Extended rallies from back court are now common in grass-court tennis. Today's varieties of grass have slowed the bounce slightly even as the balls chosen at Wimbledon have become softer (slower) than in past decades. The opposite has been the case in clay-court events, so that the two classic surfaces -- grass and clay -- have grown together somewhat, both in styles of play and in outcomes. In what was once a rarity, the male champion on clay at Garros also became the champion on grass at Wimbledon in each of the last three years.
Thus although the Wimbledon lawns still produce the fastest tennis among the Slams, and although servers are advantaged more on grass than elsewhere, both of these phenomena are less marked than a decade or so ago. Here are data compiled from men's singles in the second week of Slams (2006-2011):
Service Aces (% of aces per point played)
Australian Open, 7.8%
U.S. Open, 7.5%
Service breaks (% of non-tiebreak games won by receivers)
Australian Open, 22.7%
U.S. Open, 21.5%
These percentages confirm that serving has a large role in deciding point outcomes on grass -- larger than on other surfaces. Thus generally speaking, it is the strong servers who benefit most on grass, though not always, as a lesser server may gain even more from the improved effectiveness of his weaker offerings on grass.
Our data also show that net-attacking is now only a little more frequent on grass than on other surfaces:
Net approaches per point played
Australian Open, 0.289
U.S. Open, 0.252
Despite the prevalence of baseline tactics over net play on grass as elsewhere, today's game still tends to favor the attacker. Success in attacking nowadays depends less on volleying skill and agility at net and more on the ability of the attacker to launch a forceful blow or blows from moderate depth at relatively little risk of error. The attacker then finishes at net if necessary. Meanwhile drop shots seem more frequent than in past years, and they are especially effective on grass, where the bounce is usually low and the victim's footing difficult. Note that a drop-shot ploy would usually show in scorer tables as a "net approach," albeit an involuntary one.
Thus at Wimbledon the confrontation between server and serve-returner will either produce an early decision for the point or else establish the initial advantage in the exchange that follows. As that exchange unfolds, we can expect frequent extended, relatively neutral rallies, often featuring use of sliced, low-bouncing backhands. If one player proves inferior in such exchanges, he is likely to resort to ever-more-wicked angles and slices, drop shots or low "plop" shots to the sides, or perhaps take greater risks in attacking with less-than-ideal opportunities. There is room for defense and counter-play on grass, but the player's chances diminish severely if he is pushed too often too deeply behind baseline.
Likely outcomes among the women are hardly clear. Last year's Wimbledon champion, Serena Williams, will return after a year of inactivity, along with sister Venus. The sisters have won a total of eight Wimbledon singles crowns, and the two have played each other in the final round four times. Both have a history of rapidly finding their best playing level after extended absences. Meanwhile a host of other players seem close to the sisters in their chances, among them Na Li, recent winner at Garros, and Maria Sharapova, a past Wimbledon champion. Unfortunately, Kim Clijsters will be absent, having hurt an ankle in a grass-court tune-up.
In men's tennis, the Big Four -- Nadal, Djokovic, Federer, and Murray -- continued their dominance at Roland Garros 11, and their domination seems likely to continue at Wimbledon. Still, to avoid early loss and reach the tournament's final four, each Big Four member will have to produce something close to his strongest tennis, as the layer of aspiring near-superstars is talented and deep.
Our discussions rest on several indicators (sketched in greater detail in the appendix). The candidates are here listed in order of score Sk in our First Indicator, Weighted Past Performance.
THE BIG FOUR IN MEN'S TENNIS
Rafael Nadal, 25, 6-1, score Sk = 4.42. A two-time past Wimbledon champion and winner of three of the last four Slams (Wimbledon 10, U.S. Open 10, and Garros 11), Nadal has the top score in our First Indicator. He also leads in the Third Indicator, "Elite Wins vs. Total Losses," where he shows 25 match victories in 2010-2011 over our nine designated elite players compared with 17 losses overall during the period, a ratio of 1.47. Rafa is second to Djokovic in 2011 year-to-date ranking points, our Second Indicator, and second to Federer in our Fifth, Wimbledon Achievement, while showing career grass-court W-L record of 42-9.
