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What to watch for at Wimbledon: A return to grass, GOAT talk, Federer’s moment, Serena’s quest

It’s been two long years since competition was last held at the All England Club. After the longest break in Wimbledon history since World War II, the main draw of the 2021 tournament will begin on Monday.

While this is exciting news for players and fans alike, there’s just one slight concern.

“I don’t know if I even remember how to play on grass,” Iga Swiatek, the world No. 9, said earlier this month. “So we’re going to see how that’s going to go.”

Swiatek isn’t alone with her unfamiliarity on grass.

Most professional players, outside of those who live or train in the United Kingdom, rarely practice on grass courts and tend to spend time on the surface only during the grass-court portion of the season. Because that was canceled last year, it’s been awhile.

Due to the slippery nature of the grass, the ball tends to bounce faster and lower to the ground compared to other surfaces, and is softer under foot. It favors big servers and those who like to play close to the net — and is dramatically different from the slow clay courts at the French Open, which concluded just two weeks ago.

Even with the WTA and ATP each holding five grass-court tournaments leading into Wimbledon, there’s still only a small window for players to refamiliarize themselves with the surface and they could participate in three events at best, most playing in one or two.

For some of the veteran players on tour, such as seven-time Wimbledon champion Serena Williams, the task is less daunting. Williams opted to not play in a lead-in event and will instead rely on her years of experience when play starts. In fact, she has done it before.

Williams missed the 2017 tournament as she was pregnant with her daughter, Olympia, and when she returned in 2018, she skipped all of the other grass events — and she made it all the way to the final.

“I’m kind of excited to switch surfaces,” Williams said after losing in the fourth round of the French Open. “Historically I have done pretty well on grass.”

But many of the younger players don’t have the same comfort level on the surface or the experience to draw from.

Swiatek has three titles on tour, including the 2020 French Open, but she has played just one match in the main draw at Wimbledon. Same for Bianca Andreescu, the 2019 US Open winner, who has been ranked in the top 10 for the past 22 months but has also played just one main-draw match at the All England Club. Worse yet for the Canadian, that was in 2017. She hadn’t even recorded a main-draw win on grass at any grass event until last week at Eastbourne.

“I’m just going to practice a lot on grass now,” she said after losing in the first round at Roland Garros.

Other recent tour winners, like Sebastian Korda and Leylah Fernandez, have played at Wimbledon at the junior level but never as a professional. Jannik Sinner, a two-time winner on the ATP Tour and 2020 French Open quarterfinalist, has never played at Wimbledon at any level. Even his previous attempt at qualifying in 2019 was held at nearby Roehampton.

Newly crowned French Open champion Barbora Krejcikova has never played a singles match at the tournament, although the 25-year-old did win the doubles title in 2018 with partner Katerina Siniakova.

“I mean, I hope I’m going to have some chances on the grass, but I don’t really know because I’m not that experienced on it,” Krejcikova said after her triumph in Paris. “We will see.”

Believe it or not, the widespread discomfort on grass isn’t the only storyline to keep an eye on over the next two weeks. Even with the absence of stars like Rafael Nadal and Naomi Osaka, there is still plenty to talk about.

Here’s what you need to know heading into the year’s third major. Coverage of the first round begins Monday, June 28, at 6 a.m. ET on the ESPN family of networks, as well as on ESPN+ and the ESPN App.

The 20-major club: Room for one more?

Not to sound any alarms, but if Novak Djokovic wins Wimbledon and earns his 20th major title, it would put him in a three-way tie with Nadal and Roger Federer for the most ever.

So, if that happens, buckle in. There will be nonstop GOAT conversations until the US Open. The three have long been considered the best ever, but this latest milestone would make the debate all the more interesting.

Just how good of a shot does the 34-year-old Djokovic have to hoist the trophy? Considering he has won the past two titles, and five overall, at the All England Club, and he’s coming off of a statement victory at Roland Garros, it’s safe to call him the overwhelming favorite. He didn’t hesitate in making his intentions known following his win at the French Open.

“I don’t have an issue to say that I’m going for the title in Wimbledon,” Djokovic said. “Of course, I am.”

Federer might have other plans. And lucky for both of them, and for the fans, they are on opposite sides of the draw and could meet only in the final.

