Reprinted from Tennis 15/30
Why Roger Federer and Andy Murray are the players to watch at Wimbledon
by Mats Wilander
In tennis, as much as in any sport, the past is prologue. Something wonderful often happens to a player returning to the scene of past success, something almost magical that can elevate their game and salvage a lackluster year.
That’s why—although as I set these thoughts down, the two players off to the best start in 2013 are Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal—I see Roger Federer and Andy Murray as the favorites to hoist the Wimbledon trophy.
That might seem an awfully bold prediction: In the first four months of the year, Djokovic won the Australian Open, Dubai and Monte Carlo, and led Serbia to two triumphant Davis Cup weekends, while Nadal returned from a seven-month injury layoff and picked up right where he left off last spring, making the finals of his first seven tournaments back and winning Indian Wells, Barcelona and Madrid.
In contrast, by the high standards of the Big Four, Federer and Murray have had disappointing starts. Yes, Murray reached the Australian Open final and won the Miami Masters, but he seems to be backsliding from, rather than building on, his Olympic and US Open titles last summer. And Federer has yet to reach a final in 2013, something that hasn’t been true at this point in the season for more than a decade.
Nevertheless, regardless of what happens at Roland Garros (in last month’s column, I picked Djokovic as the favorite), when all eyes turn to Wimbledon, you can throw all that recent history out the window. To my mind, Federer and Murray—who competed against each other last year in the finals of both Wimbledon and the Olympics, which was held at Wimbledon (Federer won the former; Murray the latter)—are the ones to watch for the following three reasons:
1) Both players can claim a home-court advantage. For Murray, the advantage is literal: As a Scot, he’s the great local hope who can be assured the cheering fans, both inside the Centre Court arena and outside on Henman Hill, as well as the lion’s share of London’s newspaper headlines. That pressure
would crush most mere mortals, but Murray insists that he thrives on it, and at this point we can take him at his word. He made the finals last year and the semifinals each of the three years prior to that. He also, significantly, beat Federer in the Olympic final on Centre Court in 2012, making him a sort of co-defending champion this summer. Federer—the seven-time and defending champion, not to mention Olympic runner-up—has the next-best thing to a home-court advantage: Wimbledon feels like home to him, just as it did to Pete Sampras before him and to Boris Becker before Sampras. And while the local fans have loyalty to Murray, they have a palpable level of affection for Federer, who has shown grit and class here for a generation. There’s nothing like walking onto a court feeling as if it’s your own backyard, and these are the only two players who can lay claim to that sentiment.
2) Their games are best suited to grass. Whereas Djokovic and Nadal power their way out of trouble, or use their movement to stay in points, Federer and Murray stay alive with finesse and guile, and that’s a key to success on grass. Both players have all-important slice backhands, and Murray in particular has the ability to deprive his opponents of an opportunity to attack by keeping the ball frustratingly out of their strike zone. Federer and Murray also have the textbook technique that enables them to react to bad bounces, even if it doesn’t let them tee off on ground strokes as big as certain other players can. In Federer’s case, his reliably huge serve, particularly at clutch moments, is another especially huge asset on grass. Lastly, if Federer and Murray go out of Roland Garros earlier than Djokovic and Nadal do (as I expect will be the case), they’ll benefit from the ultimate silver lining: a few extra days of preparation on grass, which matters because the grass-court season is almost comically short.
3) Confidence is a two-way street. Merely being at Wimbledon will imbue both Federer and Murray with a confidence that ought to help them in two ways: They should feel and play their best at the All England Club, while their opponents will most likely feel and play less well against them. Not only doesn’t the ball sit up on grass for bashers such as Tomás Berdych and Juan Martín del Potro to take huge cuts at it, but those players will come onto the court against Federer or Murray knowing that these guys feel superior there, have the better game for the surface and have the support of the crowd. Those are three huge variables going into any match, so much so that even somebody who might beat Murray or Federer on the clay of Roland Garros will feel they’re at a disadvantage if they meet again at Wimbledon just a few weeks later.
Add up all of this and it actually seems a rather safe bet that Federer and Murray have much to look forward to at Wimbledon, and that’s something I expect to be true for the rest of their careers, regardless of how they fare in the early months of this, or any, year. •