What to watch for at Wimbledon: Djokovic closing in on more history

It has been two long years since we have seen tennis played on the beautifully manicured grass courts of the All England Club. The COVID-19 pandemic forced the event to cancel its proceedings last season, however the Wimbledon Championships are now set to return for its 134th edition.

Let’s preview the action that lies ahead at the most prestigious event in tennis.

Djokovic closing in on more history

It’s been another historic and dominant season from world No. 1 Novak Djokovic, who continues to shatter records, narrow the Grand Slam race and stake a very compelling argument to be called the greatest this sport has ever seen.

At Wimbledon, Djokovic has the opportunity to win his 20th major title and pull into a three-way tie with his greatest rivals Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal for the most Grand Slams in men’s tennis history.

He will be the overwhelming favourite. Djokovic is coming off an unbelievable run at Roland Garros, where he dethroned Nadal on his favourite surface in the semis before rallying from down two sets to love to beat Stefanos Tsitsipas for the title.

He will be chasing a sixth crown at Wimbledon and has won the last two installments in 2018 and 2019.

If Djokovic delivers, talk will certainly heat up of a quest for the rare “golden slam” – winning all four majors in a calendar season and earning Olympic gold. Djokovic intends to play the Tokyo Olympics later in July.

One final shot for Roger?

Though 39-year-old Federer has shown no inclination of an impending retirement, it’s simply incredibly difficult to compete at the highest levels of sport into your 40s. Federer does, however, have a particular gift for making the incredibly difficult seem easy.

Fans of the Swiss maestro might perhaps be reliving nightmares from his Wimbledon Championship two season ago as he returns to the tournament.

Federer held two championship points on that occasion, leading Djokovic 6-7, 6-1, 6-7, 6-4, 8-7 and 40-15. He also won 14 more points than Djokovic in the match and had higher efficiency on both his first and second serves. Novak’s mental fortitude, however, proved too much.

The weight and expectations this time around are more diminished, as Federer was sidelined for nearly 15 months after undergoing two separate surgeries to his knee.

He still managed a run to the round of 16 at the French Open before listening to his body and pulling out of the tournament.

Federer is the greatest grass court player in the history of the game, with a record nine singles titles on the surface. It would be irresponsible to discount his chances at a run here.

What we simply don’t know is how many more of these opportunities he will have.

Can the Canadian men make noise?

Denis Shapovalov, Felix Auger-Aliassime and Vasek Pospisil will lead the men’s Canadian charge and all have shown promising form on grass.

After missing Roland Garros due to a nagging shoulder injury, Shapovalov returned promptly on the grass courts with two solid tournaments.

He made quarterfinals in Stuttgart, and advanced to the semifinals of Queen’s Club, earning notable wins over veteran Feliciano Lopez and the dynamic young American Frances Tiafoe.

Shapovalov is a former junior champion at Wimbledon and will open his tournament Monday against Philippe Kohlschreiber.

World No. 19 Auger-Aliassime did well to shake off the disappointment of the clay-court season as he adapted wonderfully to the surface change.

He reached his eighth career ATP final in Stuttgart two weeks ago, then produced a signature upset of Federer at the Halle Open.

On his best days, Auger-Aliassime possesses an all-court game that can dismantle the best of the tour.

Veteran Pospisil has played limited tennis in 2021, missing the clay-court campaign and dedicating much of his time and energy toward the newly formed Professional Tennis Players Association.

He did compete in two grass-court warmup events, reaching the quarterfinals of the Eastbourne International.

Wimbledon is arguably Pospisil’s best event; he made the quarterfinals in singles in 2015 and won his lone grand slam title in doubles here in 2014.

Bibi and Leylah draw tough assignments

The good news for Bianca Andreescu heading into 2021 Wimbledon: she’s healthy.

The bad? She has a very challenging opening round.

Andreescu went 1-2 on grass ahead of the Wimbledon Championships, with one of those losses coming against French veteran Alize Cornet.

Sure enough, the two are set for a rematch in the first round of play Tuesday.

Andreescu reached the finals of the Miami Open back in March of this year, but since then has had some trouble stringing together consecutive wins.

Her clay-court season was disrupted by a positive COVID-19 test and she bowed out in the first round of Roland Garros to eventual semifinalist Tamara Zidansek.

Bibi though has the makings of a streak shooter in basketball – once she seizes a couple of wins, she gets rolling.

18-year-old Fernandez will compete for the first time at the All England Club and has a tall order in her first-round match.

She meets 2017 French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko to begin her tournament.

Ostapenko is one of the more erratic talents on the tour, who is often fluctuating between brilliant peaks and hideous valleys on court.

She enters here at a peak. She captured the Eastbourne International last week, her first WTA singles title since 2019.

Two Canadian women will also compete in doubles.

2019 finalist Gabriela Dabrowski is partnered with Caroline Garcia of France.

Toronto’s Sharon Fichman is set to play alongside Giuliana Olmos of Mexico.

Veteran experience in the women’s field with a shot?

While plenty of youth are making their mark on the WTA, there are several veteran women’s players who should like their chances of adding another Grand Slam trophy to their cabinet this fortnight at Wimbledon.