Federer’s official return

Ahead of his first match in over a year at the Qatar Open in March, Federer made his ultimate goal for the season clear.

“[I’m] still building up to being stronger, better, fitter, faster and all that stuff,” Federer told reporters. “I hope then by Wimbledon I’m going to be 100 percent. From then on, then the season really starts for me.”

So while the 39-year-old has played in four tournaments since returning from two surgeries on his right knee — compiling a 5-3 record — it has all essentially been a warm-up. Federer withdrew from the French Open following a third-round victory that took over three-and-a-half hours in order to preserve his body.

“After two knee surgeries and over a year of rehabilitation, it’s important that I listen to my body and make sure I don’t push myself too quickly on my road to recovery,” Federer said in a statement. “I am thrilled to have gotten three matches under my belt.”

Federer lost his second-round match at the Halle Open last week, but now looks to put all the pieces of his recovery and return together and make a run for his ninth title at Wimbledon — a mark which would tie him with Martina Navratilova for the most at the storied event.

He was the runner-up in 2019 to Djokovic after an epic five-set, nearly five-hour battle.

It will be a tough task to win, as no man over 35 has ever done so at Wimbledon, but if anyone is up for it, it’s Federer — just ask his peers.

“Of course, we all know that a Grand Slam is still a goal for him,” said Daniil Medvedev, the world No. 2 and two-time major finalist. “I think Wimbledon is always — even when he will be 50 years old — a great chance for him.”

Serena’s continued quest

Williams knows all too well about breaking records. Her 23 major titles are the most by any player in the Open era (and still three more than Federer and Nadal, for those keeping track).

But of course, as anyone who has watched a moment of tennis over the past three years knows well, one more Grand Slam victory would tie Williams with Margaret Court for the record, and it’s something she has been chasing since coming back from childbirth. The 39-year-old has come close to tying the mark at the All England Club, reaching the previous two finals, but she hasn’t been able to finish the job.

Still, she was the lone women’s player to advance past the fourth round in both of those years at Wimbledon. With a combined 14 titles in singles, doubles and mixed doubles over her career at Wimbledon, experience and consistency are very much on her side.

Her ability on grass has long been an advantage, but in a tournament in which so many might struggle on the surface, in addition to the unpredictable nature of the women’s game, Williams might be the one who makes history this fortnight.

Great Scot

Much to the delight of the local fans, Andy Murray will be playing in the singles draw at his home Slam for the first time since 2017. The 34-year-old has undergone two hip surgeries since that last appearance and has been riddled with injuries, but like Federer, he has been laser-focused on playing at Wimbledon for most of the season, despite having played only a handful of tournaments.

He withdrew ahead of the Miami Open with a groin injury and was sidelined for two months. He then experienced some discomfort following a pair of doubles matches in his next event at the Italian Open in May and opted to skip the remainder of the clay-court season to focus on grass.

Murray won his opening match at Queen’s Club before falling to Matteo Berrettini, the event’s top seed, in the next round. Currently ranked No. 119, the two-time Wimbledon champion received a wild card to participate in this year’s event and will open play against No. 24 seed Nikoloz Basilashvili.

Murray was measured when asked about his hopes and expectations for how he would fare at Wimbledon earlier this month.

“My priority, and I know this is probably not what you want to hear, but that I’m healthy,” Murray said. “My focus is on that. Because I know I can still play high-level tennis. I’m convinced of that. But if the body is not right, I’m not able to do that …

“You need to be able to get through tennis matches and, you know, compete at the highest level. I have been unable to do that. So I have said at the beginning, I don’t want to promise anything in terms of [results], because I don’t even know myself exactly.”

One thing he does know for sure about this year’s tournament is that he won’t be playing mixed doubles, something he did alongside Williams in 2019. The pair, who became known as “Serandy,” drew crowds and global headlines for their run to the Round of 16.

Another first-time women’s champion?

While Williams has been the model of consistency over her decades-spanning dominance in the sport, the past several years have seen the emergence of many capable young players and an incredible depth of talent on the women’s side.