Rafa's career has evolved as if tailored for historic greatness. Arriving on the scene as a powerful and athletic teenaged baseliner and then winning Garros in his first several tries, Rafa veered away from the pattern seen among past great Spanish clay-courters. Instead of turning away from the grass-court game, Rafa instead expanded his techniques and tactics toward the objective of excelling on fast courts. His improved serve, sliced backhand, and new inclination and ability in attacking helped produce his Wimbledon crowns in 2008 and 2010. Seemingly at full health now, and seemingly resolved to mix in large doses of aggressive play, it is difficult to see anyone outside the Big Four seriously threatening him in best-of-five-set action. Predicted Wimbledon 11 finish: Champion.
Novak Djokovic, 24, 6-2, Sk = 4.02. Djokovic won his first seven tournaments of 2011, including Australian Open and the Master's Series events at Indian Wells, Miami, Madrid, and Rome, before losing to Federer at Garros. During his splendid run, Nole's strengths in both attacking and defensive play were unmatched by any other player, where his most important margin of superiority was probably in his movement and countering ability against an opponent's forceful play. Djokovic also scored well last year, finishing as runner-up to Nadal at U.S. Open 10, where he beat Federer in five, and ending the year as World #3.
Novak is the comfortable leader in our Second Indicator, 2011 ranking points, reflecting his 41 consecutive early-year victories. He is second to Nadal in the First and Third Indicators, where in the latter category his 14 Elite Wins compares with 14 Total Losses in 2010-2011 to produce a ratio of 1.00. As to our Fourth Indicator, "Pattern of Improvement," Djokovic's career has obviously turned upward, though the extent of his improvement is not fully reflected in the score produced by our formula, as he starts from a pre-2011 ranking of #2.
Novak ranks behind the other members of the Big Four in his past achievement at Wimbledon, our Fifth Indicator. But compared with most opponents of his tennis generation, Novak is well experienced in grass-court play. He shows a 31-11 career W-L record on that surface, having attained the semis last year, losing to Berdych. His preparation for this year's Wimbledon included an appearance on grass this week at Boodles Tennis Challenge in Buckinghamshire, where he defeated Gilles Simon by comfortable scores. Djokovic's back-court-oriented style is not ideally suited to grass-court play, and his serving, although excellent, is hardly his strongest asset, as would seem preferable on grass. Predicted finish: Semi-finalist.
Roger Federer, 29, 6-1, Sk = 3.17. Five years older than his principal rivals, Federer showed at Garros 11 his determination to add to his sixteen Slam conquests. In his severe testing of Nadal at Garros, Roger began with all weapons blazing, very nearly capturing the first set and then sustaining his attacking play to force a fourth set. If his recent clay-court improvement over 2010 at Garros can be duplicated on grass at Wimbledon, where he was runner-up to Nadal last year, another triumph for Roger at the scene of his most storied successes is entirely plausible. He did not compete in the grass-court tune-up this year at Halle, citing injury.
Roger ranks behind the aforementioned two leaders in our first two Indicators, and also in the Third Indicator, where his 17 Elite Wins compare with 21 Total Losses for a ratio of 0.81. He leads in the Fifth Indicator, Wimbledon Achievement, and shows a splendid W-L tally of 96-14 careerwise on grass. Roger's superb offensive skills -- especially in serving, forehand, and at net -- improve his chances against the other Big Four members more at Wimbledon than at the other Slams. His actually defeating them there will require sustaining his absolute best tennis. Predicted finish: Runner-up.
Andy Murray, 24, 6-3, Sk = 2.71. Murray's mix of easy power in serving and stroking, along with his superb mobility and counter-punching skills, are readily transferred to the courts of turf, as Andy showed in his demolition of Andy Roddick and his split-set final-round victory over Tsonga at Queen's 2011. Andy stands inside the first four in most indicators, though in all cases behind the other Big Four members. He ranks only seventh in our Third Indicator, where his eight Elite Wins compare with 26 Total Losses for a ratio of 0.31.
As home-nation representative, Andy will receive strong support from the gallery at Wimbledon, though the extra pressure of his situation may prove a disadvantage. His past grass-court W-L record, at 44-11, is good, ahead of Djokovic's. He reached the Wimbledon quarters in 2008, the semis in 2009 and 2010. His recent triumph at Queen's was his second (he also won in 2009) and seems auspicious. The general view is that Andy should sometimes play more aggressively. That recommendation would seem most applicable at Wimbledon.
Predicted finish: Semi-finalist.
