Wimbledon is a unique Grand Slam in several ways. From the strict insistence on all-white apparel to the grass-court specific seeding system that came under the scanner this week, the adherence to tradition is absolute.
But in the recent past, there is one more aspect in which the oldest Grand Slam in tennis stays true traditional: the quadropoly of men’s tennis is unbroken on the green lawns of the All England Club.
Since 2003, the Wimbledon gentlemen’s trophy has been shared between only four men – Roger Federer (2003-07, 2009, 2012, 2017), Rafael Nadal (2008, 2010), Novak Djokovic (2011, 2014, 2015, 2018) and Andy Murray (2013, 2016).
The question of succession on grass has been asked for a while now. But every time it appears that someone could breakthrough, when an outlier makes the final, the old guard rises to the challenge.
So will 2019 be any different, other than the fact that the contenders have been temporarily reduced to ‘Big Three’ in singles?
Heading into the Championships, Djokovic, Federer, and Nadal are still the top three favourites based on form guide and seedings.
Federer has just won his record tenth title at Halle on grass and while Nadal and Djokovic don’t usually play grass warm-up events, their form in the last few months is enough indication that they are primed for a deep run at a Major.
The Big Three’s path
It is here that defending champion Djokovic recovered his mojo after two years in wilderness and very little has stopped him since, especially at Grand Slams. He won US Open and Australian Open and reached the semi-finals at the French Open. And despite unexpected losses along the way, he is the No 1 by a fair distance with the mental and physical factors aligned for his title defence.
In the draws announced on Friday, he leads a half with no Federer or Nadal and a path that he should be able to dominate. Flamboyant Gael Monfills, fast-rising Felix Auger-Aliassime, seventh-seeded Stefanos Tsitsipas and dark horse Daniil Medvedev are potential opponents who could trouble him, but it will take an extraordinary effort from them to stop him.
For Nadal, it won’t exactly be impossible to complete yet another Channel Slam. He is incensed by the seeding system that bumped him to third, has fresh stores of self-belief after his 12th French Open title.
It took a monumental effort from Djokovic to stop him 10-8 in the semi-finals decider last year, when he went beyond the last 16 for the first time since 2011. And with grass playing differently now, there is a good chance for another deep run.
However, the draw though has not dealt him an easy hand. He has a potential second-round clash with Nick Kyrgios who had famously stunned him in 2014 as a teenaged wild card and holds a 3-3 record against him. If he passes this, he faces Denis Shapovalov or Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Marin Cilic, Dominic Thiem before possible meeting with the top two seeds. A rough ride, indeed.
On the other side of this draw stands eight-time champion Federer who will become the first man to compete in the Wimbledon singles draw for 21 consecutive years. Twenty years since he made his debut here, a year after winning boys singles title and ten years after he lost his first Wimbledon final, Federer is still one of the favourites.
The man with a 95-12 record at Wimbledon will could face Australian Open semi-finalist Lucas Pouille, last year’s Halle conqueror Borna Coric, Kei Nishikori or John Isner before a semi-final with Nadal.
While this comparatively looks like an easier draw, the 37-year-old doesn’t have the same aura of invincibility on grass or in best-of-five sets he once had. Despite his gritty Halle win with three-setters against Tsonga and Roberto Bautista Agut, he has lost unexpected matches, most strikingly to Kevin Anderson in last year’s quarter-final after having a match point. He also lost strangely to John Millman and Tsitsipas at the US Open and Australian Open, before making the semi-finals at Roland Garros.
If anything, the clay-court semis, as much as the stinging loss in 2018, will motivate Wimbledon’s grand old man to go for his ninth title here. This might be his final shot.
Other potential contenders
But what of a dark horse? The prince that was promised, to borrow a phrase from Game of Thrones, to take over from the Big Three?
The contenders, as always, are aplenty in the top 20 seeds.
Tsitsipas, with his Federer-esque game, is an easy choice. He has already made a Grand Slam semi-final this year and has the game for big moments. Alexander Zverev has flattered to deceive so far while the youngest active Grand Slam finalist Dominic Thiem is not too adept on grass. Teen sensation Auger-Aliassime could turn up a prodigious run, a Coric or Medvedev could have a surprise result as well.
As we seen in the past (and in a 2018 match that actually forced Wimbleon to change their rules) big-servers like Anderson, Isner, Cilic, Raonic can also make deep runs on the grass courts.
But it will come down to a question of pressure in best-of-five matches over two weeks, a formula no one has worked out on the green grass in a while. For a youngster to crack this code, it will take more than his own stars to align; it will need the three big stars to shift as well.