Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams Have Promising Paths at Wimbledon
25th June 2021

Wimbledon conducted its draw on Friday, and for the first time past grass-court success was not a special factor in the seedings.

It has been a long road to this moment, but then Wimbledon, the oldest of all the major tennis tournaments, has no shortage of history.

Started in 1877, it took 50 years to begin seeding players and nearly 100 more for the All England Club to decide that it would adhere exclusively to computer rankings for the men instead of using a seeding committee or a grass-court seeding formula.

“I think it’s the right thing to do,” said Mark Petchey, a coach and former player from Britain who is now a television analyst. “At the end of the day, tennis is very much a meritocracy, and you should definitely get the reward for the matches and the tournaments you’ve played before.”

Tennis being tennis, not everyone agrees.

“I hate it,” said Brad Gilbert, an ESPN analyst and a former top-five player. “If I’m the commissioner, I like that you can change the seedings on grass based on your success or lack of success on that surface.”

But uniformity is now the rule on tour and at the four Grand Slam tournaments, which now all seed the men solely according to the rankings. Wimbledon retains the right to adjust the women’s seedings but has rarely exercised that right. As usual, it followed the rankings precisely this year, even though that meant that the No. 2 seed would be Aryna Sabalenka, the powerful Belarusian who has won just one singles match at Wimbledon and has yet to get past the fourth round in any Grand Slam singles tournament.

Sabalenka, ranked fourth, has such a lofty seeding because No. 2 Naomi Osaka and No. 3 Simona Halep have withdrawn from Wimbledon. Osaka did so last week, extending her break from the game to protect her mental health but saying that she would play in the Olympics. Halep, the reigning Wimbledon champion, withdrew shortly before the draw on Friday because of a left calf injury that had already prevented her from playing in the French Open.

Halep won the singles title in 2019 with a brilliant performance in the final against Serena Williams. Wimbledon was canceled in 2020 because of the pandemic. Though Halep was eager to try to defend her title and trained this week at the All England Club, her calf remained tightly wrapped. She ultimately decided that she was not fit enough to compete.

“I gave it everything I had,” she wrote in a post on Instagram. “After having such special memories from two years ago, I was excited and honored to step back on these beautiful courts as defending champion. Unfortunately, my body didn’t cooperate.”

She joins an increasingly long list of absentees. The men’s tournament will be without the two-time champion Rafael Nadal, the 2016 Wimbledon finalist Milos Raonic and the Grand Slam singles champions Dominic Thiem and Stan Wawrinka. The women’s tournament will also be without the American Jennifer Brady, who lost to Osaka in the final of this year’s Australian Open; she has developed plantar fasciitis.

Despite Brady’s withdrawal, 21 American women are in the singles draw, the most since 1995 and by far the most women from any nation this year. The field includes the 41-year-old Venus Williams and the 39-year-old Serena Williams. Venus first played at Wimbledon in 1997 and has won five of its singles titles, the most recent in 2008. Serena first played in 1998 and has won seven singles titles, the most recent in 2016.

Venus, who is unseeded in what could be the final Wimbledon for both sisters, will open against Mihaela Buzarnescu, a 33-year-old Romanian with a Ph.D. in sports science. Serena, seeded sixth, will face the unseeded Aliaksandra Sasnovich, a former top-30 player from Belarus.

Serena, still chasing a record-tying 24th Grand Slam singles title, has a promising draw. If she reaches the fourth round, she could face the 17-year-old American Coco Gauff, who is seeded 20th in her second Wimbledon, after a stirring run to the fourth round in her debut in 2019.

Ashleigh Barty, the No. 1 women’s seed, will play Carla Suárez Navarro in the first round. Their match should be played on Centre Court and give Suarez, a former top-10 player returning from cancer treatment, a fittingly grand stage for her comeback.

Novak Djokovic, the world No. 1 and the reigning men’s singles champion, will play on Centre Court on Monday against Jack Draper, a 19-year-old British wild card. Djokovic’s draw looks clement, even if he could face a second-round rematch with Kevin Anderson, the tall, big-serving South African who is now ranked 103rd. Djokovic defeated him in the 2018 Wimbledon final.

Djokovic, on track for a Grand Slam after winning this year’s Australian Open and French Open, is heavily favored to defend his title and the men’s record of 20 major singles titles, now shared by Nadal and Roger Federer. The other leading contender in his half of the draw is No. 3 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas, the young Greek whom Djokovic defeated on clay in the French Open final. Tsitsipas’s all-court game also looks well suited to grass, and his first-round opponent is the American Frances Tiafoe.

“I don’t know if it’s this year or next year, but I’d be very surprised if Tsitsipas doesn’t win Wimbledon,” Gilbert said. “I’m very impressed with his movement, willingness to play defense and his transition game. He knows how to move forward.”

So, of course, does Federer, an eight-time Wimbledon champion. He is in the other half of the draw with No. 2 seed Daniil Medvedev and No. 7 Matteo Berrettini, the forceful Italian who won the grasscourt title at the Queen’s Club Championships last week.

Federer, 39, lost to Djokovic in a classic five-set final in 2019, after holding two match points. He is back for at least one more Wimbledon after two knee surgeries, but he has struggled for consistent form in his few tour appearances this season. Federer, the sixth seed, faces a tricky first-round opponent in Adrian Mannarino, a flat-hitting French veteran who thrives on grass.

The surface remains an unusual challenge even though playing conditions are now more similar to hardcourts than in the serve-and-volley days of Rod Laver and Pete Sampras. The All England Club switched to more durable grass in 2002. The bounces are higher, and baseline play is now the rule instead of the exception.

“Grasscourt tennis is still different, even if it’s nothing like the ’80s or ’90s when you’d drop the ball on the grass and it didn’t bounce, and it was really imperative to come forward,” Gilbert said.

The movement remains specific. It is easier to slip, particularly after a split step on fresh grass behind the baseline. Quick directional shifts can be challenging, and with the tour’s grass-court season lasting only a few weeks, young players often need several seasons to grasp the nuances.

“It’s very tough to walk on grass and just pick it up if you practice predominantly on clay or hardcourts,” Petchey said.

That was part of the thinking behind preserving a grass-court bias in the Wimbledon seeding. The All England Club sought to balance its draws by giving the best grasscourt players a boost. A seeding committee long made those decisions, but leading men like Gustavo Kuerten and Àlex Corretja grew increasingly disgruntled about being downgraded at Wimbledon. Corretja skipped it altogether in 2000, along with his fellow Spanish stars Juan Carlos Ferrero and Albert Costa.

The All England Club responded by eliminating the subjective element, deploying a seeding formula in 2002 that factored in recent grass-court results. But that, too, is now gone for the men. The rankings, and only the rankings, will rule.

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