Major championships in men’s tennis over the past ten odd years have been concentrated in remarkably few hands. We’re well aware of the usual suspects–the four of them have won forty-seven of the past fifty-six Grand Slam’s.
Depending on the year or, more notably, the surface, it’s even been easy to predict who will win each particular tournament. The irony of this year’s Wimbledon, though, is that while the four best players in the world–Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, and Andy Murray–have all returned to secure the top four seeds in a Grand Slam for the first time since 2014, identifying which one of them will take this title has rarely been harder.
Federer is unsurprisingly the public favorite. The seven-time Wimbledon champ, and the unanimous king of the grass court, is rested after taking time off for various stretches following his 18th major title in Australia last January. And it appears he’s still in top form. Federer subsequently won titles this year at Indian Wells and Miami after his Grand Slam victory; and most recently, he won the Halle Open, a grass tune-up before Wimbledon, without dropping a set.
However, people might be discounting how it had been nearly five years between Federer’s 17th and 18th major championships. Why is this important? Well, it’s obvious. At 35, Federer is clearly no longer the lock he once was to win Grand Slam’s. This applies to Wimbledon as well, where he hasn’t claimed the title since 2012.
It does help, however, that some of Federer’s top competitors are hobbling into the tournament. Andy Murray, the defending champion, will literally hobble into Wimbledon, as he’s been battling a nagging hip injury that caused him to withdraw from his most recent grass match. Meanwhile, Novak Djokovic may not have a clear injury he’s been dealing with, but the last twelve months, replete with swift, surprising upsets in each Grand Slam and a coaching change, have been the most unstable of his career. It’s unclear what to expect from him.
That leaves Nadal, the man I believe is the sneaky favorite heading into Wimbledon. He may not be on clay, where he’s truly unbeatable, but he’s put together arguably the strongest body of work in 2017 out of all the other men’s players. Imagine if he closed out Federer in the fifth set of their final in Australia! He’d be two-for-two in majors this year. Moreover, after a torrid stretch in which Nadal won four of five tournaments, including Roland Garros, he’s rested after taking nearly a month off in preparation for the year’s third major. Stamina and health, therefore, are unlikely to be an issue for Rafa, who we last saw win the French without dropping a single set.
Contrary to how I may have sounded when discounting his title chances because of his age, I am a huge Federer homer. He’s one of my five favorite athlete’s of all-time, and it’s rare for me to ever pick against him.
So I won’t. Federer, who is 24-2 this year and about to play on his best surface, will beat Nadal, who will take advantage of a less-than-formidable draw that will be made even weaker by a relatively early exit from Murray, in the Wimbledon final. And the main reason I like Federer to top Nadal: he’s already 3-0 against his nemesis in 2017 (he beat him in straight sets in the Round of 16 at Indian Wells and the finals of the Miami Open, in addition to the Australian Open final).
Clearly something is clicking with Federer this year, and I think his strategic lay-offs will serve him well once again, because even though I expect him to ultimately emerge victorious, he will need to be in top form, particularly physically, to survive difficult battles against Milos Raonic in the quarters and an improved Djokovic in the semis before topping his greatest rival.
Federer photo courtesy of Andrew Yates, Getty Images