THE NEXT TIER
The second tier is rich in talent and aspiration:
Tomas Berdych, 25, 6-5, Sk = 1.32. Wimbledon runner-up in 2010. Strong server, prefers back court, good grass-court history at W-L 34-13. Unencouraging score in Indicator Four, with best pre-2011 ranking at #6 and 2011-to-date ranking of #8 for ratio below unity. Predicted finish: Quarter-finalist.
Robin Soderling, 26, 6-4, Sk = 1.09. Power server and stroker. Reached Wimbledon semis last year, losing to Nadal in four. Modest success on grass otherwise at overall W-L 24-16. Predicted finish: Quarter-finalist.
Andy Roddick, 28, 6-2, Sk = 0.93. Second to Federer in total match wins at Wimbledon, with W-L 76-18. Won three matches on the grass at Queen's 11 but had little chance against Murray's serve-returing ability. A former world #1, Andy's ranking for 2011-to-date is only #17. Predicted finish: Reach fourth round.
David Ferrer, 29, 5-9, Sk = 0.87. A determined all-court warrior especially effective on slow and medium surfaces. Ferrer's strong results on clay placed him fourth in the 2011-to-date race, temporarily breaking the Big Four dominance. Murray however passed him when he won Queen's. David won three matches at Wimbledon last year before losing to Soderlng in five sets. Predicted finish: Quarter-finalist.
Juan Martin del Potro, 22, 6-6, Sk = 0.73. Returned from long absence for wrist surgery, achieving good results in 2011-to-date and ranking ninth therein. Combines superior power in serve with relentless weight of ground strokes. Limited experience on grass (career W-L 11-7) weakens likelihood of major success at Wimbledon 11. Predicted finish: Reach fourth round.
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, 26, 6-2, Sk = 0.61. Possesses extreme power and athletic ability but has been held back by injuries. Won the first set and then lost to Murray in last year's Wimbledon quarters. He won four matches at this year's Queen's, defeating Nadal, and won the first set over Murray in the final round before losing closely. He then won his first two matches at Eastbourne but then lost to Stepanek. Poses a possible threat to the Big Four members at Wimbledon. Predicted finish: Reach fourth round.
Gael Monfils, 24, 6-4, Sk = 0.52. Extreme power, flexibility, and speed mark this French star as a potential Slam champion. Sidelined in much of 2010 with injuries, Gael ranks fourth in our Third Indicator, showing five Elite Wins vs. ten Total Losses for ratio 0.50, breaking the Big Four dominance in this category. Came up short in swirling winds against Federer at Garros 11, but won three matches on grass at Halle last week before losing. Has shown signs of arm/shoulder trouble. Predicted finish: Quarter-finalist.
Mardy Fish, 29, 6-2, Sk = 0.37. Shows seven Elite Wins against 22 Total Losses for a sixth-best ratio in our Third Indicator, just behind Roddick and ahead of Murray. His W-L grass-court career record of 39-24 makes grass his best surface. Predicted finish: Reach fourth round.
Philipp Kohlschreiber, 27, 5-10, Sk = 0.43. Philipp is a strong player with an attractive game. Misfortune seems to bedevil him whenever I watch. But he won the grass tune-up at Halle 11, defeating Monfils enroute. Predicted finish: Reach second round.
Milos Raonic, 20, 6-5, Sk = 0.14. Milos of the blisterng serve and ground strokes made an amazing early-year run in Australia and on the indoor hard courts in America. These successes place him first in our indicator of improvement, where his best pre-2011 ranking of 156 and his 2011 year-to-date standing of #13 provide a ratio of 12.00 -- far ahead of all others. Seeded, he won two matches on the grass at Halle before losing to Petzschner in split sets. It was his first grass-court appearance in main-draw play. Predicted finish: Reach third round.
PREDICTIONS: NADAL'S QUARTER
The road to the final four is not ideal for the defending champion. Nadal faces a third-round meeting with powerful Milos Raonic, where Rafa's vastly greater familiarity with grass courts should assure his finding a way.
Far more problematic will be Rafa's fourth-rounder against Juan Martin del Potro. Rafa beat the tall Argentinian at Indian Wells this year but del Potro won their three previous engagements. All three came in 2009, however, a year where Rafa was troubled by injury and when del Potro found his peak in winning U.S. Open. With del Potro now still amid his comeback from wrist surgery, Nadal is the definite favorite to survive. Rafa's path eases slightly thereafter, as he has won his last nine matches against Tomas Berdych, including their straight-set final at last year's Wimbledon.
