An intriguing mixture of tennis superstars, including Serena Williams (40), Poland’s Iga Swiatek (21), Rafael Nadal (36) and Novak Djokovic (35), and rising stars Coco Gauff (18) and Spain’s Carlos Alcaraz (19) begin play Monday at Wimbledon. Count me among those willing to bet a pound or two that Buckingham Palace won’t be the only place where a ceremonial Changing of the Guard occurs during the Wimbledon fortnight.
Defending champion and top seed Djokovic fell one match short last year of capturing the Grand Slam (four major titles in the same calendar year), losing to Russia’s Daniil Medvedev in the U.S. Open final. Don Budge (1938), Rod Laver (1962, 1969), Maureen Connolly (1938), Margaret Court Smith (1970) and Steffi Graf (1988) are the game’s only Grand Slam champions.
Since his lost to Medvedev, Djokovic, of Serbia, has struggled to recapture the form he showed while becoming last year’s most dominant men’s pro. He was barred from playing the 2022 Australian Open because he had not taken the Covid-19 vaccination and was ousted a month ago by Nadal in the French Open quarterfinal. Knowing that the U.S. won’t allow unvaccinated foreigners into the country, Wimbledon looms as his last chance to win a major title this year. “That,” says Djokovic, “is an extra motivation to do well here.” Roger Federer (40), the third member of the Big 3 in men’s tennis and 8-time Wimbledon champion skipped Wimbledon due to injury. In the last 17 years, Djokovic, Federer and Nadal have played head-and-shoulders above their fellow pros for more than a decade. Since 2006, they’ve won 54 of the last 66 major titles.
If Nadal wins Wimbledon, he’ll extend the record for most career major titles (23) and would be a U.S. Open title away from capturing the Grand Slam. Nadal was treated for a foot injury while claiming his 14th French Open title two weeks ago. He played with “injections on the nerves” and that at times he had “no feeling in my foot.” After additional treatment, he decided to play. Said McEnroe: “If I’m 36, (and) don’t know how much longer I’m going to play … I’d start shooting that foot up again and get through Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. That would be me.”
World No. 5 Alcaraz, No. 10 Hubert Hurkacz,25 and No. 9 Felix Augur-Aliasimme, 21, strong power players with serve-and-volley tendencies, are contenders for the title. Since February, Alcaraz has won five ATP events, including the Madrid Open, where he became the first player to defeat Djokovic and Nadal in the same event. Alcaraz claimed the title after defeating then No. 3 Sasha Zverev in the final. Nadal congratulated his compatriot. “Everybody knows the amount of confidence he has right now, the level that he can reach,” Nadal said. “So, yeah, happy for him. Happy because we have an amazing player in our country for a lot of years to come. It’s always special to win at home.”
Swiatek, who won her second French Open title last month since turning pro three years ago, is a heavy favorite to win her first Wimbledon crown. She entered Wimbledon on a 35-match win streak, which equals Williams’ run in 2013. Either No. 6 Karolina Pliskova, of the Czech Republic, last year’s Wimbledon finalist, or No. 3 Ons Jabeur, of Tunisia could snap Swiatek’s win streak. Also, look for No. 11 Gauff, who was 15 when she reached the fourth round in her 2018 Wimbledon debut, to be in the hunt down the stretch.
Seven-time champion Williams, absent from singles play since suffering a first-round injury at last year’s Wimbledon, must leave London with a singles title to tie Margaret Court Smith’s record of 24 career major titles. Does Williams think she can win Wimbledon after taking a one-year hiatus? “She wants to figure out if there’s a way to win that 24th (major) and grass is her best option,” said Tennis Channel analyst Pam Shriver. Giving himself lots of leeway, ESPN’s John McEnroe predicts, “She could lose in the first round or win the tournament.”