova (he replied). Kuznetsova blew a match point against her compatriot Myskina in a fourth-round encounter at the French, while Sharapova soared all the way to the quarters at RG. Myskina, of course, went on to paste Dementieva in the historic (if not dreadful) all-Russian final in Paris.
So, in a nutshell, I like Federer and Serena to reign at Wimby '04. But let's not forget these two players were also my picks to hoist the hardware in Paris, which proves there are no locks in this beautiful sport.
Wimbledon 2004 commences Monday.