Rafa, Venus prepare for Wimbledon defenses

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Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - In the category of quick turnaround, the third Grand Slam event of the year will get underway Monday, as Wimbledon 2009 will kick off just 15 days after the upset-filled French Open concluded in Paris.

The reigning champs at the prestigious All England Club are world No. 1 superstar Rafael Nadal and former top-ranked great Venus Williams. Venus beat her kid sister Serena in last year's finale at the AEC, while Nadal corralled his first-ever Big W win in a five-setter for the ages against Roger Federer, who'd been riding a 40-match winning streak at SW19 and seeking an Open Era- record sixth straight Wimbledon crown. The loss also snapped Federer's amazing 65-match grass-court winning streak.

When the smoke cleared after last year's epic Federer-Nadal showdown, most tennis experts regarded it as the greatest match ever played. And who could disagree?

Last year, Rafael Nadal became the first man in 28 years to win the French Open and Wimbledon in the same season.
It was one versus two, the favorite v. the underdog. You had arguably the greatest player of all time, Federer, against the aspiring legend, Nadal. The tough Spaniard had just beaten Federer, soundly, in the French Open final for a third straight year. But Federer was considered unbeatable on grass. The two stars had already met in five major finals, with Nadal winning three.

The incredible final was interrupted by rain on two occasions, this after wet weather delayed the start of the match earlier in the afternoon. It was ultimately completed in a Wimbledon final-record 4 hours, 48 minutes of court time.

Note: When Nadal titled at Wimbledon last year, he became the first man in 28 years (Bjorn Borg) to win the French Open and Wimbledon in the same season. Federer can duplicate the feat with a Wimby victory in two weeks.

Most expect Nadal and Federer to meet in yet another final, as the last three Wimbledon titles have been decided by these two supreme studs. Federer defeated Nadal in the 2006 and 2007 championship bouts.

Nadal, however, has beaten Federer in their last three Grand Slam title matches -- this year's Aussie Open and last year's French Open and Wimbledon events.

An injured Nadal will head to Wimbledon nursing a much-publicized sore knee, which forced him out of last week's grass-court Wimbledon tune-up at London's Queen's Club, a tournament eventually won by world No. 3 and British favorite Andy Murray.

Roger Federer had won 65 straight matches on grass before falling to Nadal at the All England Club last year.
The incredible Nadal somehow suffered a fourth-round loss two weeks ago at Roland Garros, where he was riding a seemingly-unstoppable 31-match winning streak and had never lost since making his first main-draw appearance back in 2005.

Surprisingly, it was Federer, not Nadal, who captured the French, as the sublime Swiss nailed down his first-ever Roland Garros championship to complete that elusive career Grand Slam, making him one of only six men to do so. In the process, the former world No. 1 wizard also equaled Pete Sampras with a men's record-tying 14th major title.

Needless to say, it was a big day for Roger.

Federer will now try to get back into the big win column at Wimbledon, and with Nadal nursing that sore knee...maybe he'll do it. The Swiss stalwart could also regain the No. 1 ranking by winning the title and having Nadal lose before the semis.

And speaking of the steady Murray, he's got to be considered one of the favorites in the coming weeks. He just secured his first-ever grass-court title last week in London and has been one of the top players, period, since the second half of last season.

Murray reached his first career Wimbledon quarterfinal last year and is setting his sights on a championship this time around. He can do it, but also keep in mind that a Brit hasn't won the men's title there since the legendary Fred Perry...73 YEARS AGO! But a Brit hadn't won at Queen's Club in 71 years (Henry "Bunny" Austin in 1938) before Murray turned the trick last week.

Andy Murray hopes to become the first British male in 73 years to capture Wimbledon.
A sign of things to come?

Murray appears to have a real chance, but Nadal and Federer are still the ones to beat until someone can prove otherwise. Sure, he just titled at Queen's Club, but Queen's Club is not the Big W and the 2008 U.S. Open runner-up still has yet to win the "Big One."

Back over on the women's side, the mighty Venus will seek a third straight and sixth overall Wimbledon title. The big-serving American typically saves her best tennis for the storied lawns at SW19, where she's ruled this decade by winning five of the nine titles and was the runner-up on two other occasions. She's played in seven of the nine Wimby finals in the 2000s, which translates into dominance any way you cut it.

The seven-time major champion Venus, of course, can expect some stiff opposition from Serena, a two-time Wimbledon champ and two-time runner-up this decade.