The winner of an interesting first-rounder between Croatians Marin Cilic and Ivan Ljubicic should meet Andy Murray in the third round, where the Scot's arsenal will prove clearly superior. Meanwhile Gael Monfils and Andy Roddick should advance to a fourth-round showdown. Both have been troubled lately with injuries, where Andy has a slight edge in past head-to-head meetings on nonclay. But the career of Monfils has been swinging upward of late, while the American seems amid a dismal spell. Monfils is the clear choice here.
The Murray-Monfils quarter-final could be magnificent -- open for the taking to whichever man finds his top game. Monfils has the edge in our Third Indicator -- Elite Wins vs. Total Losses -- perhaps suggesting the more mercurial nature of the French star's playing history. With Murray ahead in the other indicators, however, and favored by strong home-nation support from the gallery, Andy should prevail.
Six-time Wimbledon champ Federer should have no difficulty in winning his half of this quarter. The other half will open with a rematch-up of Isner and Mahut, echoing their three-day marathon of last year. That half should also produce a critical fourth-round meeting of David Ferrer and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, where both veterans should have survived rising opponents enroute -- i.e., Ferrer against Ivan Dodig in the second round and Tsonga against Alex Dolgopolov in the third.
Tsonga brings superior athleticism and power, while Ferrer brings the focus and know-how that come from his greater experience, along with David's own ample offensive and defensive weaponry. Supported by our Indicators, the narrow choice is Ferrer. David will be a more troublesome opponent for Federer than would Tsonga, but Sir Roger should have the answer in either case.
All signs point to Djokovic against his likely quarter-final opponent, Robin Soderling. Novak successes in 2011 lift him ahead in our Indicators, including in head-to-head play, Novak having won six of their seven past meetings. Soderling's only win came indoors in London, where his edge in serving ability is least constricted by conditions.
The meetings of the Big Four in the last weekend again promise epic drama. The semi-final match-ups will be the same as at Garros recently -- Federer against Djokovic and Nadal against Murray.
Federer and Djokovic have never met on grass. Since last year's Wimbledon, however, they have played each other eight times, each winning four. Djokovic won their five-setter at U.S. Open 10, Federer won their epic struggle at Garros 11, helped by difficult conditions. Watchers readily observe that Djokovic's magnificent court movement and shot-making abilities are superior to Roger's, and that Roger's serve is the deadlier. Plainly Novak is the riser of the two, such that Federer's chances against him weaken with every year. But I cannot pick against the six-time Wimbledon champion, whose weaponry is most effective on grass where points and games tend to be short and stamina a lesser factor. Federer over Djokovic.
The choice is easier between Nadal and Murray. Rafa is favored in all Indicators, with a strong margin in overall head-to-head history. Rafa won their only two meetings on grass, at Wimbledon 08 and 10, both in straight sets. Murray is not without advantages -- a more powerful serve, easier power from his typically flatter ground strokes, and assured crowd support, which could be important if matters are close toward the finish. Andy won at Queen's this month, where Nadal lost in his third match. But Rafa at his best is just too good. Nadal over Murray.
Rafa has won two of the last three Wimbledon crowns, beating Roger in their most recent meeting there, in the 2008 final. He won all three of his meetings with Roger in 2011-to-date, winning seven of nine sets including both sets in their only nonclay meeting, at Miami. Rafa prepared well at Queen's this month, while Roger did not make his usual appearance at Halle. Federer is a magnificent warrior, with an array of weapons that only Nadal can equal. Roger's recent bid on Garros clay stirs only awe. But the evidence is too overwhelming. In achieving his eleventh Slam crown in his own bid for historic greatness, it will be Nadal over Federer.
Spain, USA, and France have taken turns in winning the most men's matches at the last three Wimbledons, while Germany was the only nation to finish in the top three in all three years. Last year's winning nation, France, with broad success in the first two rounds of singles, brings comparable depth this year. Spain, which won the honor at both Australian Open and Garros this year, seems the most likely to succeed at Wimbledon 2011 behind Nadal, Ferrer, and the rest of the Armada.
