Commentary

Keeping a watchful eye on the big-name players

Each day, ESPN.com will lend an inside look at the game's brightest stars.

Updated: July 1, 2008, 4:54 PM ET
By Ravi Ubha | Special to ESPN.com

Editor's note: Each day at Wimbledon, ESPN.com will track one or more of the game's brightest stars, lending an inside look at their daily matches, practices and routines.

Tuesday, July 1
Marat Safin delivered the biggest upset in the men's draw at Wimbledon when he took the swagger out of Serb Novak Djokovic in the second round. His subsequent wins over Andreas Seppi and Stanislas Wawrinka meant more to his coach, Hernan Gumy.

"This is the real point for me," the Argentine said as he smoked a cigarette while sitting on a wooden bench at Wimbledon's practice pavilion, sunny skies and warm temperatures prevailing. "I think it was much more important to achieve two more wins after Djokovic. It proves that he's not only in good shape physically and that he's trained, but that he really wants to play at this level."

In his first Grand Slam quarterfinal since the 2005 Australian Open (which he ultimately won for a second major title), Safin will meet nemesis Feliciano Lopez. It also has been a while since the Spaniard was featured in a Slam quarterfinal; he last achieved the feat at the All England Club in 2005, downing Safin in the process.

Lopez holds a 4-1 edge in their head-to-head overall series and leads Wimbledon with 93 aces.

"It's going to be a difficult one, but playing against Marat, Feliciano feels like he's confident about winning," said Lopez's coach, 2002 French Open champion Albert Costa. "I think Marat tomorrow is going to fight like a bull. Finally he made a very good tournament, especially on a big tournament like this, so it's going to be tough."

That sort of determination wouldn't surprise Gumy, a former top-40 pro.

Safin earned a reputation for despising practice and partying too much earlier in his career, although Gumy insists the Russian has put in the time since they began their partnership in July 2007 in Los Angeles.

The results have been slow to follow, a lingering knee injury not helping.

"The first night we talked together in Los Angeles, he said, 'Many people think I don't want this and I'm through, I have a good life,'" Gumy said. "I said, 'I don't believe this. First, I want to see you in good shape, I want to see you well trained and fit, then, we move onto the next step.'"

Safin has been a regular on the circuit in 2008, albeit without much success at the majors. Marcos Baghdatis beat him in the second round at the Australian Open, and at the French, countryman Nikolay Davydenko ousted him in three entertaining sets. He had a four-match losing streak in the United States in between.

"He was almost going crazy," Gumy said.

But Safin kept chugging, with the former No. 1 even playing in qualifying at May's Hamburg Masters in Germany.

"Like he says, the more he plays, the better he gets," Gumy said. "He was much better in the clay season, and it looks like he's starting to get back and feel what he felt when he was a highly ranked player. He's slowly getting back on track."

Lopez enters the tilt with perhaps a bit of destiny on his side.

The pony-tailed lefty saved three match points in the fourth round against Baghdatis, pummeling a second-serve ace on one. When he gets on a roll, he can be hard to stop.

"He has a big serve, and he doesn't give you rhythm, something Marat likes," Gumy said. "But also, again, Wawrinka was also a tough player for Marat, who he never beat before. There are many other things that come with the match."

Monday, June 30
A British hope toiling deep into the night as the masses cheered from Centre Court and a grassy Wimbledon knoll. Sound familiar?

No, it wasn't Tim Henman, but instead his successor, Andy Murray.

The round of 16 was anointed Murray's on Monday after the Scot rallied from a two-set hole for the second time in his career -- both on home soil -- to knock off a woebegone Richard Gasquet, the talented Frenchman who could do little wrong for the first two hours.

When Murray ended the 5-7, 3-6, 7-6 (3), 6-2, 6-4 contest in four hours, he rolled up his sleeve and flexed his right bicep, a pop at detractors who've often admonished his fitness levels. The crowd roared, those on Henman Hill included, even if they could barely see him. The tussle concluded at 9:31 p.m. local time, Murray moving a step closer to becoming the first Brit to win Wimbledon since Fred Perry in 1936.

