If there’s one thing Rafael Nadal has taught us this year it’s to never, ever, ever write him off again.
That is now set in stone after Nadal confounded expectations by winning the Australian Open following five months out, then won the French Open just a few weeks after grimacing and hobbling in Rome. Now he’s on course for the Calendar Slam for the first time in his career, and has to be marked as a serious contender to win Wimbledon for the first time since 2010, however unlikely that seemed a few weeks ago.
But if Nadal has proven that he should never be counted out again, what we have learnt about Novak Djokovic?
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This time last year, Djokovic was approaching Wimbledon on top of the world, his second French Open title in his pocket, and dreams of emulating Steffi Graf by becoming only the second player in history to win the Golden Slam. Djokovic looked unbeatable, and he was at SW19 as he only dropped two sets – in the first round and the final – on his way to a 20th Grand Slam title.
Who would have predicted then that Djokovic would not win any of the next three majors? But we have learnt that even for one of the greatest of all time, a disrupted and depleted schedule (due to his unwillingness to be vaccinated) makes it much harder to stay at the top of the game. And in the case of Djokovic, his severely reduced playing time this year hasn’t just impacted him physically, but also mentally. “It did take a toll on me,” he acknowledged recently. “After I came back from Australia I was underestimating the emotional state I was in.”
Djokovic comes into Wimbledon with a 16-5 record for the season, having won just one title, and with some lingering doubts about his form after his up-and-down display in defeat to Nadal in the French Open quarter-finals.
Only once since 2010 has Djokovic gone a season without winning a Grand Slam title. But from a year ago when Wimbledon was one of five pieces to the Golden Slam, now it’s all or nothing, given Djokovic is also set to miss the US Open, unless rules for international arrivals into the country change in the next couple of months. Fail to win at SW19 and Djokovic will have no majors in 2022, along with the massive ranking hit that is set to come as he drops points from Wimbledon and the US Open last year.
He could also find himself falling three behind Nadal in the all-time Grand Slam standings. It seems like a moment when an in-form and confident Djokovic would bounce back and run through the draw, but not only does he look more beatable, the competition looks stronger than a few weeks ago.
Matteo Berrettini came into the grass season with doubts over his form and fitness after undergoing wrist surgery in March. "I arrived in Stuttgart and was not feeling great," admitted the world No. 11 last week. "I was not hitting the ball how I wanted and I was like 'guys, I think it is going to be tough'. But it has gone pretty well!"
A title in his first tournament back in Stuttgart followed by winning Queen’s for a second year in a row? Pretty well indeed. Berrettini now looks the obvious contender to challenge at Wimbledon.
The Italian, who lost to Djokovic in the Wimbledon final last year, boasts a 32-6 career grass record and has won 20 of his past 21 matches on the surface. His huge serve and big forehand are massive weapons on grass, where the ball travels off the surface quicker, and he should be a very tough out at SW19.
"It's not just powerful, it's also super accurate," said Simona Halep’s coach Patrick Mouratoglou about Berrettini recently on social media. "On grass, it's even more difficult to return, allowing Matteo to win many free points.
"Two, his forehand is one of the biggest on tour. In his serving games, if the return comes back, Matteo finds his forehand and looks to put his opponent on the run or hit a winner. Although his backhand is his weaker shot, Matteo has developed a very good slice, which is ideal on grass. He uses it to force his opponents to hit upwards, giving him more opportunities to attack with his forehand."
Below Berrettini in the Wimbledon power rankings are perhaps the two players immediately above him in the ATP rankings: Hubert Hurkacz and Felix Auger-Aliassime.
A semi-finalist at Wimbledon a year ago, Hurkacz beat Auger-Aliassime, Nick Kyrgios and world No. 1 Daniil Medvedev on his way to winning the Halle Open. Kyrgios described Hurkacz as a “hell of a player” after their semi-final, which featured 57 aces, and praised his “incredible serve” which he wasn’t getting “any sort of read on”. Hurkacz also has power from the back of the court and is a confident volleyer. He lost to Berrettini in the last four at Wimbledon in 2021 after swatting aside Roger Federer in straight sets.
Asked if he feels like he could win a Slam after his Halle victory, Hurkacz’s reply was: “Yeah, why not?"
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Auger-Aliassime might answer the same question with the same answer. He hasn’t won a grass title this summer but clearly has the game to do damage on the surface. He has lost to the eventual champion in his last four tournaments and feels close to a breakthrough under the guidance of coach Toni Nadal.
Kyrgios also has to be in the mix for a deep run at Wimbledon after three wins at the Stuttgart Open and a run to the Halle semi-finals, including a straight-sets victory over world No. 6 Tsitsipas.
“On grass, you know, I would be top five, top 10 in the world, definitely,” he told Tennis TV recently. “If I'm feeling good on grass, I feel really, really comfortable on it.”
After the last two weeks, it’s hard to disagree with Kyrgios, who just missed out on a seeding at Wimbledon with his ranking down at 45. He is serving with precision and power, can hit the ball harder and flatter on the forehand side than almost any player on tour, and also has fantastic touch around the court and at the net. On his day, you could argue he can beat anyone on tour.
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But the arguments against Kyrgios remain the same: he can sometimes be a little too casual and can often be his biggest enemy when things don’t go his way. At the Miami Open earlier this year, things were looking serene before they turned sour in the last 16 against Jannik Sinner. Similarly against Rafael Nadal in Indian Wells, Kyrgios appeared to lose his cool and get distracted. Against Hurkacz, he blasted a ball out of the stadium in frustration at the end of the second set.
Andy Murray too is another who may fancy his chances of a deep run given his grass-court pedigree and the form he showed in reaching the Stuttgart Open final before suffering an abdominal injury. Murray hasn’t made the second week of a major since 2017, but aside from the names mentioned above, shouldn’t have anyone to fear in the draw. In Stuttgart he swept aside Tsitsipas and Kyrgios in straight sets before going down to Berrettini in three. Murray should have a good chance of going far if he’s healthy.
And another word for Nadal. Again, he comes into a major with some uncertainty due to his foot treatment, but he made the semi-finals on his last two Wimbledon appearances and in 2018 was close to beating Djokovic in an epic five-set match. He’s twice before done the French Open-Wimbledon double, and if he can find the form he showed in Paris, he will likely keep his Calendar Slam hopes alive deep into the second week.
But who will win the trophy at the end? For Djokovic, this feels like a big one.
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Watch daily highlights from Wimbledon at 10pm on Eurosport 2 and discovery+ from June 27, as well as the two singles finals live on July 9 and 10.
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