Tennis

Serena out to mow down foes on grass at Wimbledon

Serena Williams, competing at Wimbledon in 2008, has a game that fits the speedy courts at the All-England Club with her big serve and first-strike aggression.
Serena Williams, competing at Wimbledon in 2008, has a game that fits the speedy courts at the All-England Club with her big serve and first-strike aggression. BLOOMBERG NEWS

This year, there was an extra week between the French Open and Wimbledon, which begins Monday and runs through July 12. The schedule change gave players more time to adjust from clay to grass. It also meant fans had to wait another week pondering the sport’s pressing questions.

1. Can anyone beat Serena Williams? That seems to be the question before every tournament, especially the majors. As of late, the answer is a resounding “no.” Williams, 33, is ranked No. 1 in the world and has won the past three majors — the 2014 U.S. Open, and the Australian and French Opens this year.

But Williams’ foes have reason for a glimmer of optimism. Although she is a five-time Wimbledon champion, Williams hasn’t won since 2012. She has not gotten past the fourth round since then and was eliminated in the third round last year. This year, she has been tested at the majors, with seven of 14 matches going three sets.

“I think Serena’s got a great shot,” ESPN analyst Chris Evert said. “To me her game is better suited to the grass courts than it is to the clay. She struggled through the French, remarkably winning it. But her game, just because of her serve, she’s going to get free aces. Her power, her mobility on the court … her adversaries are going to be, basically, motivation day in and day out for two weeks. She’s got to be sharp.”

John McEnroe, also working for ESPN, agrees that motivation will be Williams’ biggest challenge.

“Obviously, Serena’s playing better than anyone, there’s no question about it,” he said. “She’s chasing history in terms of her Grand Slam titles. I assume even though she’s still playing arguably her best tennis, you have to wonder at a certain point how long that can keep up. I’m sure she is.

“The only part that would worry me is she had many lapses at the French where she got through just on her ability and will at the end. But on grass, a couple bigger hitters like a [Petra] Kvitova, if you get yourself in a hole, some of the women could get away and win more points on the serve than they would on a clay court or a hard court.”

2. Will Rafael Nadal continue to struggle? The Spaniard and former world No. 1 once seemed invincible with his swashbuckling style and go-for-broke shots. He is one of the best players of all time with 14 Grand Slam titles, including two at Wimbledon in 2008 and ’10. He was the runner up there in ’06, ’07 and ’11.

But the past three summers he was ousted early by players ranked outside the top 100. His game — and confidence — have slipped to new lows this season. His No. 10 ranking is his worst in a decade, and the onetime King of Clay is coming off a forgettable spring.

He rallied with a grass title at Stuttgart (Germany) but lost his opening-round match at Wimbledon warmup Queen’s Club.

“His legs don’t look as strong to me,” McEnroe said. “He doesn’t seem to have that first-step quickness. There’s something that doesn’t seem quite right, but I couldn’t pinpoint it. I think in certain ways it’s not about the shots, it’s more about what’s inside his head and how healthy he is.”

Evert agreed: “The moving isn’t as strong as it has been in the past. I think even more so than this, just listening to him talk, it’s the confidence. You have to almost be a little arrogant to be a champion, and that seems to be missing too.”

3. Who among the Big Three — Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Andy Murray — has the best chance to win the championship?

Djokovic is the defending champion, and except for a heartbreaking loss to Stan Wawrinka in the French Open final, the top-ranked Serb has been virtually unstoppable this year. He is 41-3 and lost only one of 14 matches at the Australian Open and French Open. He has made the Wimbledon semifinals the past five years and the final three of the past four.

Federer is a father of three and turns 34 in August but is showing no signs of slowing down. The seven-time Wimbledon champion is the No. 2 seed and going for his 18th Grand Slam title on his favorite surface. He lost a five-set match to Djokovic in the final last year, and there is no place better suited for him to win another major than the All England Club.

All of Great Britain rejoiced two years ago when the Scot Murray won the 2013 Wimbledon title, the first British man to win since Fred Perry in 1936. The fans on Murray Mound, formerly Henman Hill, erupted that day and it could happen again.

Murray was the runner-up in Australia in January and reached the semis at the French. His season record — 41-6 — is almost as good as Djokovic’s.

Murray was 15-1 on clay and 5-0 on grass, winning titles in Munich (Germany), Madrid and at Queen’s Club. He hasn’t lost to anyone but Djokovic since February, and Wimbledon is the perfect stage for Murray to conquer his nemesis.

Wimbledon

When: Monday-July 12.

Where: All England Lawn Tennis Club; London.

Surface: Grass.

Defending champions: Petra Kvitova, Novak Djokovic.

TV: ESPN, Tennis Channel.

Players to Watch

WOMEN

Serena Williams: Going for her 20th Grand Slam title and still the favorite after all these years. Williams won the Australian Open and French Open this year, and is aiming for a season Slam. But she lost in the third round at Wimbledon last year and her last grass title was the 2012 Olympics.

Petra Kvitova: The defending champion won in 2011 and 2014, and has reached at least the quarters the past five years.

Simona Halep: Reached the semis last summer, made quarters of the Australian Open, but lost in the second round at the French Open and has been slipping.

Maria Sharapova: Won as a 17-year-old in 2004, but she has gotten past the fourth round just once since 2006 when she made the 2011 final. Still, she can’t be dismissed. She advanced to the Australian Open final before losing to Serena Williams for the 16th consecutive time.

Lucie Safarova: Anyone who takes Serena Williams to three sets in the French Open final is worth watching. She is a 2014 Wimbledon semifinalist.

Others: Caroline Wozniacki, Venus Williams, Ana Ivanovic.

MEN

Novak Djokovic: The defending champion has reached the final three of the past four years. He lost to Stan Wawrinka in the French Open final but otherwise has been virtually unbeatable this season with titles at the Australian Open, Indian Wells (California), Miami, Monte Carlo and Rome.

Roger Federer: He is a seven-time champion and has a real chance of winning his 18th Grand Slam championship on the hallowed grass. He was runner-up to Djokovic last summer.

Rafael Nadal: Has struggled all year and fell to No. 10 in the rankings. Grass is not his forte — he made the 2011 final, but lost to players ranked below 100 in ’12, ’13 and ’14. But he did win a grass title at Stuttgart (Germany) two weeks ago.

Andy Murray: Is playing well enough to repeat his historic 2013 title. Hasn’t lost to anyone but Djokovic since February, was runner-up in Australia and made semis of the French.

Stan Wawrinka: Riding a wave of confidence after beating Djokovic in the French Open final, but grass is his weakest surface.

Others: Kei Nishikori, Milos Raonic, Thomas Berdych, Nick Kyrgios.

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