"Coming back from two sets to love, playing obviously very well at the end, and the support that I got, made that probably the best [match] that I played in,'' said Murray, chomping down on some sushi during his postmatch news conference. "It's the best support I've ever had in a match in my life. You don't really prepare yourself for it.''

Murray began his comeback by breaking Gasquet when he served for the match at 5-4 in the third. Call it a choke. By Murray's own admission, the match turned entirely when he captured a pulsating third-set tiebreak.

Murray finished the set off with an outlandish backhand slice while almost touching the first row of the stands, chasing down a backhand volley delivered at an acute angle. He let out an almighty howl and Gasquet, not known for being especially mentally tough, was pretty much done.

"That was obviously huge,'' said Murray, who delivered 72 winners, six more than Gasquet. "To hit the shot, that got the crowd going and it shifted the momentum. His head went down for a couple of games after that.''

Gasquet, seemingly reinvigorated under new coach Guillaume Peyre, blew a two-set lead for the first time. Recall that last July he rallied from a two-set deficit at the All England Club to oust Andy Roddick in the quarters.

Gasquet criticized Wimbledon officials for not halting proceedings because of bad light in the fifth, although he stopped short of saying it was the deciding factor.

"If I was up two sets and 5-4 anywhere else but Wimbledon I would have won the match,'' Gasquet said. "When I lost the third my confidence was down and the crowd was for him.''

Indeed, the fourth lasted 25 minutes. The lone break of the fifth came in the opening game, Murray finally capitalizing on his fifth chance.

Gasquet earned his solitary opportunity in the next game and missed, then mustered only three points in the last four Murray service games.

Speaking of biceps, Murray's next opponent is second-seeded Rafael Nadal.

Nadal leads their head-to-heads 3-0, including a five-set thriller at the Australian Open in 2007.

"I think both of our games have changed a bit since then,'' Murray said. "He's definitely playing better on grass than he was in previous years. I like to think I'm playing better.''

And no one needs to tell him which side the crowd will be on.

Saturday, June 28
Worldly tennis pro, law school grad and now actor Mario Ancic can do it all.

Ancic, on course for a quarterfinal showdown with five-time defending champion Roger Federer, looked like a seasoned veteran exchanging barbs with fellow Croat Ivan Ljubicic in a commercial for Croatian telecommunications firm VIPnet.

Here's the premise: The pair just won a doubles title, but aren't sure where they are when they deliver the postmatch speech, weary from too much traveling. A half-hearted argument ensues.

Filmed following the Zagreb Indoors in early March, the commercial has found its way onto YouTube.

"I find it very funny,'' Ancic said. "We had such a great time filming it. It took the whole day, but we had so much fun on the set.''

For the most part, Ancic hasn't had a bad first week at the All England Club, either. He benefited from a retirement by dangerous floater Michael Llodra in the first round, recovered from a lapse to edge German journeyman Philipp Petzschner in five sets and knocked out tenacious Spaniard David Ferrer in a pulsating four sets on Friday.

Ferrer, one of the top returners around, failed to break the imposing Ancic serve. Ancic hit 23 aces and won more than 80 percent of the points behind his first delivery.

The only downer is an Achilles tendon injury that surfaced against Petzschner and required strapping against Ferrer.

As Ancic pointed out, it pales in comparison to his health woes of 2007, a serious bout of mono sidelining him for about six months and almost ending his career. The French Open and Wimbledon passed by. Soon after he came back, a shoulder injury ruled him out of the U.S. Open.

Still, Ancic didn't practice on Saturday and admitted he was glad to have another day off before facing dangerous Spaniard Fernando Verdasco in the fourth round on Monday.

Verdasco crushed Czech Tomas Berdych in Round 3.

"Especially in my second match it was pretty bad when I played five, and yesterday I also felt it,'' Ancic said. "It's uncomfortable, but you just play through the pain. I missed Wimbledon last year, so there hasn't been any question about continuing to play or not. It's nothing serious, but I don't want to make it chronic.''

Federer needs to get past former Wimbledon champion Lleyton Hewitt to reach the last eight, which seems a formality, given the world No. 1 has won his past 11 matches. Ancic hasn't taken a set off Federer in their past three Grand Slam meetings, including in the 2006 Wimbledon quarterfinal, but as many know by now, Ancic is the last man to down Federer on grass six years ago.