All eyes will be directed on Serena Williams as she again resumes her quest for an elusive 24th major, one that would bring her into a tie with Margaret Court for the most all time.

Williams has been especially close to tying the record at the All England Club. She was runner-up in 2018 and 2019 and is a seven-time champion at the major.

Ahead of the tournament, she revealed she will not be competing at the Tokyo Olympics, so it is overwhelmingly clear Serena is going all in for a potential run here.

Angelique Kerber produced a spectacular run at the All England Club in 2018, capturing her third major. She had struggled with consistency since that victory, but enters this major fresh off a grass court title on home soil at the Bad Homburg Open in Germany.

A potential third-round clash with Williams could await.

Two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova is always a dangerous grass-court presence; her booming lefty serve and punishing ground strokes can disrupt many opponents’ rhythm from the baseline quickly.

The 31-year-old Czech has not won a major since her Wimbledon crown in 2014, but is 19-9 this season with a title in Doha.

Garbine Muguruza of Spain was a 2017 champion at Wimbledon, and had been playing some of the best tennis on tour in the early months of this season, with a title in Dubai and two runner-up finishes in Doha and Melbourne.

Her penchant for grass makes her a top threat, though she did have an injury setback just a few weeks ago at Roland Garros.

Men’s Next Gen ready to challenge

While the next generation of top men’s tennis players have continually made strides the last few seasons on the ATP circuit, none have produced a significant run at Wimbledon.

Beyond the Big Three of the game, the All England Club has largely been ruled by the previous generation, with consistent deep runs from veterans like Marin Cilic, Kei Nishikori, Kevin Anderson, Sam Querrey, and Grigor Dimitrov.

Perhaps it is time youth cracks the code on grass.

World number four Stefanos Tsitsipas is now a grand slam finalist, after his exceptional play at the French Open. He also has seven singles titles including a Masters 1000 at Monte-Carlo and an end of year championship at the ATP Finals in 2019.

He has not however, been past the round of 16 at the All England Club. Tsitsipas looks to be a complete, all-surface player; he is tremendously athletic, his groundstrokes are both measured and penetrative, and his serve is precise.

Germany’s Sascha Zverev possesses a big power game that lends to success on fast surfaces and he has drawn a friendly opening matchup against a qualifier.

World number two Daniil Medvedev now looks acclimated to the surface, having won his first career title on grass last week at the Mallorca Open. He has two grand slam finals appearances to his name, at the 2021 Australian Open and the US Open in 2019.

Russian Andrey Rublev is the fifth seed here at the Wimbledon Championships and will also be keen to mend his game after an early round exit at the French Open.

He made the finals of the Halle Open in his lead-up event. He is in Novak Djokovic’s quarter.

Must-watch first rounders

Sprinkled across the draw are some enticing first round matchups on both the men’s and women’s field.

Here are some must watch showdowns:

Ugo Humbert vs. Nick Kyrgios

Ugo Humbert of France won the biggest title of his career at the Halle Open just over a week ago, and the left-hander has compact, quick-strike groundstrokes which play perfectly into the grass court surface.
One-of-a-kind talent Nick Kyrgios is a former Wimbledon quarterfinalist, has one of the most powerful serves on tour, and, when invested, turns the entertainment and trickery dial up to 11 in front of a packed crowd.

Daniil Medvedev vs. Jan-Lennard Struff

Daniil Medvedev should fancy himself a contender at Wimbledon, but he will have to navigate a difficult first round draw.

Medvedev gears up for a rematch with big-serving German, Jan-Lennard Struff.

Struff produced a 7-6, 6-3 upset of the world number two in Halle and is a big match player who is often lurking in draws, seeking to spur an upset.

Andy Murray vs. Nikoloz Basilashvili

It is hard not to be inspired by British tennis legend Sir Andy Murray.

The two-time Wimbledon champion and former world No. 1 returns to the All England Club to compete in singles for the first time since 2017 and his crowd support should be enormous.

Murray has withstood so much physically the past few seasons and now, unbelievably, competes with a metal hip.

He gets a challenging opening-round assignment against 24th seed Nikoloz Basilashvili.

The Georgian has had a resurgent 2021 with titles at the Bavarian International in Munich and the Qatar Total Open from Doha.

Iga Swiatek vs. Hsieh Su-Wei

This is an intriguing matchup of differing styles.

2020 French Open champion Iga Swiatek is one of the top young talents on the WTA, and the 20-year-old is rapidly improving on every surface.

She has not yet won a match at Wimbledon.

Her opponent is 35-year-old Hseih Su-Wei of Taiwan, one of the most unorthodox players in the game.

She is remarkably tricky on grass with her short-angle drop shots, skillful volleys and flat groundstrokes, and has two Grand Slam titles at the All England Club in doubles.

Get the popcorn ready.

Petra Kvitova vs. Sloane Stephens

Petra Kvitova will be the favourite in this first-round encounter, but she’d likely prefer to face someone other than a Grand Slam champion.

2017 US Open champion Sloane Stephens looks to be rediscovering her game after a tumultuous couple of seasons on tour. She reached the round of 16 at the French Open with a pair of upsets over Karolina Pliskova and Karolina Muchova.

She made the quarters of Wimbledon back in 2015.

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