Serena, Sharapova, Federer among top storylines on road to Wimbledon

Tennis

The French Open is barely in our rearview mirror when Wimbledon pops up, towering on the horizon. There’s precious little time for the players to transition from clay to grass, and they’re at the opposite ends of the surface spectrum when it comes to playing properties. That helps explain why the grass segment, which lasts just three weeks, is loaded with 11 tournaments — six ATP, five WTA.

Remember when “grass court” was synonymous with “Great Britain?” That’s no longer the case. Supply and demand for Wimbledon prep has revitalized the grass game, with tournaments popping up in Germany (Stuttgart and Halle), Spain (Mallorca) and even Turkey. Combined, they offer a crash course on grass.

There’s a lot going on at once for a lot of players — and fans. So to get you prepped for the run-up to Wimbledon (which starts July 1 on ESPN), here are some of the burning questions and storylines sprouting like Wimbledon’s rye grass:

So many ATP tournaments, so few superstars

Roger Federer, blithely ignoring his age (37), is the only member of the Big Four who will be seen swatting balls on a singles court before Wimbledon begins. He’s playing Halle this week, so we’ll soon see if his theory — “grand plan” might be a better term — that returning to his clay-court roots after an absence of nearly three years will make him an even better player on grass.

Federer’s reasoning: Clay matches would be great for his fitness going into the grass season, and it might also improve elements that have gone stale in his grass-court game. He explained to the New York Times at the start of the clay season, “When you play too much on grass, I feel you start guiding the ball, whereas on clay you go with full swings.” Still, Federer has guided the ball to nine titles in Halle.

The No. 2 seed in Halle is Alexander Zverev, who has been struggling of late.

As for Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, neither man is playing a single event on grass. The former has had a spring that, for many, would constitute a great career. He’s catching his breath in June, plus he has a doctor’s note of sorts: His troublesome knees need rest and constant attention.

Djokovic didn’t hit quite the same high notes as Nadal this spring. The defending Wimbledon champion was on the cusp of completing a second non-calendar-year Grand Slam at Roland Garros, but he was thwarted by runner-up Dominic Thiem in the semifinals. Djokovic’s win over Grigor Dimitrov in the second round of Queen’s Club last summer was his first over a top-five opponent in almost 18 months — and it kick-started the resurgence that carried him to the final and, ultimately, three consecutive Grand Slam titles. It wasn’t enough to lure him back to Queen’s this year.

Djokovic clearly feels that he’s blown all the carbon out of his engine over the past 12 months.

No Kvitova, no problem

In direct contrast to the men’s tour, the WTA has delivered the top three women to Birmingham, a Premier-level grass event in England’s second-largest city — and the gold standard among grass tuneup events. World No. 1 Naomi Osaka, newly minted No. 2 and French Open champion Ashleigh Barty, and No. 3 Karolina Pliskova dominate the field. But consider this caveat: “I love the courts here,” Barty told reporters in rainy Birmingham last week. “Hopefully it stays dry so we get some time on the grass.”

The quick and sometimes slick courts and a field that Barty described as “incredible” make Birmingham as much a bellwether event as tuneup. The added incentive for the WTA stars: Defending Birmingham champion Petra Kvitova is MIA, having withdrawn to nurse an injured forearm. Kvitova won the past two editions of this tournament (as well as two Wimbledon titles in 2011 and 2014). Former No. 3 Elina Svitolina, while struggling lately, is another premium challenger, as is Sunday’s Nottingham runner-up, Donna Vekic.

Birmingham bonus: Five-time Wimbledon champion Venus Williams took a wild card into the draw. Williams, who turned 39 years old on Monday and is just 12-6 for 2019, hasn’t competed in a grass event outside of Wimbledon’s confines in eight years. The last tuneup she played was Eastbourne in 2011.

Tsitsipas has a good look in London

The tournament at Queen’s Club (this year, it’s called the Fever-Tree Championships) has been around for more than 100 years, considerably longer than 20-year-old Stefanos Tsitsipas. Nadal, Andy Murray, Pete Sampras, Boris Becker, Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe and Lleyton Hewitt have all won Queen’s and Wimbledon in the same year. Should Tsitsipas (ranked No. 6) join that august crew — or even just win Queens — he would continue to close ground on Next Gen rival Zverev in the race to inherit the mantle of the aging Big Four.