"Physically overall I'm feeling pretty good,'' Ancic said. "I had two tough matches. But except for the Achilles that's bothering me, everything else is great.''

Friday, June 27
When one of the most respected coaches around is teamed with one of the most talented players around, you have what seems like a great combo. Marcos Baghdatis hopes so.

Baghdatis, the gregarious Cypriot who enraptured the tennis world in Australia two years ago, showed up at the All England Club with Peter Lundgren, the man who used to guide former No. 1s Roger Federer and Marat Safin.

Lundgren, the ponytailed Swede recently removed from the U.K.'s cash-rich Lawn Tennis Association, is Baghdatis' fourth coach in a little over a year.

"He's a guy with a lot of experience," Baghdatis said. "He's worked with big players, and for the moment, it's going real good. I won't say what he's doing, but he's helping me a lot."

Dogged by questions about his fitness and mental toughness, Baghdatis has failed to live up to expectations since that magical run to the Australian Open final in 2006, when he orchestrated the crowd at will and pulled off victories over Andy Roddick, David Nalbandian and Ivan Ljubicic. In the finale, he led Federer by a set and a break before losing in four.

Baghdatis is currently ranked 25th -- although seeded 10th at Wimbledon due to his grass-court pedigree -- and has made a solitary semifinal in 2008. His last appearance in the top 10 was in October 2006.

The three coaches Baghdatis had before Lundgren were Guillaume Peyre (now coaching another talented shot-maker in Richard Gasquet); Cyprus Davis Cup captain Yiannos Hadjigeorgiou; and Mehdi Daouki, from the academy just outside Paris where Baghdatis trains. They have come and gone since May 2007.

According to published reports, Lundgren turned down offers from a few top-25 players, enigmatic Spaniard Fernando Verdasco included, before deciding on Baghdatis in early June.

"Finally, I think he's got the right coach," said 1991 Wimbledon champion Michael Stich, taking shelter from the rain that briefly hit Wimbledon on Friday. "Still, the player-coach relation has to fit. You can't just say that, 'Because this is a good coach and I'm a good player we're going to work together and it's going to be fine,' because it's more of a personal thing between two people. You have to respect each other, and if that works, you have the base for a good relationship."

So far, so good.

Baghdatis advanced to the quarterfinals on grass in Halle, Germany, two weeks ago before Federer derailed him, and reached the fourth round at Wimbledon following a 7-6 (2), 6-4, 6-2 win over German outsider Simon Stadler on Court 2.

A quarterfinalist at the All England Club last year and a semifinalist in 2006, Baghdatis appears set for another deep run. His next foe is the dangerous yet unpredictable Spaniard, Feliciano Lopez. Baghdatis won't have to face Novak Djokovic if he makes his way to the quarters since the Serb, Baghdatis' conqueror in a five-set epic in 2007, lost to Safin in Round 2.

"If Marcos plays well, he doesn't have to look out for any other opponent and doesn't need to be scared of anyone," Stich said. "He seems to be fit, seems to be enjoying himself, and that's the important part."

Thursday, June 26
Less than 12 hours after Ana Ivanovic completed a grueling win over Frenchwoman Nathalie Dechy, the Serb was back on the practice courts -- which are getting more bare as the week progresses -- with unofficial coach Sven Groeneveld.

The question is, will she have enough in the tank in the third round against feisty Jie Zheng of China while still on the mend from an ankle injury that sidelined her from May 2007 to this January and sent her ranking spiraling outside the top 100?

"For me, physically, Ana is able to deal with it," Groeneveld said as Ivanovic finished practice. "There's also the thing of how you can refocus. She's obviously had a lot of positive energy in the last month, and that gives her encouragement, but it's also a situation that she needs to enjoy today, even having a little hit. We'll see what she brings."

Against Dechy, Ivanovic saved two match points in the second set, the second coming on an agonizing -- for her opponent -- let court. She took the second set in a tiebreak, then prevailed 10-8 in the third. The match lasted more than three hours and 20 minutes.

Not exactly what the 20-year-old wanted following her maiden Grand Slam title at the French Open. Admitting she was "mentally exhausted," the world No. 1 bailed from a prestigious women's warm-up in Eastbourne, England.

