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Between The Lines By Ray Bowers
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Wimbledon Preview 2012
by Ray Bowers

Ray Bowers Photo
Ray Bowers

Tennis was alive and well in England in the 16th-century kingdom of Henry VIII. The sport was played both indoors and also on rectangular, walled outdoor courts depicted in contemporary drawings of towns and estates. Shakespeare (c. 1620) variously referred to the game, for example in Henry V, where the English king amid growing clouds of war scornfully acknowledged a gift of tennis balls from the French Dauphin with the words:

"When we have match'd our rackets to these balls. We will, in France, by God's grace, play a set..."

Rules for the modern game of "lawn tennis" were codified in Britain in 1874 and soon reached America and elsewhere. The first future Slam tournament was staged in 1877 at the All England Croquet and Lawn Tennis Club in Wimbledon. Today "Wimbledon" -- still played on grass -- remains one of, and probably the most prestigious of, the world's four great Slams.
This newest chapter of the Wimbledon story is already unfolding. The qualifying rounds have been completed, and the main draw was announced today, June 22. The present modern facility, greatly improved in recent years, stands only a short distance from the site of the first meeting at the All-England in 1877.
On grass courts the ball is slowed very little in bouncing, and erratic bounces are frequent. Athletic court movement can be tricky, especially when dampness weakens foot traction. Points are shorter than on slower-bouncing surfaces, and the server's advantage is greater, aces being nearly twice as frequent on grass as on clay. Among pros the serving player typically wins 84% of the games on grass, only 78% on hard surfaces, 76% on clay. Inasmuch as breaks of serve are more difficult than elsewhere, and because serves and serve-returns constitute a higher percentage of ball strikes, players whose strength is in serving or serve-returning are usually advantaged on grass.
Players vary in how they adjust to grass, though most top players nowadays do well on all surfaces. What was once an extreme rarity -- that the same individual win the men's singles in a given year at both Garros on clay and at Wimbledon on grass -- happened in three consecutive recent years, 2008-2010. Meanwhile net attacking -- once the prime tactic on grass -- is scarcely more frequent than on slower surfaces.
The broad order of merit among the stars of men's pro tennis is currently well-defined. At the top are the Big Four of recent years -- Djokovic, Nadal, Federer, and Murray, who have filled the top four places in the year-end rankings for the last four years. Their extended dominance partly accounts for the reduced frequency of upsets at Wimbledon (as measured by how regularly the seeded players actually reached their seeded levels).
In contrast, there is no long-standing top group among the women. Presently atop the rankings are the four players highest seeded at Wimbledon. These are the recent Garros champion Maria Sharapova, this year's Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka, rising Agnieszka Radwanska, and last year's Wimbledon winner Petra Kvitova. None of these were among the top four just a little over a year ago. Meanwhile not far behind the current leaders in their chances at Wimbledon is an impressive group including Kim Clijsters and the sisters Williams.
We here employ five indicators, all used here previously in slightly different form. Each offers clues for comparing the contenders at Wimbledon 2012.
Indicator 1. Basic indicator. Here, each player's results at some thirty predictor tournaments since 2010 are weighted according to how well each event correlated with results at the following Wimbledon.
Indicator 2. Grass-court ability. For the men, this indicator consists of two measurements -- (1) ATP points on grass over the last three years, adjusted for recency, and (2) Career-long wins minus losses on grass. For the women, we use past wins minus losses at Wimbledon.
Indicator 3. Prestige wins. Each player's number of match wins over specified elite players minus the player's total losses, 2011-2012.
Indicator 4. Grass tune-ups 2012. Compares performances at the several ATP and WTA tune-ups between Garros and Wimbledon.
Indicator 5. Head-to-head history.
The Big Four members have provided the champion at the last nine Wimbledons, and they compose the top four seeds at Wimbledon 2012. All Four are excellent movers, superb ground-strokers, excellent servers, and superior serve-returners, though they blend these strengths in slightly differing proportions.
But it is the special assets of six-time Wimbledon champion Roger Federer that seem best suited to grass. Roger is the one most comfortable when attacking, especially in his net play. His serve too is probably the strongest of the Four's. He is probably the lightest of foot, the most nimble, in moving over grass. But against these advantages, at age 31 he faces an age difference of 5-6 years against the others of the Four.
