Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
When Wimbledon 2006 gets underway next week, the great Roger Federer and Venus Williams will both be in search of title number four at the famed All England Club.
The world No. 1 Federer is now back on his best surface, grass, where he has won an Open Era record-tying 41 straight matches. The legendary Bjorn Borg set the grass-court mark by winning 41 straight bouts at Wimbledon from 1976-81.
The sweet-swinging Federer, who's won his last 21 matches at the All England Club, equaled Borg's grass record by titling in Halle, Germany last week, as the super Swiss beat dangerous Czech Tomas Berdych in the finale at the Gerry Weber Open, where Federer is now the reigning four-time champ.
Federer already owns seven career Grand Slam titles, which is seven away from Pete Sampras' record of 14. The sublime Swiss currently holds the Aussie Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open crowns. He's won the last two U.S. Opens and currently has a three-year stranglehold at the Big W.
By the way, Federer is an awesome 49-0 this year against anyone not named Rafael Nadal, the fiery Spaniard who is a perfect 4-0 this season against the world's top-ranked star, including a four-set victory over the silky-smooth Swiss in the marquee French Open finale two weeks ago.
The former world No. 1 and currently 12th-ranked Venus is a five-time Grand Slam champ, including a trio of Wimbledon wins. Her title there last year came as a big surprise, as most people had been writing her off, believing that her best tennis was behind her (including yours truly).
Roger Federer has won 41 straight matches on grass and is seeking his fourth consecutive Wimbledon title.
But Venus proved everybody wrong by running the table at SW19, where she fought off a match point before going on to top Lindsay Davenport in an epic all-American final. The thrilling 4-6, 7-6 (7-4), 9-7 more-than-2 1/2-hour victory marked the longest women's final ever on the historic Centre Court.
By the way, an injured Davenport (back) will skip the upcoming Wimbledon extravaganza, as will her fellow former Wimby champion Serena Williams (knee) and two-time 2006 Grand Slam runner-up Mary Pierce (foot).
Who will challenge the mighty Fed at the AEC? Well, Andy Roddick would seem like a likely choice since he's reached the last two finals there, losing both times, however, to the graceful Swiss.
Roddick, as he has been all season to this point, was a bit disappointing at his Wimbledon tune-up in London last week, as he was stunned by fellow American and good friend James Blake in the semifinals at The Stella Artois Championships. Most expected Roddick to capture that event for a fourth straight time, but it was another former No. 1, Lleyton Hewitt, that snuck through for the title, as the speedy Aussie topped Blake in the final. In the process, Hewitt became a four-time Queen's Club champion and made himself (outside of Federer) one of the favorites at Wimbledon '06. Hewitt is a two- time major champ, including his big Wimby title in 2002.
For the record, Roddick is a stellar 21-5 lifetime at Wimbledon, while Hewitt is a very respectable 21-6.
Can the powerful Nadal continue his winning ways with a huge victory at the AEC?
The 20-year-old Spaniard may be the undisputed king of clay right now, but an accomplished grass-court performer he's not.
Sure, Nadal's won 60 straight on red clay and is the reigning two-time French Open titlist, but his worst surface is grass and he's only ever won three matches at Wimbledon (3-2). He's only made two previous trips to SW19, reaching the third round in 2003 and the second there a year ago.
For all these reasons, I will not consider Nadal as a contender. With some more grass-court experience down the road...who knows? You can win Wimby from the baseline, just ask Borg, Hewitt and Andre Agassi.
Speaking of Agassi, the eight-time Grand Slam champion will be on hand, but the rusty star does not appear to be one of the faves. He returned to action for the first time in three months just last week, only to lose to long-time British favorite Tim Henman in the opening round at the Stella Artois event.
Agassi was a surprise Wimbledon winner 14 long years ago, and that, most assuredly, will mark his lone championship on the storied grass.