It was the depleted cohort of veterans who carried away the women's honors at Roland Garros one month ago. The two finalists were elderly for pro tennis warriors -- champion Li Na was age 30 and runner-up Schiavone was 29. Meanwhile the promising array of aged-23-and-under risers had all fallen aside prior to semi-final Friday. Now, with Venus and Serena Williams returning to competition, the ranks of the veterans have grown yet stronger.
We again sort the candidates using their Sk scores from our First Indicator, Weighted Past Performance.
Caroline Wozniacki, age 20, height 5-10, score Sk = 3.64. Caroline last year made a fine run in winning non-Slam tournaments thereby capturing the top ranking for 2010. The pattern has persisted in 2011, where she has bagged five more non-Slams and taken first place in ranking points for the year-to-date She thus leads in our First and Second Indicators, and she is third (excluding injured Clijsters) in the Third Indicator, where her 12 Elite Wins and 25 Total Losses for 2010-2011 yield a ratio of 0.48.
Wozniacki's strengths are largely defensive, where she is able to sustain long rallies without error, meanwhile protecting her side of the court using her anticipation, mobility, and skill in delivering shots that are not easily attacked. She can of course step up her pace for variety and when openings appear, but despite conventional advice for her to increase her forcefulness, when matters become critical she usually falls back on her steadiness.
Caroline has never gone beyond the fourth round at Wimbledon, and she shows a W-L record of only 9-5 there. Last year she lost early to Jankovic. Her softish serve is likely to be vulnerable to attack-minded opponents, and her defensive strengths will be challenged by their serves and ground-strokes that maintain their velocity in the grass-court bounce. Predicted finish: Quarter-finalist.
Vera Zvonareva, 26, 5-8, Sk = 1.59. Vera ranked second in the rankings for 2010 and made a good run at Australian Open 2011, but since then her results have tailed downward. She now stands fifth (excluding Clijsters) in results for 2011-to-date. She is fourth, just behind Wozniacki, in Elite Wins vs. Total Losses, and also fourth in our Fifth Indicator, Wimbledon Achievement, where her career W-L record is 17-7.
Vera is a fine ball-striker, a good mover, a solid near-superstar, runner-up at both Wimbledon and U.S. Open last year, who seems to have conquered her past fragile emotions. But her many losses in 2011 to players outside the Prime Six listed here harm her hopes for forthcoming Wimbledon. Predicted finish: Reach fourth round.
Victoria Azarenka, 22, 5-10, Sk = 1.58. Azarenka's performance in 2011 is a mirror's opposite to Zvonareva's. After middle-round losses in Australia and Dubai, Victoria thereafter has scored consistently good results, including a triumph at Miami and a runner-up finish at Madrid. She now holds third place in the 2011-to-date race and a pattern-of-improvement ratio of 2.00 (our Fourth Indicator), second-best among the Six Primes.
Victoria is assuredly a hard hitter, able to dominate and sometimes overwhelm opponents. She has sometimes shown a volatile temperament, but this seems not to have affected her recent play. Many, noting her recent upswing, picked her to win Garros 11, where she won four matches by comfortable scores before losing to the relentless stroking of Li Na on a windy Wednesday. At Wimbledon she has reached the quarters only once, in 2008, in five tries. She has experienced various physical problems, necessitating her retiring from six tournaments in 2010 and three more in 2011, including this week at Eastbourne. Predicted finish: Semi-finalist.
Li Na, 29, 5-8, Sk = 1.42. Li Na, who is tallish for a player from China, attained the final four at Australian Open last year. But the surprise was worldwide in 2011 when at the advanced tennis age of 28 Na won the Sydney tune-up, beating Clijsters, and then attained the final round at Australian Open 11, losing to Kim in split sets. All watchers marveled at Na's calm and determned manner accompanying her firm and steady stroking -- an inexorable pounding from both wings that steadily pressed her opponent and gave away few errors.
There would be few successes for Na in the months that followed, but Li's rediscovered rocketry enabled her to capture Roland Garros 11. Na thus became the first player from her country to win a singles Slam.
Li's successes in Australia and Paris explain her high scores in our Indicators. She holds second place in our Second Indicator, 2011 year-to-date ranking points, and first place in our Fourth, Improvement Pattern, with ratio of 4.50 (higest pre-2011 ranking of #9 divided by year-to-date ranking #2). She is fifth in our Third Indicator, showing ten Elite Wins against 28 Total Losses. She has twice reached the quarters at Wimbledon (in five tries) losing in 2006 to Clijsters and in 2010 to Serena. Predicted finish: Quarter-finalist.
