- 2013 Wimbledon Preview
Murray rested & ready - but Djokovic gets luck of draw
A strategic masterstroke, or a tactical oversight? Wimbledon returns for another year with just a single concern (for the British observers, at least) - will Andy Murray's recent injury lay-off ultimately help him at the All England Club, or prove only to hinder him?
Much has been made of Andy Murray's decision to skip the recent French Open to rest an ailing back, watching from the sidelines as Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal took chunks out of each other (and age took another chunk out of Roger Federer) on the red dirt of Paris.
The prevailing consensus is that Murray could have played at Roland Garros if truly pushed to do so, but his lesser chances of victory (the Scot has only reached the semi-finals in Paris once) led him to opt for the conservative route - in the process maximising his preparation time for the grass court season, and specifically SW19.
A win on his return at Queen's Club was encouraging evidence that the lay-off has worked as planned, yet even after that comeback triumph he expressed some concerns about how prepared he is for the strain of two grand slam weeks.
"It's tough to know [where my fitness levels are] until I'm in a long five-set match," Murray noted, after a tune-up exhibition at the Hurlingham Club. "It was fine in three sets at Queen's. Five set matches are different."
Discovering the answer to that question could prove central to Murray's bid to win Wimbledon, and thus the perceived 'success' of his injury gamble. But the 26-year-old has been aided by the draw for this year's event, which was not as difficult as it could have been. A first round meeting with Benjamin Becker - and potential second round tie with Jamie Ward - threaten awkward moments but do not seem to inspire any really prospect of an upset, while Tommy Robredo (the first seeded player Murray could meet) is hardly a grass court expert.
Then there is the biggest slice of luck - Murray's quarter-final evasion of Rafael Nadal. While prospective last eight opponent Jo-Wilfried Tsonga appears to be building to a grand slam breakthrough somewhere, if he wins through that Murray can at least watch as Nadal and Federer grind each other down for the right to meet him the semi-final.
In theory, then, he might face one of them coming off an energy-sapping previous encounter - perhaps helpful conditions to reach the final once more. But, as Murray knows as well as anyone, theories and prognostications matter little in grand slams.
The rest of the big name contenders
The biggest beneficiary of the draw, of course, was Novak Djokovic - who now knows he can only face one of Murray, Federer and Nadal during the tournament, and even then only if (or, rather, when) he reaches the final. After his bad luck at Roland Garros (drawing Nadal in the semis), the world No. 1 may feel somewhat entitled to such a piece of good fortune.
The Serbian can best assume he will meet David Ferrer in the semi-finals but, with the relentless Spaniard not in the class of the 'big four', it is not being dismissive of his talents (or is recent final appearance in Paris) to suggest Ferrer is no lock to reach that stage. With Tomas Berdych and Juan Martin del Potro (who beat him at London 2012 on the same stage) lurking on the same side of the draw, Djokovic's progression to the latter stages is far from guaranteed - although let us be under no illusions, any of the other big names would swap for his plotted route to final Sunday.
Even beyond their prospective last-eight encounter, Federer and Nadal have their own concerns - Nadal as he returns to the tournament where he was stunned by the barely-heralded Lukas Rosol a year ago, a defeat that precipitated his seven-month injury lay-off. Federer, meanwhile, is returning to about the only slam where the passing of time has not begun to take its toll - especially when he is playing under the roof (and thus perfect climate conditions) on Centre Court.
The Swiss will be eager to ensure he at least gets to a quarter-final meeting with Nadal, anything less perhaps marking the decisive end of his time as genuine threat at the very highest level. With the blunted threat of Nicolas Almagro about the only established name in his path (although Nadal's old nemesis Rosol also lingers), that should be eminently achievable.
Challenging the status quo
It is difficult to see where the upsets will come this year, although it would be energising for British fans if wildcard entry Kyle Edmund sprang a surprise against the talented (but erratic) Jerzy Janowicz and used it as a springboard for a cameo run in the event. Jamie Ward, too, will be hoping to at least make his way to a second round meeting with Murray, guaranteeing a memorable occasion on Centre Court.
While the usual suspects of Berdych, Del Potro and Tsonga will be determined to tie up quarter-final berths (at a minimum), Grigor Dimitrov may finally announce himself to British audiences this month. The Bulgarian has long had the talent and, after a recent victory over Djokovic and strong challenge of Nadal on clay, finally seems comfortable as a nominative 'star' on the circuit, growing into the potential he has long shown.
After reaching the third round at Roland Garros (his best finish so far in a grand slam), Dimitrov will be eager to go further at the next time opportunity. If he can somehow traverse a likely third round meeting with Del Potro, he could easily go deep into the second week.
Quantity not quality for the Brits
The women's draw has more British interest - an impressive six entrants in total - although, with the greatest will in the world, it is unlikely the sextet combined will win as many matches as Murray does over the next two weeks. Laura Robson would appear to have the greatest range of weapons of her compatriots but the draw has been especially unkind to her, with tenth seed Maria Kirilenko a formidable proposition. Even if she wins through that, the experienced Julia Goerges could await.
Heather Watson's game might not be quite as well suited to grass, but the draw has given her far more scope to dream of a bit of a run in the competition. If she is back to full fitness after a tussle with glandular fever, the Guernsey girl is capable of overcoming Madison Keys in the opening round and moving on from there.
Elsewhere, Elena Baltacha and Anne Keothavong face difficult battles in their first matches, but both could be winnable. Qualifier Samantha Murray, meanwhile, may just enjoy the exposure of her appearance - with opponent Camila Giorgi (who reached the fourth round 12 months ago) a formidable prospect.
Johanna Konta, however, has the chance to make the biggest early splash - a meeting with former world No. 1 Jelena Jankovic giving the naturalised Brit an immediate chance to make some headlines. Defeat, though, remains a more likely proposition.
A prohibitive favourite takes court again
Unlike the men's competition, a British woman is unlikely to have a major impact on the destination of the trophy. Once again, it is Serena Williams who appears the lady to beat - the defending champion in dominant form for much of 2013, especially having picked up just her second career French Open title.
The American has won five singles titles at the All England Club (not including her Olympic title) and, with no health issues to speak of, appears as prohibitive a favourite as tennis has seen for many years.
"She is about as heavy a favourite at Wimbledon as you get," Pam Shriver, the American former world No. 3, told the New York Times. "Maybe Justine Henin at the French Open those few years. Martina Navratilova at Wimbledon, Steffi Graf at Wimbledon, Chrissie Evert at the French and the US Open back in the 1970s. There haven't been many like this."
Maria Sharapova would appear Williams' most likely challenger, but is on a nine-year losing streak against the American that was extended (with emphasis) in the French Open final. The Russian needs to change the dynamic, something she has seemingly tried to do by hitting back after Williams made some ill-advised comments about a 'top-five female tennis player' (believed to be Sharapova) in a recent magazine profile.
"If she wants to talk about something personal, maybe she should talk about her relationship and her boyfriend that was married and is getting a divorce and has kids," said Sharapova. "Talk about other things, but not draw attention to other things. She has so much in her life, many positives, and I think that's what it should be about."
Williams has rarely wilted when faced with slights, real or perceived, however - and it is not immediately clear whether this will help Sharapova in any obvious way.
It would be intriguing to see the tournament to build to a final showdown between the pair, but Victoria Azarenka - on Sharapova's side of the draw - is almost certain to have something to say about that.