In tennis, like most other sports, it took a back seat last year. In 2021, there is plenty of intrigue surrounding this year’s Wimbledon Championships in London. Set to start on Monday, spectators will be allowed in and desperate to see the action unfold with courts initially operating to half capacity, before increasing to full capacity on finals weekend from July 11th-12th. Here, we look at five of the biggest stories in the buildup to the tournament:
The ‘Golden Slam’ is on for Novac Djokovic
Winner of both the Australian and French Open earlier this year, the top-seeded Novac Djokovic heads into Wimbledon with the quartet of Grand Slam titles very much in his sight. The men’s ‘Golden Slam’ has not been achieved since Rod Laver managed it in 1969, but the defending Champion from 2019 will be difficult to bet against.
A five-time Wimbledon Champion, the Serb heads to London on the back of an imperious performance in the Final of the French Open at Roland Garros, where he came back from two sets down to beat Greek star Stefanos Tsitsipas by a 6-7 (6-8), 2-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-4 score.
“I have put myself in a good position to go for the Golden Slam,” Djokovic said. “Everything is possible and I’ve achieved some things that a lot of people thought would be not possible”.
If he succeeds at Wimbledon, it will also put him level with great rivals Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal at 20 Grand Slam titles.
Serena Williams still chasing that elusive 24th Grand Slam title
Over in the women’s draw, the legendary figure of Serena Williams will be setting out to equal the record of most Grand Slam titles by a female. This long-standing record of 24 titles has been in her sights for some time and now seems a great opportunity for her to seize that accolade.
Her game is well suited to grass, with a powerful serve and dominating groundstrokes, but can she remain healthy and maintain the level of intensity over the course of the tournament with so many impressive players coming to the fore? At the recent French Open, Williams reached the fourth round, losing to Elena Rybakina in straight sets.
There is no doubt, however, that she knows her way around the courts of Wimbledon, having been a singles Champion here no less than seven times. Williams, 40, may be running out of time to catch Martina Navratilova, who reeled in an astonishing nine titles here.
Big names drop out
For both Djokovic and Williams, the path to success has become clearer these past few days following the unavailability of popular names. In the men’s draw, Spanish legend Rafael Nadal will be missing, citing a need to “recuperate” after a long clay-court season. A Wimbledon favorite, this will disappoint his legion of loyal fans. Following a Coronavirus-related delay to the start of the French Open, Nadal felt he needed to listen to his body and take some time away.
Also missing in the men’s draw will be fifth-ranked Dominic Thiem, following his announcement of a recent struggle with a wrist injury. Beyond the top 10, there will also be no appearance from Belgian David Goffin or Canadian Milos Raonic, ranked 15th and 22nd in the world respectively.
In the women’s side, defending Champion from 2019, Simona Halep, was a late withdrawal due to a calf injury suffered in a recent tournament in Rome.
“I was excited and honored to step back onto these beautiful courts as defending Champion,” Halep said. “But unfortunately, my body didn’t cooperate and I’ll have to save that feeling for next year”.
Finally, Japanese superstar Naomi Osaka has pulled out of the Championships, as she bravely continues her battle with ongoing mental health issues. Having walked out of the French Open after refusing to attend the mandatory post-match press conferences, the second-ranked talent has decided to take some time away.
With an open field, it’s there for the taking
With the pressure mounting on Djokovic and Williams, you could be forgiven for eyeing-up the opposition and singling out a few players with an opportunity to take the title. With little room for practice on the grass courts, many might be in transition mode, which could help those with the game suited for grass.
For the men, it is difficult to ignore the recent rise through the rankings from Italian Mateo Berrettini. The ninth-ranked talent has played flawlessly en route to becoming Champion at Queens Club last week. In his debut at the tournament, it was reminiscent of Boris Becker, who did the same in 1985 and went on to win Wimbledon that same year.
When mentioning Wimbledon, we must include Roger Federer in the conversation. Federer, 39, is the eighth-ranked player in the world was recently compared by US legend John McEnroe to Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady. There is no questioning his desire to win, but like Nadal, he too is facing questions over his health. He only recently returned to Grand Slam action following a six-month break due to a knee injury.
For the women’s event, first-ranked Ashleigh Barty is surely a contender, though she has never progressed beyond the fourth round in the tournament. However, she is another with question marks over her preparation following a recurrence of a hip injury, which forced her to pull out in the early rounds of the French Open. Other names to note are Ukranian Elina Svitolina, a Wimbledon semifinalist in 2019, and Polish star Iga Swiatek. Swiatek, once a Junior Champion at Wimbledon in 2018, has the game to go far, but can be inconsistent at times. This was proven by her drastic exit at the French Open, losing 4-6, 6-1, and 6-0 to 34th-ranked Daria Kasatkina.
It is worth noting a crop of exciting United States representatives deserve to be talked up as contenders. Coco Gauff made her Wimbledon debut in 2019 at the age of 15, and reached the final 16 of the event. Gauff, 17, comes with an improved service game and more match experience. There are high hopes also for sixth-ranked Sofia Kenin and 15th-ranked Jennifer Brady.
British stars looking to make a mark on home turf
British tennis has long been synonymous with former top-ranked Andy Murray. The Scot is continuing his recovery from a long-standing hip injury, which saw him miss almost two years of action between 2017-19. Now ranked outside of the top 100, Murray was given a wild card entry as he hopes to roll back the years and give the crowd something to cheer. Aside from Murray, however, there is growing optimism that others can follow in his footsteps with a home success. Cameron Norrie, ranked 29th in the world, had a sparkling Queens tournament last week, eventually succumbing to top-seeded Berrettini in the Final. The highest-ranked British male is 22nd-ranked Dan Evans, who is fancied by many to improve on his previous performances at Wimbledon and get beyond the third round.
In the women’s draw, Johanna Konta and Heather Watson will be the leading lights for Britain. Konta is now ranked 28th in the world and will be hoping to emulate her solid Wimbledon showing of 2019, where she lost in the quarterfinal to Barbora Strycova of the Czech Republic. A winner at the Nottingham Open just two weeks ago suggests Konta may be getting back to her best form. Watson, currently ranked outside the top 50, gave an encouraging display last week at the Viking International in Eastbourne. Taking on ninth-ranked Iga Swiatek, Watson pushed her all the way before losing the deciding set in a 6-3, 6-7, and 7-5 result.