The last time that none of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic or Andy Murray occupied either of the top two ranking spots, its current inhabitants were seven and six years old respectively.
It would have been reasonable to assume that such a scenario would suggest a significant change at the top of the sport but Djokovic and Nadal are the main protagonists at Wimbledon for another year. Despite where they sit in the rankings, they are somehow also the top two seeds in the absence of a banned Daniil Medvedev, the world No 1, and an injured Alexander Zverev.
Almost every grand slam tournament over the past few years has been an important moment in tennis’s history books as the greatest men’s players live out their final years and try to push their tallies of grand slam titles as far as they go. But this moment feels even more urgent than the others.
A year ago, Djokovic strolled to a Wimbledon title that drew him level with Nadal and Federer on 20 grand-slam titles and marked his third grand-slam championship of the year. To many it seemed inevitable that he would pass his great rivals as the sole record holder. Instead, Djokovic lost the US Open final in September, was deported from Australia in January and he could not handle Nadal’s stratospheric level in their quarter-final in Paris. Now Nadal has 22 major titles with some daylight between them.
With vaccination still required to enter the US, Djokovic made it clear on Saturday that any change that allows him to compete at the US Open will not be from his end. And so, as things stand, the next two weeks could define his season for him. Should he lose at Wimbledon and then remain at home for the US Open, this year he would go down as the nadir of his career. Or else, he could force himself back to the level he displayed a year ago.
The urgency for Nadal is conversely based on the opportunity before him. He never imagined he would win the first majors of the year and stand halfway to the grand slam under these circumstances at 36 years old, and regardless of how much further he goes the most important news is that he is relatively healthy. He has given himself the chance to see where he lands.
With the seedings ensuring no repeat of the all-too-premature French Open quarter-final, the men’s draw is fairly balanced. Both ATP 500 grass champions, the seventh seed Hubert Hurkacz, and eighth seed, Matteo Berrettini, avoided a potential quarter-final with Nadal or Djokovic. As they look to continue their own excellent form on grass, the question is whether any other notable players can join them.
Nick Kyrgios is playing some of the best and most consistent tennis of his career except for the tight matches against top players when he inevitably loses his head. And then there is Andy Murray, who started the grass court season with his best tennis in six years and he will see if he can pick up where he left off.
As long as that winning run, now 35 wins, keeps on rising, the women’s singles draw remains Iga Swiatek against the field. But while few were even close to beating her on hard and clay, it remains to be seen how she will adjust to the grass. The Pole opted to prioritize her physical and mental health over further experience on the surface, opting to take a week off after she won her second French Open title.
One of the obvious top contenders in the women’s draw, still open with so many possibilities, is Ons Jabeur, the victor in Berlin who between enjoying life with her new friend and doubles partner Serena Williams has reached the final in four of her last five events . The catch is that the one missed final just happened to be a first-round loss at the French Open. Coco Gauff, Belinda Bencic, Bianca Andreescu and the fascinating resurgence of the two-time champion Petra Kvitova, who won Eastbourne at the weekend, are also worth watching.
Meanwhile, Williams’s status as a wildcard is apt. She is 40 years old, has not competed in a full year and it is hard to know what level to expect from her on Tuesday. But she is also a seven-time Wimbledon champion and master of the comeback. Like Murray in the men’s draw, Williams has a fair draw if she is in any kind of positive form. It remains to be seen if she is.
Emma Raducanu’s bitter run of injuries continued as she suffered a side strain in the first game of her first match during her first grass season as a grand-slam champion. She used the phrase “ready to go” no less than four times in her press conference on Saturday, as if she was trying to make a point. As she makes her Center Court debut on Monday, it won’t take long to see exactly what shape she is in.
This is an opportunity for the British in general. As Cameron Norrie chases his first appearance in the fourth round of a grand slam, one of the clear themes of the grass season has been the comfort displayed by British players on the surface as many others struggled. Some should have their chances again.
Wimbledon’s decision to ban Russian and Belarusian players has received plenty of reasonable criticism for both its effectiveness and logic. Still, as a new tournament begins, every prominent player who could be here has made the trip. It remains to be seen if some lower-ranked players may take the cash and go – all eyes on Benoît Paire – but this is no hit-and-giggle. On Monday, a new grand-slam tournament begins.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism