As we edge ever closer to Wimbledon, which begins on 27 June, it seems extraordinary that 16 of the last 18 Wimbledon men’s singles titles have gone to the Big Three of tennis in this millennium—Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, and Rafael Nadal. Federer and Djokovic have shared 14 titles, and Nadal snatched two, even though his preferred surface is the slow red clay of Roland Garros, rather than the skiddy grass of Wimbledon.
The tall, big-serving Englishman, Andy Murray, is the only man other than the Big Three to win Wimbledon since 2003, lifting the trophy in 2013 and 2016. Briefly, there was talk of a Big Four, but Murray faded away and Wimbledon settled back into its Federer-Djokovic rivalry. The 2019 final was a classic that Djokovic won 13-12 in a fifth set tiebreaker after Federer squandered two championship points.
Federer has had three knee surgeries. The Swiss maestro attempted a comeback last year, after a gap year at Wimbledon in 2020 due to covid-19, but he lost tamely in the quarter-finals to Hubert Hurkacz of Poland. Federer is still recovering from his third surgery and will most likely be absent this year for the first time since beating seven-time Wimbledon champion Pete Sampras in the fourth round 21 years ago.
Shortly after winning the French Open earlier this month, Nadal had a new radio frequency procedure on his chronic left foot injury. His uncle and former coach, Toni Nadal, is confident that the 36-year-old Spaniard will make it to Wimbledon. But it’s hard to see him winning the title so soon after treatment, even though you can never write off any of the Big Three.
Djokovic has had his troubles too this year after dominating the circuit in 2021. He missed the Australian Open for his refusal to be vaccinated against covid-19, and lost in the French Open quarter-finals to Nadal. The Serb dropped to No.3 in the ATP world rankings this week, behind Daniil Medvedev of Russia and Alexander Zverev of Germany.
Strangely enough, both Medvedev and Zverev will be missing in action at Wimbledon. The All England Club’s political decision to ban Russian and Belarusian players because of Russia’s military action in Ukraine keeps out the tall, big-hitting Medvedev, who would have fancied his chances this year. Zverev was an equally strong contender, looking supreme in his three-hour battle with Nadal in the French Open semi-final until it came to an abrupt end as the tall German rolled over his ankle. Subsequent surgery to fix the ligaments means he misses Wimbledon. All this appears to point to a change of guard at Wimbledon. Djokovic remains a favourite and Nadal may still be in the fray but it’s the best chance in two decades for a new champion to lift the coveted trophy.
The hot favourite is the rising star from Spain, 19-year-old world No. 7 Carlos Alcaraz, touted as a successor to his compatriot on clay, after sensationally beating Nadal, Djokovic, and Zverev back-to-back to win the Madrid Open this year. He then lost to Zverev in a hard-fought French Open quarter-final.
All of Alcaraz’s successes so far have come on clay and hardcourt, however, and it remains to be seen how he adapts to the lower bounce and speed of grass courts, as Nadal eventually did to beat Federer in the 2008 final. The young Spaniard’s preparation took a blow as an elbow niggle made him miss the Queen’s Club tournament, a precursor to Wimbledon. It’s a tall order for him to win his first Grand Slam title on grass, but the talented teenager will be the fans’ favourite, without a doubt.
French Open finalist Casper Ruud, who lost in straight sets to Nadal, is another rising star. Currently ranked World No. 5, Ruud’s defence-oriented game is better suited to clay and hardcourt than grass. Notwithstanding his recent joke on social media that “grass is for golfers”, the first Norwegian ever to break into the top ten will also try to emulate Nadal, who is his acknowledged role model.
Last year’s Wimbledon finalist Matteo Berrettini, who lost to Djokovic after winning the first set, may be a stronger contender as well. The Italian’s powerful serve and forehand suit grass court tennis, as he showed while winning the Stuttgart Open on Sunday. But canny opponents like Djokovic, and possibly Alcaraz and Nadal, will target his weaker backhand to even the odds.
Ranked a notch above Berrettini and inching closer to Grand Slam lustre this year is 21-year-old Canadian Felix Auger-Aliassime. He became only the third player, after Djokovic and John Isner, to take Nadal to five sets at Roland Garros. Earlier, he lost to Medvedev in the Australian Open quarter-finals after winning the first two sets. He beat Zverev in last year’s Wimbledon before losing to the eventual finalist Berrettini.
Another young Canadian, and a semi-finalist in Wimbledon 2021, vying for the title is Denis Shapovalov. The left-hander with a one-handed backhand won the boys’ singles title at Wimbledon in 2016 and could go all the way this time in the men’s section. His swinging serve and style are reminiscent of the famous left-hander, John McEnroe, who won three Wimbledon titles in the eighties after ending Bjorn Borg’s run of five consecutive titles.
Among the current lot of relative old-timers with a shot at the title is the 33-year-old Marin Cilic, who reached the semi-finals of the French Open, where he lost to Ruud. The talented but erratic six-foot-six-inch Croatian has a Grand Slam trophy in his cupboard, winning the US Open in 2014. He came close to adding a second trophy when he reached the 2017 Wimbledon final. He lost to Federer, who was again his nemesis at the 2018 Australian Open final that went to five sets.
Then there is the two-time Wimbledon champion Murray who is on a comeback trail this year. He reached the Stuttgart Open final where he lost to Berrettini. All of England will be cheering him on as he tries for a third title, but that possibility does seem far-fetched. A more likely candidate for the home crowd is the current British No.1, Cameron Norrie. A late bloomer, the tall 26-year-old left-hander has risen from 74 in the rankings last year to 11 currently.
The odds are on Wimbledon having a new winner this year, whether it is Alcaraz or Auger-Aliassime, Norrie or Berrettini. That’s if somebody can stop Djokovic from catching up with Sampras’ seven titles to be just one shy of Federer’s eight. The Serb will be highly motivated as three Grand Slam events have gone by without a title for him, while arch rival Nadal notched up two more titles in that period to take a 22-20 lead over Djokovic and Federer.
Sumit Chakraberty is a writer based in Bengaluru.