Wimbledon 2016 men's draw breakdown: Amid Brexit brouhaha, Djokovic, Murray & Federer get back to business
These are tumultuous times in Britain, and you would think that the draw ceremony of a tennis tournament held in the country would find no takers. But earth's denizens have gotten over far more monumental things in the past than Brexit, while Wimbledon has stood unmoved for the better part of a century. Getting our priorities right has never been too hard when it comes to The Championships.
The big news ahead of the draw this year was the fact that Rafael Nadal wouldn't be a part of it; the World No. 4 announced earlier this month that he was pulling out of yet another tournament due to injury. Yesterday Victoria Azarenka joined the Spaniard on the sidelines, withdrawing from the Championships with a knee ailment. The other notable absentee, of course, is Maria Sharapova, who is currently knee-deep in a thoroughly entertaining tussle with the WADA and practically every other organization in the world.
But there's still a hale and hearty bunch of 256 singles players raring to compete on the green lawns of SW19, and the 128 men in particular have a lot of interesting contests to look forward to. Here's an in-depth look at how the men's draw is likely to shape up, and which players might have to watch their backs:
First quarter: Novak Djokovic's road to immortality continues
For a year we've been asking ourselves the question, “Can anyone stop Novak Djokovic?” The answer so far has been an emphatic no, and the possibility of it happening has started to look less likely with each passing Major. But you know what they say about all great champions: they are invincible, until they aren't. Is there any chance of the Serb's belief-defying run coming to an end at this year's Wimbledon?
Not if his draw is anything to go by. I wouldn't go as far as calling it a cupcake draw – we've all learned there's no such thing in tennis – but it's hard to imagine a smoother road to the semis for the World No. 1. He starts against local hope James Ward (’hope’ might be stretching it a bit though), and could then face another Brit in Kyle Edmund. Sam Querrey or Lukas Rosol are unlikely to cause any shivers to Djokovic, while David Ferrer or Philipp Kohlschreiber in the fourth round would be only marginally more challenging.
Milos Raonic looms as the Serb's likely quarterfinal opponent, and that's where things could get a little interesting. The Canadian has reached the semis at Wimbledon before, and he led Andy Murray by a set and a break in the Queen’s final last week before coming undone. More significantly, however, Raonic has John McEnroe as his coach this year, and as you are probably aware, the American knows a thing or two about grasscourt tennis.
It's unlikely that Raonic will become a serve-and-volley beast just weeks after getting McEnroe into his camp, but you can never discount the potential effects of having a grasscourt master hone an already effective grasscourt game. McEnroe's ward might have his hands full with David Goffin in the fourth round, but if he gets past that obstacle, we could be in for a classic clash of styles in the quarterfinal.
Prediction: Djokovic def. Raonic
Dard horse: David Goffin
Second quarter: Roger Federer's last stand?
It's been a fascinating exercise to try and determine the exact moment when age finally conquers Roger Federer for good, and signs are that Wimbledon 2016 may end up being that watershed event. The 17-time Major champion has struggled with injury and indifferent form all through the year, and while he's still ranked No. 3 in the world, his hold on that position is precarious – to put it mildly.
The Swiss has been handed a few favours by the draw though, aside from the obvious handicap of being placed in Djokovic's half. He starts against the fairly innocuous looking Guido Pella, with Ricardas Berankis likely being his next opponent. Alexandr Dolgopolov could follow in the third round and Gilles Simon in the fourth, and neither of those two is particularly fond of grass.
Frequent hospital visitor Kei Nishikori is the next highest seed in this quarter, but it would take a brave person to bet on the Japanese making the Round of 8. Nishikori has a tough first-rounder against big-serving Aussie Sam Groth, and could face the grass-loving Gilles Muller in the third round. Marin Cilic is Nishikori's potential fourth round opponent, but the Croat could have a hard time against countryman Borna Coric or galloping giant Ivo Karlovic in the Round of 32.
This quarter also hosts two players who will be looking to launch what seems like their millionth career resurgence, but for entirely different reasons: the gifted Grigor Dimitrov and the unfortunate Brian Baker.
Prediction: Federer def. Cilic
Dark horse: Grigor Dimitrov
Third quarter: The ultimate battle of one-handed backhands awaits
Stan Wawrinka hasn't exactly been setting the courts alight with his play lately, but he still managed to sleepwalk through to the French Open semifinal last month. If his auto-pilot mode is that good, is it any wonder he looks unbeatable when he gets on a roll?
He'll need to get on one of those early, because he has been saddled with possibly the toughest draw of all the players this year. Starting against the dangerous Taylor Fritz, Wawrinka will likely have to stare down Juan Martin del Potro's bombs in the second round. While the Argentine is nowhere close to his best form yet, it's never fun to play against him – especially this early in a tournament.
Things get a little easier from there, with possibly Lucas Pouille in the third round and either Roberto Bautista Agut or Bernard Tomic (if the Aussie gets past Fernando Verdasco first up) in the fourth. But it's the quarterfinal match-up that I'm most interested in – Stan Wawrinka vs Dominic Thiem is the battle of one-handed backhands every tennis fan dreams of.
Thiem is only just starting to unleash the fragments of what promises to be a breathtaking career, and he couldn't have asked for a better stage than Wimbledon to show off his newfound self-belief and always-evident shot-making splendour. His all-out game, with big backswings and bigger follow-throughs, was always considered ill-suited to grass – until this year. Defeating Federer on his way to the Stuttgart title before reaching the semis in Halle, Thiem has, in a matter of days, turned from dodgy grasscourter to legitimate Wimbledon threat.
Thiem has a tricky first-rounder though, against last week's Halle champion Florian Mayer, and he could face the always-dangerous Tomas Berdych in the fourth round. And Alexander Zverev, the other most brilliant shot-maker of the Promising Youth Brigade, could have something to say about that last part, slated as he is to meet the Czech in the third round.
But all things considered, the one thing that most of us would be looking forward to in this quarter is that Wawrinka vs Thiem showdown. Does anyone know of any rituals we could do to make it happen?
Prediction: Wawrinka def. Thiem
Dark horse: Alexander Zverev
Fourth quarter: The beat to Murray's march
Andy Murray put up a puzzlingly lacklustre performance in the French Open final last month, leading many to wonder whether he'd ever defeat Djokovic in a big match again. But the Scot (that adjective suddenly seems to hold a lot more weight, doesn't it?) seemed to have put some of his recent struggles to bed in his astonishing come-from-behind win against Raonic in thte Queen’s final.
Grass has often been Murray's safe haven, and there's little to suggest he won't reproduce his unique mix of slick defense and unexpected offense this year. He has a seemingly straightforward draw too – opening against Liam Broady, he will likely face Yen-Hsun Lu and Benoit Paire in the second and third rounds respectively. Yes, a fourth-rounder against Nick Kyrgios (who will likely stage plenty of theatrics in a delicious first round match aginast Radek Stepanek) is nothing to sneeze at. But Murray's impeccable record against the Australian should hold him in good stead – the Scot has lost just one set in four meetings against Kyrgios.
Brexit was not the only earth-shattering political development to have taken place today; Scotland may soon be an independent country. That would have repercussions in Wimbledon history too – the Centre Court crowd may have to keep looking for a British player to exorcise Fred Perry's ghost, since Dunblane's Murray would no longer qualify as a ‘Brit’. Would that give him added incentive to win the title this year, or would it dampen his enthusiasm to perform in front of his ‘home’ crowd?
Richard Gasquet is surprisingly the other headliner in this quarter, and he could face Victor Troicki in the third round and possibly one of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, John Isner or Marcos Baghdatis in the fourth. Isner vs Baghdatis could make for one of the best opening round fixtures in the entire draw; you can almost bet on it being a five-setter, considering it's Isner.
Prediction: Murray def. Tsonga
Dark horse: Victor Troicki