What can we expect from the English Open this year, besides lots of white before Labor Day, poor weather and bowing to an irrelevent queen? Some great tennis, that's what. There are some intriguing storylines converging at the All England Lawn and Tennis Club this year. There's Andre Agassi taking the path of least pomp and circumstance in announcing his retirement here, Roger Federer looking for a return to victory on a second Sunday and Rafael Nadal discovering that you can't slide on grass.
Let's jump right in.
1. Roger Federer -- What does the three-time champion of Wimbledon get this time around? Richard Gasquet in the first round. Possibly Tim Henman in the second. Maybe a Tommy Haas in the fourth. Mario Ancic or Ivo Karlovic looms in the quarterfinals. In other words, Federer's gonna take some body shots on the way to another Wimbledon final. The good thing is the tough draw he had at the Gerry Weber Open was good preparation for this. However, if there's a time for a Grand Slam collapse, this one would be most understandable.
2. Rafael Nadal -- Time for the reigning clay court king to loosen the dust from his shoes and get his grass legs under him. Mark my words: One day, Rafael Nadal will be great on grass. One day, he'll win Wimbledon. That day will not be July 9, 2006. But he could have a nice run here. The toughest test he may face in the first week would be in the form of Andre Agassi. As good a chance as this is for Rafa, it's a better opportunity for the departing Agassi. If he gains round four, he could have a rematch against the big-serving Ivan Ljubicic, and if they play, it's almost certain that the result at the French Open won't stand.
3. Andy Roddick -- Thanks to Wimbledon's souped-up ranking system, Rodddick gets a little help with a higher seed than his No. 5 ranking. For someone who played in the final last year, there is very little buzz surrounding him now. It's understandable, since his game has offered little to remark about. Roddick's draw though, is just what he needs if he's going to get another shot at Federer -- potential for a couple easy rounds, and stiff challenge from Andy Murray or Marcos Baghdatis or Sebastien Grosjean. If he prays hard enough, he can avoid facing Lleyton Hewitt in the quarterfinals. All told, grass suits Andy well. He's got a look at another semifinal appearance.
4. David Nalbandian -- Is he all recovered from that (ahem) abdominal injury? If he is, he can almost mark his calendar for another semifinal date with Roger Federer. 'Almost' because he could draw James Blake in the quarterfinals. He could also have a potential problem in the fourth round with Xavier Malisse.
5. Ivan Ljubicic -- His first round match should be a nice workout against Feliciano Lopez, and he'll probably get one (and only one) tight set if he plays against Justin Gimelstob. His first real challenge would be Nicolas Davydenko, who got screwed by the Wimbledon system with a low #9 seed. It's time for Ljubicic to play in a major final already.
6. Lleyton Hewitt -- There are a couple of dangerous stragglers in his quarter, like Greg Rusedski and David Ferrer, but Hewitt's playing well lately, even picking up a warmup trophy a week ago. A matchup between he and Andy Roddick would be more than a match, but a big-time boost for the winner, since both men are trying to recapture their glory days.
7. Mario Ancic -- Hey, if you're interested in some boring tennis, make sure you catch Ancic's third round match against Ivo Karlovic if it happens. Eight serves, then switch. Eight more serves, and switch again. The tiebreaks will be more of the same, but Ancic will hit some volleys. Seriously, Ancic is a good player, and better evolved than the serve-and-serve Karlovic. But he's had a hard time breaking through in majors, and although he has a manageable draw, he'll probably lose to Tommy Robredo in the fourth round.
8. James Blake -- The third round has the potential to be a minefield for Blake, where his opponent could be Max Mirnyi, Mark Philippoussis or Paul-Henri Mathieu. But his newfound confidence, his bigger backhand and finalist performance at the Stella Artois tournament will help him. I'd love to see what happens if he and Nalbandian meet.
9. Nikolay Davydenko -- 25 years old, huh? Let's see an ID card, grandpa. Anyway, over the past year or so, he's been the most unlikely top-10 player, and the most unlikely to stick around. Yet, he's still performing, keeping his head down, and shaking opponents with his solid play. Grass won't give him much of a chance to keep a rally going, though.
10. Fernando Gonzalez -- Quick, strong, big game, no Major results. Gonzalez seems most comfortable in the second round of Grand Slams, but this time around, he could get the winner of Safin v. Rusedski.
Mr. Andre Agassi (25) -- Nice stunt, announcing your retirement before a major. If taking off that pressure works for him, it'd be great to see him go deep once again, if his body will allow it. If he and Nadal reach the third round, call off sick from work.
Tommy Haas (19) -- Last time he played Federer, they went the distance, and Haas has beaten Federer before. He's been at the top of the game before, and he's going to make a strong push again.
Gael Monfils (21) -- He got a lot of notice in France, especially when he dispatched James Blake, and showed off his great atheleticism. He's got a nice grasscourt game, and I'm tagging him for the quarters. The only question mark is his mental strength and maturity.
Good first round matches:
Federer v. Gasquet: As mentioned previously, Federer's got his hands full for this tournament, and he'll have no chance to get warmed up here. Gasquet's dangerous and has a win over the world No. 1.