Meanwhile Rafael Nadal generates by far the heaviest spin in tennis-stroking history, whereby he wears down opponents when in neutral or defensive mode. But Rafa's power forehand, which he uses on the attack typically in inside-out thrusts, can be spectacular.
Novak Djokovic is the current world #1. His distinguishing asset is probably his dogged ability to prevail in fierce and very long exchanges from back court. Outstanding in delivering sustained power and also in defensive play, Novak is less interested in attacking than Federer, more so than Nadal. He is not far behind, or is perhaps equal to, Federer in his nimble footwork.
Finally, Andy Murray possesses easy power in serving and stroking, and he joins Djokovic as the best in tagging opponent's serves. Andy's inclinations are typically toward the defensive -- possibly too much so for grass-court play.
The leader in our first indicator, Basic indicator, is Djokovic, who since winning last year's Wimbledon has been the winner or runner-up in almost every prime event. Second place in Basic indicator goes to Nadal, a finalist at the last four Slams and the recent winner over Djokovic at Roland Garros. Third is Federer, where Roger's margin ahead of Murray is surprisingly narrow.
Reflecting Federer's wonderful grass-court strengths, Roger stands highest among the Four in career grass-court matches won vs. lost. But his failure to reach the final four at both of the last two Wimbledons lowers his overall score in our second indicator, Grass-court ability. Thus Nadal is unexpectedly in first place in this indicator, lifted by his Wimbledon crown in 2010 and runner-up finish last year. Djokovic is second.
The leader in Prestige Wins is Djokovic, who recently defeated two elite players (Tsonga and Federer) at Garros. Second is Nadal, who improved his ratio of prestige wins vs. total losses in beating Djokovic at Garros. Federer is third, well ahead of fourth-place Murray, in this often-telling indicator.
Our composite of the first three indicators firmly points to Djokovic as the likely champion of Wimbledon 2012. Nadal is second in the composite, Federer third. All four Big Four members are well ahead of all others.
But their dominance does not extend to the fourth indicator, Grass Tune-ups 2012. Murray lost his first match at Queen's, which he won last year, and Nadal was beaten in his second match at Halle, Germany, by Philipp Kohlschreiber, last year's champion there. Rafa sometimes seemed cautious in his movement and stroking, as if thinking two weeks ahead. Meanwhile Federer narrowly defeated Milos Raonic at Halle, where effective serve returns were in short supply. Roger lost in the final round to Tommy Haas. (Djokovic did not enter Queen's or Halle, and none of the Four competed in the second week of tune-ups.)
Any player outside the Big Four faces the daunting task of getting past one of the Big Four members in order to reach the semi-finals. But even if an outsider manages to do so, in order to become champion he will then probably have to defeat two more Big Four members. The odds he faces are long indeed.
The Second Four in the seedings should be best positioned to do so, however. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga knocked out Federer at Wimbledon 2011, and Tomas Berdych did the same at Wimbledon 2010. Both are tall, powerful servers and strikers, at prime age, excellent in all departments. Berdych ranks fifth after the Big Four in Basic indicator, and Tsonga fifth in Prestige wins. A third Second Four member, David Ferrer, defeated Murray at Garros 2012 and Nadal at Australia 2011, and ranks sixth in Prestige wins. Finally, Janko Tipsarevic, 28, is eighth-seeded in the tournament following a strong upward move in the world rankings that lifted him just ahead of del Potro into the Second Four. Tipsarevic, Tsonga, and Berdych each won one tune-up match before losing at Queen's or Halle, while Ferrer, top-seeded at 's-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands, won three times so far to reach the tournament semis.
Here are some others capable of extending the Fours:
--Juan Martin del Potro -- is in the class of Tsonga and Berdych as a heavy-duty server and striker. Beat both Federer and Nadal in winning U.S. Open 2009.
--Marin Cilic -- won Queen's 2012.
--Phillipp Kohlschreiber -- beat Nadal at Halle 2012 and won twice so far at Eastbourne 2012. Won Queen's 2011.
--Tommy Haas -- beat Federer at Halle 2012, striking aggressively throughout at age 34.