Tsitsipas edged out world No. 8 Kevin Anderson for the top seeding at Queen’s. Anderson hasn’t played a competitive match since March due to a lingering arm injury, and it might be too much to expect him to reach the final in his first tournament back. No. 12 Juan Martin del Potro will be a potential obstacle, and No. 15 Marin Cilic is a far cry from being the power ranger who stopped Djokovic in last year’s final.

The problem: Tsitsipas, who developed his game on clay but plays a brand of aggressive tennis that ought to serve him well on grass, is woefully short of experience on lawns. His career record on grass is a tepid 6-6 after just five tour-level events. His natural talent may compensate somewhat for that, but the key is his determination. If he can bring the same degree of desire to grass as he does to clay and hard courts, he might be able to overcome the strategic and tactical impediments — including a long, time-robbing backswing.

Mallorca calling

Does Maria Sharapova, who turned 32 in April, have at least one more big push to make at Wimbledon? The answer will begin to unfold 836 miles from the All-England Club, on the island of Mallorca, where Sharapova will be playing just her second match on grass since her semifinal loss to Serena Williams at Wimbledon in June 2015. Perhaps Sharapova can commiserate about injuries with Nadal, under the watchful eye of Mallorca tournament director Toni Nadal, Rafael’s uncle and former coach.

A host of mostly shoulder and arm injuries — along with a 15-month doping suspension — has interrupted Sharapova’s career for long periods in recent years. She hasn’t been a significant force since returning from her suspension in April 2017, reaching just one final (she won Tianjin in October 2017). Sharapova’s ranking has fallen to No. 85, and Mallorca will be just her fourth event this year.

Still, Sharapova won Wimbledon at age 17, and the tournament has always inspired — if not always rewarded — her. If she survives No. 46 Viktoria Kuzmova in the first round at Mallorca, Sharapova will meet top seed Angelique Kerber in the second round. Other headliners in Mallorca include Belinda Bencic, Victoria Azarenka and teen sensation Anna Anisimova.

The return of Sir Andy

Everybody loves Andy Murray. Djokovic, upon hearing that Murray would begin his recovery from hip surgery by playing doubles at Queen’s, told reporters in Paris: “I’m really pleased that he’s coming back to the court. I have shared my trajectory of my career in a very similar fashion and probably in the same time as Andy, so I feel very connected with him. So it’s really nice to see him.”

Less than five months after having a metal hip surgically implanted, Murray is playing doubles at Queen’s with Spanish volley meister Feliciano Lopez. The 32-year-old Scot, a three-time Grand Slam and two-time Olympic champion, didn’t make any bones about his intentions when he met with reporters in London, explaining that playing doubles seemed like a “nice progression” from rehab. “My goal is still to get back to playing singles,” Murray added. “That’s what I would like to do ultimately.”

While all eyes will be on national hero Murray at Queen’s, his British compatriot Johanna Konta will return to her best surface to try to add to the momentum she accumulated with a great record late in the clay season (Konta was 10-2 combined at Rome and Roland Garros). She is an excellent 42-27 for her career on grass and has been to the semis at Wimbledon. Konta is seeded No. 7 in Birmingham.

Serena: Will she or won’t she?

Serena Williams left the French Open just like most other third-round losers — with little drama and no fanfare following an uneventful loss to a fellow American, 20-year-old Sofia Kenin. Williams, 37, did say in her final Parisian news conference that she felt “pretty far away” from her peak level, and that she may need to shake off some of the rust that has accumulated due to her lack of match play (she has won just nine matches this year, and just 18 in the whole of 2018).

“I have some time on my hands,” Williams said. “So maybe I’ll jump in and get a wild card at one of these grass-court events and see what happens.”

Williams is running out of time if she’s hoping to lock down a wild card into next week’s final WTA Wimbledon warm-up, Eastbourne. True, she has won Grand Slam tournaments with little or no prep work in the past. Just last year, she made the Wimbledon final (won by Kerber) without playing a grass prelude. But she had won three matches in her previous tournament (French Open) and left Paris unbeaten (an injury prematurely halted Williams’ run). That’s very different from her history this year.

With 23 career major titles, Williams is also running out of time to equal Margaret Court’s all-time Grand Slam singles title haul of 24. But if Djokovic, Nadal and some others feel comfortable going into Wimbledon cold, why not the greatest Open Era Grand Slam title producer as well?

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