Among the other male mentionables, there are 2002 Wimbledon runner-up David Nalbandian, big-serving Croat Ivan Ljubicic, the aforementioned Blake, Mario Ancic and Berdych. The 6-foot-5 Ancic, of Croatia, is the last man to beat Federer at the regal AEC, with a first-round decision there back in '02.
How 'bout Marat Safin, or Brits like Henman and Andy Murray? How 'bout no, no shot and no shot. A Brit winning Wimbledon? What is this, the 1930s?
Back over on the women's side, Venus can expect challenges from the likes of Roland Garros winner Justine Henin-Hardenne, world No. 1 and Aussie Open champion Amelie Mauresmo, U.S. Open champ Kim Clijsters, 2004 Wimbledon titlist Maria Sharapova and French Open runner-up Svetlana Kuznetsova.
Justine Henin-Hardenne can complete a career Golden Slam with a title at the Big W.
Henin-Hardenne has won five of the last 13 majors, including three French Open titles since 2003, but she still needs Wimbledon to complete a career Golden Slam, which is all four majors and Olympic gold. She reached her lone Wimbledon finale in 2001, but lost to Venus, who was in her prime at the time, while JH-H was still up-and-coming.
JH-H has played in finals in three of the last five majors and six of her last 11 Grand Slam events.
Mauresmo typically plays well at Wimby, where she's a career 18-6, including trips to the semis in her last three appearances there. She skipped the tournament in 2003 and landed in the SFs in 2002, 2004 and 2005. If the talented French star can overcome her nerves (easier said than done), she can claim her second major of the year. She beat an ill Henin-Hardenne in the Aussie Open finale back in January for her first-ever career Slam.
Clijsters is always a threat to win any event, but she hasn't played her best major tennis at Wimbledon, where she's 17-6 and has appeared in only one semifinal (2003).
Sharapova seems to be battling some confidence issues right now, especially after losing to little-known American Jamea Jackson in a semifinal in Birmingham last week. Sharapova was on hand at the DFS Classic as the tourney's two-time defending champion.
So much for that.
Sharapova has lost only two grass-court matches over the last three years -- the setback against Jackson and a semifinal loss against Venus at last year's Wimbledon fortnight.
Kuznetsova has been one of the most consistent players on the women's tour this season, having reached at least the semifinals in seven of her 11 '06 events. She claimed titles in Miami and Warsaw and gave way to Henin-Hardenne in the French Open finale earlier this month.
Some other dangerous women at Wimby could be fifth-ranked Russian Nadia Petrova, two-time major finalist Elena Dementieva, Swiss lefty Patty Schnyder, "Swiss Miss" Martina Hingis and Czech slugger Nicole Vaidisova, a semifinalist at the French. The five-time Grand Slam champion Hingis, who reached the quarters at Roland Garros before giving way to Clijsters in straight sets, was the 1997 Wimbledon champ.
Federer will try to become the first player to win four straight Wimbledons since the seven-time champion Sampras turned the trick from 1997-2000. The iconic Borg captured five straight on the legendary lawns from 1976-80.
Overall, Federer has appeared in finals in his last 15 tournaments, including a 5-4 record in his '06 title bouts.
FYI, the flashy Swiss is 7-0 in his career grass-court finales.
Venus Williams has won three of the last six Wimbledon championships.
On the women's side, Venus will try to become the first repeat champ since her younger sister Serena did it three years ago by beating Venus in back-to-back finals, in 2002 and '03. Venus also won the event back-to-back, in 2000 and 2001.
At least one of the Williams sisters has appeared in the last six Wimbledon finals. The only non-Williams winner over that span was Sharapova two years ago.
The women's field will feature three former champions (Venus, Sharapova and Hingis), while the men's draw will also boast a trio of past winners (Federer, Hewitt and Agassi).
Of course, I like Federer to win and make it four straight, while my women's pick is JH-H.
The most prestigious of all tennis tournaments will get underway on Monday.