Maria Sharapova, 24, 6-2, Sk = 1.21. Tall Maria won Wimbledon as a teenager in 2004 behind supreme concentration and a style of unwavering forcefulness in striking. In working her way back from shoulder surgery and long rehabilitation, her tennis recovery came slowly. Gradually the first serve regained its potency, the double-faults diminished, even as the ground strokes too screamed as loudly as Maria's shrieks after every swing.
Starting in March 2011, the victories too began coming with regularity. Maria reached the semis at Indian Wells and the final at Miami, losing to Wozniacki and Azarenka, respectively. Then came her triumph on clay in Rome with wins over both Wozniacki and Azarenka. Finally there was the strong run at Roland Garros where Maria lost to Li Na in the semis. From these successes came her present fourth-place ranking in the 2011 year-to-date race, behind only Wozniacki, Li, and Azarenka.
The auspices seem favorable for Maria at Wimbledon. She ranks third in our Fifth Indicator, Wimbledon Achievement, where her W-L record is 26-7. Her severe, sliced serve from on high should be devastating on the green grass, even if Maria reins in its potency to avoid double-faulting. Predicted finish: Semi-finalist.
Serena Williams, 29, 5-9, Sk = 1.13. A badly cut foot, two related surgeries, and emergency hospitalization for embolisms necessitated a full year away from competition for Serena, last year's Wimbledon champion.The world watched this week's events at the Eastborne tune-up to see whether Serena had overcome her physical troubles and whether her recent weeks of practice had restored her on-court greatness.
The answers pointed positively. Serena lost the first set but then won her match against slender Pironkova, who had overcome Venus Williams in reaching the Wimbledon semis last year. Then against Zvonareva, Serena won the first set but lost the next two closely. It seemed a good week for Serena, who now had time for further preparation and who could expect a comfortable first week at Wimbledon, as despite her long inactivity the American had been given a seeded place in the first eight. Predicted finish: Champion.
Jelena Jankovic, 26, 5-9, Sk = 1.01. Has never reached the Wimbledon quarter-finals in eight tries. Predicted finish: Reach third round.
Yanina Wickmayer, 21, 6-0, Sk = 0.94. Her favorable age, height, and powerful game suggest future success, but she has only won two matches in three Wimbledons. Predicted: Reach fourth round.
Marion Bartoli, 26, 5-7, Sk = 0.94. Bartoli's career has been swinging upward in 2011, with strong runs at Indian Wells and Garros. A Wimbledon finalist in 2007. Predicted finish: Reach fourth round.
Petra Kvitova, 21, 6-0, Sk = 0.89. This year, having won Paris indoors (beating Clijsters) and Madrid clay (beating Azarenka), Kvitova was my choice to win Garros, where she won the first set but then lost to Li Na. A clear improver by our Fourth Indicator with Improvement ratio 3.22, second only to Li. Was semi-finalist at Wimbledon last year. Projected finish: Quarter-finalist.
Agnieszka Radwanska, 22, 5-8. Sk = 0.89. Excellent past W-L record at Wimbledon of 16-5, though she has never gone beyond the quarter-finals. Consistently strong, but has never beaten a Prime Six member. Projected finish: Reach fourth round.
Francesca Schiavone, 30, 5-5, Sk = 0.89. Smallish but athletic, last year's surprise Garros champion shows an unimpressive 11-11 career W-L record at Wimbledon, though her varied and attacking style of play suggests affinity for grass. Projected finish: Reach fourth round.
Samantha Stosur, 27, 5-8, Sk = 0.80. Finished 2010 as world #6, but has trended downward in 2011, currently at #13 for the year-to-date, iincluding an early exit at Garros where she was runner-up last year. Strong in serving and at net. Projected finish: Reach fourth round.
Andrea Petkovic, 23, 5-11, Sk = 0.57. A strong riser by our Fourth Indicator, where best pre-2011 ranking #32 compares with rank #10 for 2011-to-date for improvement ratio of 3.20, third best behind Li and Kvitova. No past success at Wimbledon in three tries. Projected finish: Quarter-finalist.
Venus Williams, 31, 6-1, Sk = 0.55. Venus finished 2010 as World #5. Injured at Australian Open in early 2011, she returned at the Eastbourne grass tune-up, winning twice before losing to veteran Hantuchova in split sets. Her progress toward readiness for Wimbledon seemed verified. Projected finish: Runner-up.
Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, 20, 5-10, Sk = 0.49. A steady and youthful performer who ranked #21 for 2010 and now stands at #15 for 2011-to-date. Projected finish: Reach fourth round.
Daniela Hantuchova, 28. 5-11, Sk = 0.31. Always a dangerous opponent, Daniela defeated Wozniacki at Garros 2011 and excelled in the subsequent grass tune-ups, reaching the final at Birmingham and defeating both Li Na and Venus Williams in reaching a semi-final date with Kvitova at Eastbourne. Projected finish: Reach third round.
Sabine Lisicki, 21, 5-10, Sk = 0.46. Powerful server and stroker who rose to #22 ranking as a teenager. Her return from injuries has been slow, but she won the grass tune-up at Birmingham last week, serving and stroking as before. Projected finish: Reach second round.
Julia Goerges, 22, 5-11, Sk = 0.19. A clear riser by our Fourth Indicator, where her best pre-2011 ranking of #40 compares with 2011-to-date rank #17 for 2011-to-date for ratio of 2.35. Superb server. Projected finish: Reach fourth round.
PREDICTIONS: SHARAPOVA'S QUARTER
Two members of our Prime Six should meet here. Top-seeded Caroline Wozniacki will have the answers against the strong serving and stroking of rising Gajdosova and Goerges. Meanwhile Maria Sharapova's big game will sweep aside Safarova and either Stosur or Peng.
Their quarter-final outcome will probably depend on the effectiveness of Maria's serving and stroking on the grass surface and the ability of Caroline to respond. Most of our Indicators favor Caroline, while the head-to-head results are ambiguous. Maria's grass-court strengths, along with her rediscovered accuracy seen at Rome, sway my judgment. Sharapova over Wozniacki.
This quarter also holds two Prime Sixers. Li Na's superb performances at Melbourne Park and at Garros command attention. But the greater issue is whether or not Serena Williams can regain the dominance seen at Wimbledon last year, when the powerful American swept seven matches. Many of her 14 sets were close, but Serena won them all. Objectivity suggests that Serena's match-ups against first Bartoli and then Li could be difficult. But instinct replies that Serena will become stronger with every outing in direct proportion to the increasing strengths of her opponents.
The sequence of likely opponents seem only moderately challenging for the capabilities of the strong striker from Belarus by way of Arizona. Victoria Azarenka looks ahead to meetings with Hantuchova, Pavlyuchenkova, and either Schiavone or Petkovic, any of whom could overcome a Victoria either injured or off her game. Indeed any of them can provide many exciting moments. But Victoria is ahead in most of our Indicators, especially in her number of wins against elite players. Her physical troubles and propensity to withdraw from events raise doubts, but she remains the clear favorite in this quarter.
Vera Zvonareva is the high-seeded player in this quarter, but there are two concerns discouraging her chances. First, her results in 2011 have fallen below those of 2010, when she reached the Wimbledon final. Second, the draw places two major obstacles in Vera's path -- Venus Williams and Petra Kvitova. As one of history's greatest performers at Wimbledon, Venus seemed on track in her comeback this week at Eastbourne, while rising Kvitova, who defeated Zvonareva in straight sets at Madrid recently, clocked three victories at Eastbourne to reach the semis there.
Venus's finest hours came several years ago, but if she can just find her more-recent best, her grass-court strengths should lift her over the recently disappointing Zvonareva. Then, against Kvitova or also-youthful Wickmayer, Venus's power and athleticism should prevail.
It comes down to the big hitters -- Sharapova against Serena, Azarenka against Venus.
At the outset we noted that serving has a larger role at Wimbledon than at the other, the non-grass Slams. Now, our judgments call upon that phenomenon in pinning down the margins among our prospective final four. There is little question that the serving abilities of Venus Williams and especially of Serena Williams give the sisters an important edge on grass over all rivals. Our call comes with anxieties, for there is almost no recent supporting evidence from match play: Serena Williams over Sharapova, Venus Williams over Azarenka, and, in the final round, Serena Williams over Venus.
Expectedly, the Russian women, who won the most matches at the last six Wimbledons, will do so again. But if Serena and Venus uphold the above predictions and if given support from the nation's doubles artists headed by players like Raymond, Huber, V. King, and Mattek-Sands, USA could break the margin, which was small in several of the recent years.