"I'm No. 1 because I was playing good and because, you know, I deserve the position," Ivanovic said Wednesday. "That's also something that gives me confidence, so it's kind of balanced up. In a tough situation, you try to look for a positive side and not so much the other one."

As Groeneveld pointed out, Ivanovic was in a similar position last year, reaching the French Open final and recovering to make the Wimbledon semis. However, then, she had at least some practice on grass, choosing to take part in a warm-up in the Netherlands.

Ivanovic, Groeneveld said, was trying to recharge Thursday and get some "good food and rest." He discounted the theory that she's destined to win the title due to the lucky let court.

No singles player, male or female, in the Open era at Wimbledon has saved a match point before the final and went on to lift the trophy. Venus Williams overcame a match point in a gripping 2005 finale against fellow American Lindsay Davenport.

"On the way here I spoke with someone about that, and I said I remembered a couple of champions in the past who've come down from a match point, but we forget that there are a lot of players who had a match point against them, won, and lose the next match," Groeneveld said. "But maybe it will inspire her to make a little bit of a difference."

Groeneveld serves as a consultant to any adidas-sponsored players who want his help and essentially can't pick favorites, so he wasn't in the players box in the 2007 and 2008 French Open finals because Ivanovic faced adidas clients Justine Henin and Dinara Safina, respectively.

An 18-year tour veteran, Groeneveld, a Dutchman, has no plans to coach Ivanovic exclusively. So far, he says, Ivanovic is OK with the setup.

"I have no ambition to be a one-on-one coach," Groeneveld said. "I want to make this the most successful program. It's quite unique because it's the same structure that a federation has. I took a chance to see how it will go. As long as I keep feeling I can make a difference in [her] development, then I think she'll continue to stay. Time will tell."

Wednesday, June 25
All of a sudden the fortnight is looking a lot better for Roger Federer -- even if he didn't admit it.

Novak Djokovic's surprising loss to the unpredictable Marat Safin in straight sets handed the five-time defending champion an easier path to the final, pressing the pause button on a blossoming rivalry tinged with bad blood in the process.

While Djokovic exited before the semifinals in a major for the first time since last year's Australian Open, Federer breezed past the potentially tricky Robin Soderling in straights, the only mini-crisis surfacing when the Swede held a set point on his own serve at 5-3 in the third.

"Well, that Novak lost doesn't make my day any better, but my match counts,'' a serious-looking Federer said. "Beat a quality player. I'm through to the third round, so that's really what I'm focusing on. I'm always concentrating on my section.''

There had to have been a wry smile in him somewhere.

Djokovic, never afraid to speak up, said more than once in the past few weeks Federer's dominance was diminishing, prompting the Swiss to utter prior to Wimbledon some people were talking too much, in what was viewed as a shot at the 21-year-old. Djokovic's parents irked Federer in the semifinals of April's Monte Carlo Masters when they questioned his judgment glancing down at a mark, and Djokovic's mom, Dijana, famously proclaimed the "king" was dead after her son topped the world No. 1 in the semis of the Australian Open.

Djokovic won two of their last four encounters and could have taken out Federer in last September's U.S. Open final, wasting set points in each of the first two sets.

More than a few experts suggested Djokovic would be No. 1 by year's end.

"I think Djokovic felt the pressure of the race for No. 1 and also the brunt of a resurgent Safin,'' U.S. Davis Cup captain and ESPN analyst Patrick McEnroe said. "Roger Federer is certainly breathing a little easier with Djokovic out of the draw.''

Federer will face Marc Gicquel in the third round. Old nemesis Lleyton Hewitt is his probable opponent in the fourth round, with the highest seed he could face in the semis being No. 10 Marcos Baghdatis, who lost to Federer in straight sets at a warm-up in Halle, Germany, last week.

"Robin's got the potential to be a good player, so I was happy to get this match out of the way.'' said Federer.

Tuesday, June 24
The way her mom puts it, it's only a matter of time before Jelena Jankovic emulates two of her fellow Serbs and becomes a Grand Slam champion.

Armed with relatively new coach Ricardo Sanchez, Jankovic's forehand is better, while her other weak component, her serve, is receiving special attention, too.