Serena owns 10 major titles overall, including wins in two of the last three Slams. She captured this year's Oz Open and last year's U.S. Open, and, of course, gave way to her big sister in last year's third all-Williams Wimbledon finale.

Can the former No. 1s Venus and Serena be challenged by current No. 1 Dinara Safina or French Open champion Svetlana Kuznetsova?

Safina has reached three of the last five major finals, losing all three. She was upset by Kuznetsova in Paris two weeks ago; pummeled by Serena in Melbourne back in January; and lost to former No. 1 Ana Ivanovic in last year's French Open title tilt.

Venus Williams already owns five Wimbledon titles this decade.
I'm sensing a pattern for Safina...one of extreme tightness when all the (Grand Slam) chips are on the table. She also lost in last year's gold medal match at the Olympic Games in Beijing.

Like her big brother Marat, Safina plays her worst tennis on grass and has never gotten past the third round in six tries at Wimbledon.

As for the two-time major champion Kuznetsova, she's also not the biggest fan of grass, but has performed in three quarterfinals (0-3) at Wimbledon.

Back over on the men's side, Nadal, Federer and Murray will also be joined in the draw by fellow Top-10 stars like Novak Djokovic, Juan Martin del Potro, two-time Wimbledon runner-up Andy Roddick and popular Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.

Djokovic is always a threat to soar into the semis, while del Potro has yet to prove he can play on grass. Roddick is enjoying a fine season so far and can certainly serve his way deep into the draw, while Tsonga is unproven on grass, but has the perfect game for the surface.

French Open semifinalist Fernando Gonzalez is a dangerous Top-10 player, but typically struggles on the lawns at Wimbledon. So I wouldn't expect a deep run from the fiery Chilean.

Dinara Safina has been the runner-up in three of the last five majors.
Does surprise Nadal slayer and French Open runner-up Robin Soderling have a shot at a strong showing at the AEC? I wouldn't think so. Grass is probably his worst surface and he's never advanced beyond the third round there.

Some other notable men at Wimbledon will be big-serving Croat Marin Cilic, the former No. 1 Safin and resurgent German Tommy Haas.

Cilic started out the year red-hot, and though he has cooled off, his game is perfectly suited for the lawns at SW19.

The two-time major champion Safin hates playing on grass, but stunned everyone by reaching the semis last year and will play at the AEC for the last time, as he expects to retire from the ATP World Tour at the end of the year.

And the oft-injured Haas has been playing great tennis of late, having reached the fourth round at the French Open, and comes off his first-ever grass-court title just last week in Halle, where he upset the former Aussie Open champ Djokovic in the Gerry Weber Open final.

Moving back over to the women, Venus, Serena, Safina and Kuznetsova could probably expect challenges from the likes of Olympic gold medalist and two- time major runner-up Elena Dementieva, U.S. Open runner-up and former world No. 1 Jelena Jankovic and ever-improving Miami champ Victoria Azarenka.

Dementieva is usually still around in the second week at a major, and has reached a quarterfinal (2006) and semifinal (2008) in her last three trips to Wimby.

Serena Williams is a two-time Wimbledon champ and lost to Venus in last year's finale.
Jankovic has been a disappointment so far this season, one in which she started at No. 1 and has since dropped to No. 6. And she's never gotten past the fourth round at her worst major...Wimbledon.

I believe the world No. 8 Azarenka is closing in on her major breakthrough, if she can harness her emotions. Could Wimbledon be the one? I don't quite think so, but I do expect her to reach at least the quarters, even though she's never advanced beyond the third round at the AEC.

Azarenka's 2009 highlight came in Miami, where she upended the mighty Serena in the final at the "Fifth Slam."

And we can't forget about Russian glamour girl Maria Sharapova. The former world No. 1 captured Wimbledon five years ago for the first of her three major titles, but she hasn't reached the semis there since 2006 and is still on the mend after missing almost 10 months of action due to a shoulder injury.

For what it's worth, I'm picking Federer to secure major title number 15 and Wimbledon championship number six. And I'll take Venus to three-peat and nail down her sixth Wimbledon victory, as well. If Venus can prevail, she'll equal the six-win total achieved by legends Suzanne Lenglen and Billie Jean King.

Steffi Graf captured the women's title seven times in the Open Era, while Martina Navratilova is the all-time leader with a whopping nine championships, including six straight at one point.

And don't forget that the venerable Centre Court has been equipped with that retractable roof, which means we are guaranteed tennis every day, even when the rains fall. And you know they will.

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Scott Riley
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