THE FUTURE OF TENNIS ON GRASS
How large a role should grass have in modern pro tennis? The difficult and irregular grass-court bounce seems out of place, especially when grass surfaces inevitably deteriorate as tournaments progress. By final-round Sunday at forthcoming Wimbledon, much, perhaps most of the surface of Centre Court will be brown not green, and the lush turf seen at the start will have been mutilated if not destroyed except at the sides. It remains a mystery to me how the top players can perform reasonably well when the bounce becomes so unpredictable.
Tennis almost everywhere has rejected grass. The change at community, school, and many club facilities has favored hard surfaces, where maintenance costs are low. Tennis has become more closely a people's sport, reflecting distinctions of class far less than before, yet preserving the higher sporting codes more than other big-time sports. When the Slams in United States and Australia shifted away from grass, the discussions were surely difficult in those countries. (I'm informed that the French International -- today's Garros -- was also played on grass for the first year or two.)
If British officialdom ever decides to replace Wimbledon's grass, I hope their choice is for clay. Paved courts are harsh to the human skeleton -- somehow wrong for a sport supposedly for a lifetime. Even in primitive regions, playable courts can be fashioned of dirt. I like the notion of having two Slams on paved courts, two on clay each year, encouraging greater use of the softer surface everywhere. For tennis watchers, modern clay-court tennis continues to provide entertaining dimensions not seen on the hard courts, even as it has become more of an attacking game.
Tennis is part of the Olympics every four years, and at the London Olympics of 2012 it will be played on Wimbledon grass. The planned staging is to be welcomed, indeed gloried in, though it seems amazing to me that the turf can be reconstituted after its punishment by the same pros earlier in the summer. Would then be the time to close the door on the magnificent history of "lawn" tennis?
Just something to think about in watching Wimbledon 2011, fabulous as always.
Arlington, Virginia, U.S.A.
APPENDIX: THE INDICATORS
Indicator 1. Weighted Past Performance.
Here, we weight player results at thirty tournaments of the last two years, where the weights depend on how well, historically, each event has predicted results at subsequent Wimbledons. This is probably the most encompassing of our indicators, and its scores, Sk, are for convenience used in ordering the candidates in the text discussion.
Here are our most heavily weighted predictor events for the Wimbledon 11 men's singles:
Wimbledon 10, 5.98%
Indian Wells 11, 5.84%
Australian Open 11, 5.35%
U.S. Open 10, 5.24%
Wimbledon 09, 4.90%
The list of predictor events and weights are slightly different for the women.
Indicator 2. Performance in 2011
When predicting Slams other than Wimbledon, we compare each player's performance on the given surface (clay or hard) over the most recent period, usually of about six months. Here, since preceding grass events are so few, we tally 2011-to-date results on all surfaces.
Indicator 3. Elite Wins minus Total Losses
Each contender's match wins of 2010 and 2011 over nine "elite" superstars are compared with total losses during that period. Elite Wins divided by Total Losses produces the ratio used for the comparisons.
Here are the "elite" opponents used here in identifying Elite Wins
--(men) Nadal, Djokovic, Federer, Murray, Berdych, Soderling, Ferrer, del Potro, Roddick
--(women) Wozniacki, Clijsters, Zvonareva, Azarenka, Li, Sharapova, Venus Williams, Serena Williams, Henin, Jankovic, Stosur, and (clay/grass only) Stosur
Indicator 4. Improvement Pattern
Each player's best pre-2011 official ranking (representing his best-ever 12-month achievement) is compared with his 2011 year-to-date ranking (compiled here). The ratio between the two ranking numbers is the player's score for this indicator.
Indicator 5. Past Wimbledon Achievement
Scores representing each player's annual achievement at Wimbledon are discounted by 10% for each year of aging. Thus the most recent score has full weight while the a score of ten years ago has zero weight. Only the best five scores of a player (after discounting) are used for the final compilation. Note that in the text, we sometimes give a player's career Wimbledon W-L record, where no discounting is applied.
Indicator 6. Head-to-Head History
This indicator is used when specific match-ups are being considered. Quantification is possible here but is not used in preparing this column.
Integrating the Indicators
The several indicators along with other knowledge are integrated here by subjective judgement. Assembling all inputs into a single numerically based prediction begs for extensive empirical research into correlations over a number of years.