--Lleyton Hewitt -- Wimbledon champ 2002.
--John Isner, Milos Raonic, Kevin Anderson -- the tournament's strongest servers, all with good complementing all-court abilities, especially Isner.
All aspirants probably watched closely today's making of the main draw. Most probably hoped to drop into the quarter of Andy Murray, who seems the Big Four's most vulnerable member, and also to avoid the quarter of del Potro, the most dangerous outsider to the Fours.
Top Quarter
Novak Djokovic has clear sailing in his half of this quarter. Tomas Berdych is almost as safe in the lower half, though Richard Gasquet will be dangerous in the fourth round. Richard has won three of their five past meetings including the most recent, but Berdych has the strong edge in our indicators. Berdych defeated Djokovic at Wimbledon 2010 but since then has lost all seven of their meetings. The last two were split-setters, but our indicators point firmly to Djokovic, who is here predicted to win his quarter.
Second Quarter
Roger Federer could hardly be more favored by the draw except for one giant hazard. Eleventh-seeded John Isner looms in the opposite half of the quarter, likely to defeat Tipsarevic enroute to a quarter-final meeting with Roger. Breaks of serve will be few in their showdown, tiebreakers frequent. Isner beat Roger on clay earlier this year, but Federer won their subsequent meeting at Indian Wells. Roger should find a way once again.
Third Quarter
Both Andy Murray, seemingly vulnerable, and Juan Martin del Potro, the strongest threat outside the first eight, are in this quarter, along with worthy challengers Raonic, Cilic, Roddick, and Ferrer. Murray's itinerary could scarcely be more treacherous, but he should reach the fourth round, to face either del Potro or Ferrer, who are very close to each other in all indicators. Ferrer has the head-to-head edge over del Potro, including having won the only meeting of the two on that surface, in 2008, and his success in the tune-up week is likewise persuasive.
Ferrer at height 5-9 is indeed a giant-killer, and his run should continue with a victory over Murray in the final match of this quarter. David has won their most recent meeting, at Garros, though the task will be harder now. I especially like that Ferrer is ahead of Murray in the year-to-date points race, albeit slightly. David's results at 's-Hertogenbosch compels choosing him here.
Bottom Quarter
Nadal vs. Tommy Haas or Kohlschreiber will be an interesting second-rounder, but there is no serious problem for Rafa either here or in his quarter-final match-up with Tsonga. Rafa is ahead of Jo-Wilfried in our indicators including the head-to-heads, though Jo-Wilfried won their only meeting on grass, at Queen's last year. Nadal will prevail.
Semis and Final
Djokovic vs. Federer. Novak is well ahead of Roger in the first three indicators. Roger is ahead in the fourth, Grass tune-ups 2012. The fifth, Head-to-head history, gives an interesting picture, where the six-year difference in their ages began to favor Djokovic after 2010. Djokovic won six of their seven match-ups in 2011-2012, though he won in five sets at U.S. Open 2011 only after a fantastic recovery from the brink. Djokovic should prevail.
Nadal vs. Ferrer. Rafa won all three of their meetings of 2012 without loss of a set. Nothing has changed.
Djokovic vs. Nadal. Yet another Slam final between these two. Novak is favored by two of our indicators, Basic indicator and Prestige wins, and is very nearly even in one, Grass tune-ups 2012. In Head-to-head history, Rafa leads, 19 wins to 14 over their full careers, also having won their earlier meetings on grass, at Wimbledon 2007 and at Queen's 2008.
Djokovic is a year younger than Nadal, and it seems clear that he matured as a champion-level player at a later age than did Rafa. Djokovic's wins at the preceding Slam finals, along with the closeness of the verdict favoring Rafa at Garros, thus turns the head-to-head evidence to favor Novak. Our five indicators thus point to Djokovic as the most likely champion of forthcoming Wimbledon. Our prediction follows the indicators.
The leading female candidates are here listed by rank according to the composite of our first three indicators.
1. Serena Williams, age 30, height 5-9. Serena's return from injury and illness has been uneven. She was strong, indeed overpowering, enroute to the final at U.S. Open 2011, but she lost to Stosur in the final match, unable to find her usual level of play. She again seemed dominating in this spring's clay-court season, but she lost in the first round at Garros, out of sorts and with opponent Razzano at her very best.