"We have some small things to improve, and I hope in a few months she will be one of the players without a weakness," Snezana Jankovic, ever-present on tour, said as she sat snugly on a bench at Wimbledon's secluded practice pavilion. "Usually when players make a tactic against Jelena, they say, 'Oh, we'll play the forehand side.' Now the forehand side is improving, and we're also working on the serve. Pretty soon, she'll have everything to have a big game."

Ana Ivanovic has a big game, including a huge serve -- when it's working -- and used it at the right time in their all-Serb French Open semifinal this month, rallying from a break down deep in the third set to win, then topping the charmed Dinara Safina in the final. Tough-talking Novak Djokovic, holder of an imposing game himself, became the first Grand Slam champ from Serbia by claiming January's Australian Open.

The serve aside, injuries haven't helped Jelena Jankovic, either. Hampered by the heavy, damp conditions at Roland Garros for much of two weeks, she struggled with arm and hand injuries. A problem with her sinuses, which necessitated surgery in the offseason and gave her virtually no preparation time before her first tournament in Perth, Australia, also re-emerged. To boot, a chiropractor is working on other parts of her body.

As if that wasn't bad enough, the draw at the All England Club turned out to be less than favorable. Jankovic landed in the same half as defending champion Venus Williams, 2004 winner Maria Sharapova and floaters Safina, Lindsay Davenport and Elena Dementieva.

Some panic set in. "I told her, 'You don't need to worry; they need to,'" Snezana Jankovic said with a laugh. "But it's a very, very tough draw."

Even if Jelena does not lift the trophy in two weeks, it will be water off a duck's back for Snezana, who watched her daughter suffer through a 10-match losing streak two years ago. Jelena Jankovic considered retiring and focusing on her schooling during the slump. Like her two brothers, she's academically gifted.

"When she started to play professionally, she didn't have a coach,'' said Snezana Jankovic, who is trained as an economist. "And I think what she did in professional tennis is a big miracle for me because she was traveling a lot of times with me, sometimes without a hitting partner.

"Life is so hard and you have so many problems all the time, you need to look at the positive side, because when someone is sick or someone is dying in your family, when you compare this to one match or something, it's no comparison. I'm happy because I have great kids. They are good people."

-- Ravi Ubha

Monday, June 23
Soccer is huge in these parts, even if England sunk to new lows by failing to qualify for the ongoing European Championships. So Toni Nadal was all smiles when asked about Spain's dramatic win over defensive-minded Italy on penalty kicks yesterday in the quarterfinals.

"It was not a good match -- boring,'' Nadal said as he scurried along a walkway leading to the lush practice courts near Court 1. "Italy always plays boring.''

He figures to have a much more entertaining fortnight at the All England Club, given that nephew and pupil Rafael Nadal -- busy signing autographs a few yards away as a mob formed -- is favored by more than a few to finally end Roger Federer's five-year reign.

The younger Nadal won the French Open and Wimbledon warm-up Artois Championships back-to-back, then relaxed back home in Mallorca for a few days, getting in some fishing and golf. "That was our only preparation for Wimbledon,'' Toni Nadal said.

The smile was gone, replaced by a serious look, when Uncle Toni, as he's often called, was asked about a tough-looking draw. Nadal's opener tomorrow against 122nd-ranked Andreas Beck of Germany seems a formality, even if Beck reached the quarterfinals in Halle, Germany, last week. But John Isner, the 6-foot-9 serving machine, or surging Latvian Ernests Gulbis follows, while tricky German Nicolas Kiefer and wily Czech Radek Stepanek loom.

"The first match is not easy, also the second, when you play against Isner or Gulbis, is very, very difficult for us,'' Toni Nadal said, exhaling slowly and deeply. "I didn't look more far away at the draw, because it's unbelievable. Now, Rafa has good confidence for the first match, but maybe after the first match he has no more confidence. Grass is always very difficult to play. It's easy to lose here.''

Not today for Federer. He polished off old friend and tour veteran Dominik Hrbaty in less than 90 minutes.

-- Ravi Ubha

Sunday, June 22
When asked about the prevailing sentiment that Roger Federer's confidence is waning and he is more vulnerable than in previous years, Andy Roddick summed it up perfectly:

"I found that to be one of the most ridiculous questions I've ever answered in my life," Roddick quipped. "You know, he's won it five times. I'm not sure what else he has to do."

