Federer focused as Wimbledon nears
WIMBLEDON, England -- No Rafa, no problem. There are plenty of reasons to stay tuned to the prestigious Wimbledon Championships. Here are five:
Roger Federer's quest for Slam No. 15
The greater tennis fandom continues to bemoan Rafael Nadal's late Wimbledon withdrawal, but don't fret. Federer's quest to recover the Wimbledon crown he desperately misses has exponentially skyrocketed, and though a rematch of last year's stirring five-set final is no longer viable, the prospects of another historic fortnight remain intact.
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Federer is, of course, one major shy of breaking Pete Sampras' record -- a feat many believed should have happened some time ago. Federer might legitimately miss the opportunity for redemption versus his nemesis Nadal, but the landscape of a Rafa-less draw undoubtedly incites some peace of mind.
In Paris, Federer disproved the notion that he would succumb to the immense jitters following the surprising loss of his nemesis in the fourth round. Twice on the precipice of defeat (versus Tommy Haas in the fourth round and Juan Martin del Potro in the semis) Federer clawed his way back before ably vanquishing Robin Soderling in the final to capture Slam No. 14.
"I don't feel any pressure having to beat Pete's record right now this week, but I know that things are looking good for me," Federer said after learning of Nadal's decision.
"I mean, anyway, there's a lot of weight off my shoulders since Paris."
After a well-deserved reprieve following his latest title, Federer's focus is squarely on his latest pursuit.
Williamses' pursuit of Wimby title No. 9
Understandably, when a player confesses her Wimbledon preparation is taking place in the U.S. -- on hard courts -- it would obviously raise some eyebrows.
Ah, but when it's a Williams sister, that explains it all. Venus and Serena Williams have historically eschewed the grass warm-up events, and the results haven't been too shabby. They've combined for eight titles at the All England Club, with Venus capturing five (including the past two).
And what could be sunnier than the end of another gloomy clay-court season? In eight tournaments, the sisters combined to reach one semifinal (Venus in Rome). Serena's struggles hit their nadir right before the French: She lost a career-worst four consecutive matches, three to opponents ranked 20th or worse.
Considering the inconsistency and uncertainty encircling nearly every other top-tier player, picking someone who might ultimately slow down either of the siblings is a risky proposition.
Andy Murray versus the pressure
If Andy Murray is feeling the collective weight of an entire country, he's concealing it well. When asked how his Wimbledon training regimen was going, Murray answered candidly and succinctly: "Played some golf. Did some go-karting. Didn't hit at all yesterday."
Now to Murray's credit, he did admit winning the go-kart race was a priority.
Earmarked as a future Slam titlist for quite some time, Murray will never alleviate the pressure until he finally halts the 73-year drought by a British player.
And though the astute home crowd is largely interested in the end result, Murray understands the daily challenge.
"You just focus on each match at a time, the first one, and try and win one best-of-five-set match every couple of days and not get ahead of yourself," said Murray. "I feel like I've got a chance, but I'll have to play great to do it."
Keep an eye on these Americans
Clearly, Andy Roddick has had a rough go of late. After an ill-tempered loss to Gael Monfils at the French Open -- a match in which Roddick claimed he was having trouble seeing the ball because of darkness -- the American was forced to retire from his semifinal match versus James Blake in the Queen's Club semifinals with an ankle injury.
As it turns out, it's still not all warm and fuzzy for the two-time Wimbledon finalist. What's gnawing at him this time? Check out his recent tweet:
"It's official the league manager in my fantasy baseball league is the most annoying person on the planet."
Roddick, though, maintains he is fit and ready for his opening-round match versus Jeremy Chardy.
Despite Blake's prolonged on-court shortcomings, he did reach the Queen's Club final. How that translates at the All England Club remains a question.
"It seems like there's always still more to work on, because you only get such a short window every year," said Blake. "Just the biggest thing is the movement, I think, coming from clay where you're trying to slide to here where you're trying not to slide and trying to stop quickly and a little more aggressive."
The big-serving Taylor Dent doesn't have an overly daunting draw. But despite a game tailor-made for the sleeker grass, he has not been able to build on the momentum of his fourth-round showing in Key Biscayne earlier this year. He's played only three main-tier matches on the ATP circuit since.
Sam Querrey was the unfortunate recipient of a bad draw, one in which he'll play Ivan Ljubicic in the first round and then has a possible faceoff with top prospect and 11th-seeded Marin Cilic in Round 2.
Don't take these players lightly
We're not going to kid ourselves and pigeonhole Victoria Azarenka as a dark horse, but considering the mark the Williams sisters have left in Wimbledon, any other champion would be somewhat surprising.
Azarenka is bolstered by a heavy game and will be a huge threat to anyone she plays. Showing off her skill set and aplomb at the Sony Ericsson Open in April, she dismantled Serena 6-3, 6-1 in the final.
The Belarusian is slated to meet Maria Sharapova in the fourth round.
We saw what he could do in Paris, and now the prospects are greater for Del Potro at the All England Club. Admittedly in awe of Federer during their French Open semifinal encounter, the Argentine failed to hold a two sets to one lead.
But if his steady climb up the rankings and all-around rosy results are any indication, it won't be long before Del Potro is routinely in the conversation with the game's inner sanctum.
Matt Wilansky is the tennis editor for ESPN.com.
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Women's singles: Serena Williams, United States
Roger Federer, Switzerland
Men's doubles: Daniel Nestor, Canada, and Nenad Zimonjic, Serbia
Women's doubles: Venus and Serena Williams, United States
Mixed doubles: Anna-Lena Groenefeld, Germany and Mark Knowles, Bahamas
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