Still, there can be no doubt as to Serena's grass-court ability, she having captured Wimbledon four times, most recently in 2010. Moreover, she is the strong leader in our third indicator, Prestige wins, where she is the only contender in our tally having more wins over elite players than total losses.
2 . Maria Sharapova, 25, 6-2. In her surpassing triumph at Garros 2012, Maria displayed her greatly improved court movement and her best-ever consistency in delivering her potent serving and stroking rocketry. Her success came amid conditions of dampness, cool, and wind that were unfavorable to her playing style and strengths. Maria is a close second in our Basic indicator, third in Grass-court ability, and third in Prestige wins. The grass of Wimbledon, where she triumphed eight years ago as a teenager and where she was runner-up last year, beckons.
3. Victoria Azarenka, 22, 6-0. It is not easy for an opponent to stroke more powerfully than Victoria without making excessive errors, but Petra Kvitova did so in her Wimbledon triumph last year. Kvitova won again when they met at the year-ending championships indoors. Since then, however, Vika has achieved by far the greater success, including a remarkable run of four consecutive tournament victories to start 2012, including Australian Open and Indian Wells. (Vika and Petra have not met in 2012.)
Vika's strength is her relentless forceful stroking, effectively placed and executed with few errors. Few opponents are able to answer her steady pressure. She stands first in Basic indicator, and second in Prestige wins.
4. Venus Williams, 32, 6-1. Immune-system illness has kept Venus from competing more than sporadically, but she made several good tournament runs this year, including at Miami and Rome. She is tops in our second indicator, Grass-court ability, echoing her five triumphs and three runner-up finishes at Wimbledon, where her power striking and relentless court covering can be magnificent.
5. Petra Kvitova, 22, 6-0. Petra's left-handed serving is most effective on grass. That is also true of her thunderous, high-risk artillery to the corners. Her nemesis is herself, whether in spells of error-making or in lapsing in intensity once ahead on the scoreboard. She must discover how to restrain her rocketry to reach an acceptable level of errors while still maintaining dominance in points. After winning Wimbledon, Fed Cup, and the year-ending championships last year, she now ranks only seventh for year 2012 to date. She is fifth in Basic indicator, fourth in Prestige wins, fifth in our composite of the first three.
6. Kim Clijsters, 29, 5-8. Because of her relative inactivity caused by ankle and hip injuries, Kim like Serena and Venus remains an uncertainty, though her three victories enroute to the semis this week at 's-Hertogenosch is eye-catching. Her power and athletic mobility have long been of world-champion quality. But she has never been Wimbledon champion, though twice a semi-finalist, and she has competed there only once since 2006. Still, she places fourth in Grass-court ability and fifth in Prestige wins.
7. Agnieszka Radwanska, 23, 5-8. Agnieszka penetrated the first ten in 2011 and has continued her rising pattern since, now ranked world #3. She consistently reaches the late rounds of tournaments, and she scored her most-important triumph at Miami this year, beating Sharapova in the final. Her playing style emphasizes patience, placement, and control and is generally soft, but she is capable of excellent power when she chooses to use it, increasingly so of late. Her fine results in 2011-2012 place her third in our Basic indicator, but her ratio of nine wins over elite players against 30 total losses leave her considerably further back, ninth, in Prestige wins.
8. Caroline Wozniacki, 21, 5-10. Ranked as world #1 at the end of both 2010 and 2011, Caroline has shown disappointing results so far in 2012. Her previous inclination for soft and error-free play has left her vulnerable to several of her principal rivals, who are able to dominate her using superior power. Her striving to step up her own weight of shot may explain her possibly temporary decline. Our indicators underline her dilemma -- she is fourth in Basic indicator but a distant eleventh in Prestige wins, paralleling the pattern of Radwanska.
9. Samantha Stosur, 28, 5-8. Sam's is a strong, forceful game built about excellent serving ability. Her highest achievement came in winning U.S. Open last year, defeating Serena Williams. Over the years Wimbledon has been her poorest Slam by far, however. She ranks seventh in Basic indicator.