And when Ana Ivanovic, just weeks removed from her maiden Grand Slam title and first stint as the world's No. 1 player, was queried about the favorites heading into Wimbledon, she had no compunction in her response: the Williams sisters and Maria Sharapova.

[+] EnlargeRoger Federer
Thomas Starke/Bongarts/Getty ImagesDespite a tepid season, Roger Federer enters Wimbledon coming off a title at the Gerry Weber Open.
With the Wimbledon fortnight beginning Monday morning, the game's top stars sat in for their obligatory pretournament news conferences. To little surprise, most were engulfed in questions regarding the air of fragility of the game's two biggest stars: world No. 1's Federer and Ivanovic.

Federer, who has culminated each of the past five Wimbledons with the hoisting of the silver gilt cup, has been heavily scrutinized for a season of unfilled expectations. Federer's 2008 dossier is headlined by two small-event titles, a whupping in the French Open final and a debatable watershed moment in the Australian Open, losing to Novak Djokovic in the semifinal.

"Mentally [Federer] was filled up from such a dominance," Djokovic said. "But I think for him it's a big challenge to defend the first place in the world."

It's a test the Swiss has aced every year since 2003 at the All England Club. With one more title, he would match a feat only William Renshaw accomplished from 1881 to 1886: win a sixth straight Wimbledon crown.

Federer, who is also bidding for a record 11th straight grass-court title, has won 59 consecutive matches on grass and despite a season that's gone awry at times, no one with a lucid mind-set will deny he isn't among the favorites.

Back in the comforts of a venue where the balls sit lower and in his strike zone, retribution from the shellacking he received at the French Open by Rafael Nadal might also work in his favor. Federer, still blunting the criticism following that match, has also had to endure discourse that his stranglehold atop the rankings is dwindling and continually had to justify why one listless performance shouldn't lend false impressions of his revival.

Not only was Paris an opportunity for Federer to put to rest his season-long afflictions, but he could have finally fulfilled the career Grand Slam versus his foremost rival and moved to within one major of Pete Sampras' record 14.

"The French Open was over in such a hurry," Federer said. "I mean, the French Open, [just like] the clay-court season, was over at the same time, so it's easy just to look forward and concentrate on grass."

Roddick believes the loss wasn't as dire as it appeared to the layman -- but rather that Federer was trying to deviate from a failed conservative approach against his archrival in three previous matches at Roland Garros.

"For him to get torched for trying something different and kind of going after it, doing a game plan, having it not work, it's easy to say at the end of the day he should have done something different," Roddick said. "Could he have gotten more games sitting back and being patient? Probably. But he wasn't going to win a tennis match doing that."

For now, it's on to the cozy grass for Federer, who rarely gets in enough trouble to even contemplate a contingency plan. And as Roddick also alluded to, this surface allows Federer to create angles and dictate action -- the perfect antidote to revalidate his status atop the pecking order.

Ivanovic's challenge will be to set aside the superlatives bestowed upon her after breaking through at the French Open.

It was an emotional moment for Ivanovic, who also became the first Serbian-born player to reach No. 1. But the transition to a markedly different surface is a daunting obstacle.

"Grass is a very specific surface," Ivanovic said. "The change from clay to grass, I think it takes some time. & Especially on grass, everything is happening so fast and there are so many girls that can give you trouble."

At 6-foot-1, the Serb certainly has the physical makeup, mettle and requisite game to win, but whether she carries the intimidation factor in England that she did in Paris is still a question mark. Ivanovic, though, has improved every year at Wimbledon, including her semifinal appearance in 2007.

History may also be on Ivanovic's side. While Nadal is seeking to become the first male player to pull off the French Open-Wimbledon double since Bjorn Borg in 1980, the women have accomplished the feat seven times, including most recently by Serena Williams in 2002.

Ivanovic, the centerpiece of a brewing media storm since winning her first major, is adamant about sticking around the All England Club for the entire fortnight. But before the world No. 1 can stamp her stay in England, by her own admission, she needs to put the high of the French Open title behind her and make sure she "realizes what's happening back on Earth."

-- Matt Wilansky

London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com.