- Whit Sheppard
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WIMBLEDON, England -- If Roger Federer is to capture his fourth consecutive Wimbledon title and assume sole ownership of the Open era record for the longest grass-court winning streak (which he shares with Bjorn Borg at 41 straight), he'll have to be in form right from the beginning of the 120th rendition of The Championships.
Federer has drawn a first-round match with No. 66 Richard Gasquet of France, whom he narrowly beat in three tight sets last week in a Wimbledon warm-up in Halle, Germany. Gasquet traditionally gives the world No. 1 a difficult time, although Federer has won three of their four matches. If Federer gets through, he'll play either local favorite Tim Henman, a four-time Wimbledon semifinalist, or Sweden's Robin Soderling in the second round.
In the round of 16, he conceivably would play either No. 13 Tomas Berdych, whom he beat in the Halle final, or No. 19 Tommy Haas, who extended the Swiss to five sets in the fourth round of the Australian Open earlier this year. A potential quarterfinal against No. 7 Mario Ancic of Croatia looms, a match that would be a stern test for the three-time Wimbledon winner (2003, '04, '05).
Spain's Rafael Nadal, fresh off derailing Federer's dreams of Grand Slam glory at Roland Garros two weeks ago, opens against British qualifier Alex Bogdanovic and could face No. 25 Andre Agassi in the third round. Nadal's draw is favorable to his chances of effectively making the transition from clay-court wizard to grass-court denizen. A quarterfinal match against No. 5 Ivan Ljubicic is a possibility for the 20-year-old Majorcan, and a semifinal against No. 3 Andy Roddick could happen if Nadal finds a successful way to adapt his bludgeoning baseline game to the pristine lawns of the All England Lawn and Tennis Club.
No. 8 seed James Blake is coming off an appearance in the Queen's final, where he lost to resurgent Lleyton Hewitt of Australia, and will open against qualifier Kristian Pless of Denmark. Blake is in the same quarter of the draw as No. 4 David Nalbandian, who had to retire from his Roland Garros semifinal against Federer with a pulled stomach muscle but seems to have rounded back into shape.
Blake faces a potential fourth-round challenge from either No. 12 Thomas Johansson, a solid grass-court player, or No. 20 Dominik Hrbaty before matchups -- if the seedings hold true -- with Nalbandian in the quarters and Federer in the semifinals.
Two-time finalist Roddick appears to have regained full mobility in the injured left ankle that hampered him in Paris and could face local hope Andy Murray in the third round, then his Australian Open nemesis, No. 18 Marcos Baghdatis of Cyprus, in the round of 16. No. 6 seed Hewitt conceivably awaits him in the quarterfinals, and that holds the promise of being one of the best matches of the Wimbledon fortnight.
Among the remainder of the American men's contingent competing, No. 17 Robby Ginepri opens against fellow American Mardy Fish, who's working his way back after wrist surgery; Justin Gimelstob faces Belgian Christophe Rochus; Paul Goldstein plays rising Serb Novak Djokovic; Vince Spadea meets Spain's Fernando Verdasco; qualifier Robert Kendrick takes on Yen-Hsun Lu of Taiwan; and qualifier Kevin Kim will face Italy's Davide Sanguinetti.
Choosing a winner other than Federer is undertaken at peril after his three consecutive titles at Wimbledon, and the Swiss is surely hungry to erase the sting of his defeat by Nadal in Paris by winning his eighth major in the last 13 contested. He's 49-4 so far in 2006, with all four losses coming at the hands of his nemesis, Nadal.
Nadal has done his tour brethren a favor by exposing flaws, where there were once thought to be none, in Federer's pristine game -- specifically, by pounding away at him physically and repeatedly forcing him to hit above-the-shoulder backhands. The low bounce on the Wimbledon grass likely will forestall the effectiveness of that approach, though, and the fact that the courts dry out and become faster as the tournament goes on distinctly plays to Federer's strengths. His virtuoso shot-making skills are never as evident as they are on Centre Court, and it's difficult to see anyone other than the 24-year-old from Basel holding the winner's trophy aloft July 9.
Federer def. Johansson in three sets
Hewitt def. Nadal in four sets
Federer def. Hewitt in four sets