10. Marion Bartoli, 27, 5-7. An energetic and forceful player, Marion reached the Wimbledon final in 2007 and since then has done well there, reaching the final eight last year. Ranked a balanced tenth in our composite, ahead of Kerber, she is seeded ninth at Wimbledon, behind Kerber. Both she and Kerber won their first three matches at Eastbourne this week, both reaching the semis.
That fourth indicator, Grass tune-ups 2012, gives limited insight. None of the just-listed stars played at Birmingham in the week just after Garros. That event was won by American Melanie Oudin, who rose from the qualifiers. The current week then brought tournaments at Eastbourne and 's-Hertogenbosch, both still in progress. Six of the stars listed above entered one or the other, and all but two (Clijsters and Bartoli) lost in the first round.
Here are players likely to make trouble for the favorites:
-- Angelique Kerber -- a strong recent riser, ranking fifth in world for year 2012 to date. A lefty, won thrice at Eastbourne to date.
-- Li Na -- sixth place in Basic indicator, ninth in Prestige wins.
-- Nadia Petrova -- long history of reaching middle rounds at Wimbledon.
-- Dominika Cibulkova -- often at her best against higher-ranking players. Won twice this week at s'Hertogenbosch, then losing to Petrova.
-- Sara Errani -- runner-up at Garros 2012.
-- Sabine Lisicki -- heavy server and striker. Reached Wimby semis in 2010.
Top Quarter
Sharapova is safe in her half of this exciting quarter, but the other half offers many subplots. Angelique Kerber and Kim Clijsters should meet in the third round with Clijsters favored by our indicators. Whoever survives, that player will then face the game's current best. The indicators point clearly to Maria against either quarter-final opponent, but the evidence of Sharapova's powerful performance at Garros is alone sufficient.
Second Quarter
Venus Williams and Agnieszka Radwanska will meet in an early round. Agnieszka won by comfortable scores when they met at Garros recently, but three years ago Venus won by comparable margin at Wimbledon. Venus's strong grass-court history is reflected in the indicators, and Agnieska's chances seem blurred after her first-round loss at Eastbourne this week. The choice here is Venus.
The other half of this quarter belongs to Samantha Stosur, who has never lost to her foremost rival here, Li Na, in six meetings. But the winner of the quarter should be Venus Williams, who defeated Stosur this year on Roman clay.
Third Quarter
Last year's Wimbledon champion, Petra Kvitova, could have trouble with giant-killer Cibulkova in her half of the quarter. Meanwhile Serena Williams has clear sailing in her half, provided that she dismisses her horrible recent disaster at Garros. Petra and Serena will meet to decide the quarter, both bringing superior serving and stroking ability, Serena bringing the higher level of athleticism and movement. To win, Kvitova will have to find a level not seen since last year. The verdict, amply supported by the indicators, goes to Serena.
Bottom Quarter
Azarenka has no worries here.
Semis and final
Sharapova vs. Venus Williams. Venus has twice defeated Maria at Wimbledon, both times in straight sets. But Maria is now at her career best, having ended a nice run by Venus at Rome earlier this year. With Venus perhaps worn down by her earlier matches, Maria should here end another remarkable run by Venus.
Azarenka vs. Serena Williams. Serena has won their last five meetings, including a straight-setter in their recent final at Madrid. The luster has faded from Victoria's marvelous run early this year. If both are at their best, the winner should be Serena, who is well ahead in our indicators.
Serena Williams vs. Sharapova. These are the two leaders by our indicators, Serena somewhat favored. Serena has won their last seven meetings, including on the slippery clay at Madrid this year. Still, whichever player finds her best game will probably prevail. Maria was absolutely at her best at Garros, Serena absolutely at her worst in her abrupt Garros melt-away. Guessing that Serena will figure out what happened in Paris, my vote follows the message of the indicators. Serena at age 30 should win her fifth Wimbledon.
--Ray Bowers, Arlington, Virginia, U.S.A.
Our watch lists of risers are selected periodically by computer based on performance in the preceding trimester along with various empirically-based adjustments. Shown below: current age, height, world rank when listed, calculated 12-month target rank, current (June 18) rank, comments on performance since selected.