Robin Soderling v. Tim Henman -- This won't be a cakewalk for Their Tim. As good as he's been, he's about as good with hometown pressure as Amelie Mauresmo does.
Wayne Arthurs v. Fabrice Santoro -- Any fan of tennis should watch Fabrice Santoro play, any chance they get.
Greg Rusedski v. Marat Safin -- Although he has a great game for grass, Safin hates the stuff. Rusedski probably sees himself as the English hope for this major. Of course, he's delusional because the Brits have no hope (not yet, Andy Murray), and he'll probably blast Wimbledon officials for not giving him an easier draw.
Bogdanovic over Nadal? Possible.
The way it'll go down:
Semifinals -- Federer v. Blake and Hewitt v. Ljubicic
Final -- Federer v. Ljubicic
Winner -- Ljubicic.
Just kidding. Federer, tough draw and all, is still a sure thing.
1. Amelie Mauresmo -- She had a jarring intro to the grass court season, losing to Nathalie Dechy. And that, friends, is Amelie Mauresmo. Loads of talent, and mentally shaky. The fact that she could face up-and comers Michaela Krajicek and Tatiana Golovin could expose that. My guess, though, is that she'll get creamed by Dinara Safina in round four.
2. Kim Clijsters -- What the hell happened to her in France? It was probably that mental block she seems to have against Justine Henin-Hardenne. Clijsters might have to face her again if she wants to be in the final. But Clijsters has the toughest first-round match on the women's side against Vera Zvonareva. The fourth round could hold a match with Anna-Lena Groenefeld.
3. Justine Henin-Hardenne: Wimbledon is the only major she hasn't won, and she's had some very short stays at the All England Club. Let's hope for another, especially after her Australia debacle. Realistically, though, she'll be fine until she goes up against Martina Hingis.
4. Maria Sharapova: Sharapova's draw reminds me of the heavyweight whose handlers keep putting her up against the tomato cans. She should float like a butterfly through her quarter, especially considering that the other high seed is Elena Dementieva. However, Amelie Mauresmo or Venus Williams loom in the semifinals. That's when she'll likely get stung like a bee.
5. Svetlana Kuznetsova: Coming off a finalist showing at the French, Kuznetsova usually doesn't get past the quarters at Wimbledon. That should make Kim Clijsters pretty happy. Not that she should really worry. Kuznetsova could face Nicole Vaidisova in the fourth round, and this time, the teenage probably won't fold mentally, like she did in the French Open semis.
6. Venus Williams -- Last year, she managed, at over 6 feet tall, to come in under the radar. She won't pull it off again, though. She's tipped as the favorite by many, and I'm drinking the Kool-Aid, even though I know it'll bite me in the ass. She could face Lisa Raymond in the second round, who burned her at the Australian a couple years back. But Wimbledon is her playground, and unless there's some kind of Sprem conspiracy, she should sail to the finals.
7. Elena Dementieva -- It's really too bad about that serve. She's a solid player in every other aspect. She'll get Sania Mirza in the first round, which sounds tough, but should be easy for Dementieva. But this ain't 2004, and she's not going anywhere significant here.
8. Patty Schnyder -- A consistent quarterfinal performer of late in Grand Slams, but she'll get blocked this time by Martina Hingis.
9. Anastasia Myskina -- Made the finals in the Eastbourne warmups last week, losing to Henin-Hardenne in three. Still, the one-hit wonder won't go far here, with Venus likely in the fourth round.
10. Nicole Vaidisova -- I won't gloat over the fact that I was the only person to pick Vaidisova for the semis at the French Open. But it's true. I like her chances again, too. She's reached another level, and players who would normally be threats, like Karolina Sprem won't be a problem. She may have a chip on her shoulder if she plays Kuznetsova, and the result will be different this time. She's got a nice serve, she's a big kid, and she can do damage here. Can she beat an in-form Kim Clijsters, though, assuming she makes quarters?
Martina Hingis (12) -- Hard to imagine her losing before the quarters, where she'll have her hands full against Henin-Hardenne. But I predict an upset here. It's not because I refuse to give JHH any props. Yeah, mostly it is.
Anna-Lena Groenefeld (13) -- I keep waiting for this talented German to do something already. Could it be beating Clijsters in round four?
Tatiana Golovin (29) -- Haven't heard much from her since she let Sharapova off the hook in Miami. Plus, as far as I'm concerned, anyone in Mauresmo's half has got a fair-to-middling shot.
Good first round matches:
Zvonareva v. Clijsters: Zvonareva has been showing signs of life again, which is good for women's tennis, because this is the only interesting first-round match. Really. I'd offer up Mirza v. Dementieva, but if Mirza wins that match, I'll eat my shoe. Anyway, Zvonareva is the only person I've seen cry and it made me laugh.
The way it'll go down:
Semifinals -- Venus Williams v. Maria Sharapova and Martina Hingis v. Kim Clijsters
Final -- V. Williams v. M. Hingis
Winner -- Venus