The ridiculously brief grass-court season gives so few pointers to success at Wimbledon that current form is almost irrelevant. When it comes to playing on grass, experience is the key. So barring several major upsets, the next Wimbledon champion should come from a select band of players in both the men’s and women’s events.
Most people would not look any further than Roger Federer to lift a third successive title at the All England Club. In tennis, every so often a player is described as having an aura of invincibility. It might only last for a few months, or it can last just for a tournament. In Roger Federer’s case, it was all of 2004. This year has been different, with Marat Safin and Rafael Nadal ousting Federer in the semi finals of the first two majors, the Australian and French Opens.
But invincibility is also related to surface. While Nadal currently rules on clay, Federer has been untouchable on the grass of Wimbledon and the warm up event in Halle, Germany, since 2002. The only weakness in his overall game - the high-kicking ball to the backhand - is not a factor on the surface. Federer could dominate the event much like Sampras did in the 1990s.
But if not Federer, then who? The seeding formula used by Wimbledon has elevated Andy Roddick to number two. Although he was runner up in 2004 and has won the pre-Wimbledon Queen’s club event for the last three years, Roddick has had a poor run of late. But a few good wins under his belt and he will be hard to beat.
Lleyton Hewitt, the 2002 champion, is in a similar position to Roddick; he will be vulnerable in early rounds, but none of his rivals will want to see him play himself into form and into the second week. The third section of the draw is wide open, with the highest seeds being the clay-court specialists Nadal and Guillermo Canas. An opportunity for a semi-final place is there for perhaps Tommy Haas, David Nalbandian, or an outside bet, although it may be a few years early for British prospect Andrew Murray.
Instead, British hopes will rest on the ageing shoulders of Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski. Henman at sixth seed has a good draw until he is due to meet Roddick in the quarter-final. Rusedski is unseeded, but could meet Federer in the same stage if he can get past the talented young Swede, Joachim Johansson.
The only other contender is Marat Safin. But the mercurial Russian has never adapted his power game to grass, and is easily frustrated. So his possible second-round match with 2003 runner up Mark Philippoussis could spell his exit. It would be certainly the pick of the early round matches.
On the women’s side, we are again confronted with questions rather than prospects. Is Venus Williams a spent force? Is her sister Serena totally motivated? Has Justine Henin-Hardene fully recovered from her exertions in Paris? Can Kim Clijsters get back to her best? Which Russian will turn up this time? And is Lindsay Davenport really number one in the world?
The draw has been slightly unkind to the defending champion, Maria Sharapova, placing Henin-Hardene and Serena Williams in her half. She should start the favourite, assuming she can handle the attention that will surround her. Sharapova also defended her title at Birmingham, giving her a degree of form coming into the tournament.
An outside bet to meet her in the top half of the draw is Amelie Mauresmo, who played brilliantly against Serena last year until back trouble got the better of her. Top seed Davenport won in 1999, but has looked unlikely to repeat that triumph since, and may struggle against either Svetlana Kuznetsova or Clijsters, whom she could meet in the fourth round.