Selected April 2012
-- Timea Babos (Hungary), age 19, height 5-10, was #68, target #30, current #69. More losses than wins since selected.
-- Garbine Muguruza (Spain), 18, 6-0, was #146, target #62, current #113. Two wins in Garros qualifiers, reached quarter-finals at Fes, one main-draw match win at Barcelona. Closing nicely on target.
-- Angelique Kerber (Germany), 24, 5-8, was #16, target #8, current #8. Quarter-finals at Rome. Semi-finals at Garros. Spectacular rise.
-- Mona Barthel (Germany), 21, 6-1, was #36, target #18, current #37. Disappointing run of losses since 2011.
-- Grace Min (U.S.), 18, was #257, target #114, current #124. Won ITF events in Indian Harbor Beach and Raleigh. Won main-tour qualifier at Birmingham.
-- Paula Ormaechea (Argentina), 19, 5-7, was #120, target #56, current #119. Three qualifying and main-draw wins at Charleston but few wins thereafter.
-- Lara Arruabarrena-Vecino (Spain), 20, 5-5, was #112, target #54, current #125. Won qualifiers plus one main-draw match at Garros.
Selected December 2011
-- Laura Robson (Britain), 18, 5-11, was #133, target, #46, current #111. Won qualifiers at Australian Open. Won two qualifier matches at Garros.
-- Angelique Kerber (Germany), 24, 5-8, was #33, target #14, current #8. Also selected in April 2012 because of strong results in intervening trimester.
-- Monica Niculescu (Romania), 24, 5-6, was #29, target #18, current #31. Round of 32 at Australian Open. Quarter-finals at Doha.
-- Mona Barthel (Germany), 21, 6-1, was #67, target #41, current #37. Also selected in April 2012 because of strong results in intervening trimester.
-- Christina McHale (U.S.), 20, 5-7, was #42, target #28, current #30. Round of 32 at Australian Open, Garros. Round of 16 at Indian Wells (defeated Kvitova).
-- Chanelle Scheepers (S. Africa), 28, 5-9, was #38, target #34, current #43. Round of 32 at Indian Wells and Miami. Round of 14 at Rome.
-- Petra Martic, 21, 5-11, was #49, target #35, current #42. Round of 16 at Garros (defeated Bartoli)
Selected August 2011
-- Petra Kvitova (Czech Rep.), 22, 6-0, was #7, target #1, current #4. Repeat selection from previous list. Since then, won Wimbledon 2011.
-- Roberta Vinci (Italy), 29, 5-4, was #22, target #13, current #23. Quarter-finals Canada, round of 32 U.S. Open.
-- Sabine Lisicki (Germany), 22, 5-10, was #21, target #7, current #15. Reached career-high #12 in May 2012.
-- Sloane Stephens (U.S.), 19, 5-7, was #112, target #67, current #57. Round of 32 U.S. Open, round of 16 Garros.
-- Ksenia Pervak (Kazakhstan), 21, 5-7, was #51, target #30, current #39. Won Tashkent 2011, many middle-round finishes.
-- Polona Hercog (Slovenia), 21, 6-0, was #40, target #16, current #44. Semi-finals Charleston.
-- Marion Bartoli (France), 27, 5-7, was #9, target #5, current #9. Reached career-high #7 in January 2012.
Although a majority of our selectees have improved their rankings since their selection, only a few have already equaled or exceeded their 12-month target calculated here. These are Sloane Stephens, Angelique Kerber, and (for her December target) Mona Barthel. Reasonably close to their targets, each with a full trimester or more remaining, are Christina McHale, Grace Min, and Petra Martic.

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This column is copyrighted by Ray Bowers, all rights reserved.

Following interesting military and civilian careers, Ray became a regular competitor in the senior divisions, reaching official rank of #1 in the 75 singles in the Mid-Atlantic Section for 2002. He was boys' tennis coach for four years at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, Virginia, where the team three times reached the state Final Four. He was named Washington Post All-Metropolitan Coach of the Year in 2003. He is now researching a history of the early pro tennis wars, working mainly at U.S. Library of Congress. A tentative chapter, which appeared on Tennis Server, won a second-place award from U.S. Tennis Writers Association.

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