There were four first-time semifinalists at Roland Garros earlier this month, and just one player ranked inside the top 10 in the quarterfinals. Krejcikova became the sixth consecutive first-time champion at the French Open with her surprise victory.

Since the start of the 2016 season, there have been 12 women who have won their first major title — but none has been at Wimbledon. In fact, there hasn’t been a first-time Slam champion at the All England Club since Marion Bartoli in 2013. Could this be the year that changes?

Players such as Aryna Sabalenka, Elina Svitolina and Karolína Pliskova, who are all ranked in the top 10 and have won multiple titles, are hopeful this will finally be their long-awaited breakthrough. Or, like Krejcikova in Paris, it could perhaps be even more unexpected.

Ons Jabeur has never advanced past the quarterfinals at a major, nor the second round at Wimbledon, but she is coming off of her first WTA title on the grass at Birmingham this month. Liudmilla Samsonova also notched her maiden tour trophy in Berlin and was granted Wimbledon’s last wild card. Both will look to ride their newfound momentum as far as they can.

There are countless players who could be named here, but one more to keep an eye on is Coco Gauff.

The then-15-year-old became a household name with her stunning run to the fourth round at Wimbledon in 2019 in what was her debut major main-draw appearance. Two years later, she’s back and with more confidence than ever. Gauff, now 17, recorded her first quarterfinal appearance at a Grand Slam in Paris and won the singles and doubles titles in Parma.

Gauff was bageled by Elise Mertens in the opening set of her first match on grass in nearly two years at Eastbourne, but fought her way back for a 0-6, 7-6 (4), 7-5 victory. She lost her match the following day but proved she could rally after a tough start against a worthy opponent on the surface.

Could Gauff win her first major at the tournament that made her a star? It’s certainly possible.

And the men?

There hasn’t been a first-time men’s champion at Wimbledon since Federer in 2003, and no man outside of the “Big Four” (Federer, Djokovic, Nadal and Murray) has won the title since 2002.

So, the likelihood of this happening on the men’s side is considerably lower than it is on the women’s.

But let’s indulge for a moment. Wimbledon was the site of Stefanos Tsitsipas‘ first major breakthrough in 2018 when he reached his then-best result of the fourth round. Now he’s ranked No. 4 in the world and coming off his first major final. The 22-year-old didn’t play in any lead-in event, but he has a tour-leading 39 wins this season.

Andrey Rublev has made three major quarterfinals since the last time Wimbledon was held. The world No. 7 trails just Tsitsipas in wins this season and is coming off a final appearance at Halle. Rublev lost to rising star Ugo Humbert for the title. Humbert made the fourth round at the All England Club in 2019 — his best result at a major — and he now returns with his first 500-level trophy and a new career-high ranking of 25.

Not to mention, Medvedev and Alexander Zverev have both made Grand Slam final appearances since the last time they played at Wimbledon.

You never know, right?

Slowly getting back to normal

Let’s start with the bad news: The legendary queue in which fans line up for hours, and sometimes days, to snag a ticket will not be held in Wimbledon Park this year due to virus restrictions. Known for its relaxed yet completely organized feel, the annual tradition will be held virtually this year and fans will have to continuously hit the refresh button as they attempt to get tickets.

In better news, the tournament is expected to allow about 50% of grounds capacity at the start of the fortnight — with 100% expected on Centre Court for the final weekend, so expect to hear the sound of 15,000 fans cheering on the players during a fiercely contested championship.

Fans are required to show proof of vaccination, a negative test or evidence of antibodies from having the virus, and will not be required to wear masks. Tournament officials have also said fans will be allowed to watch from the iconic Henman Hill, although they have yet to reveal what exactly that will look like or how many people will be allowed at one time.

And, perhaps most importantly, strawberries and cream will be served.

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Strawberry farmer Marion Regan takes pride in knowing her strawberries end up at Wimbledon.

Bubble life

One of the unique aspects of Wimbledon is players typically rent houses near the grounds and it’s not uncommon to see players walking around the village on off days or even getting a pint at the Dog & Fox Pub. However, like the queue, that isn’t possible this year.

Players are required to stay in the official hotel in central London and cannot go anywhere besides the event grounds and the hotel. Even players like Andy and Jamie Murray, who both live near the All England Club, will have to stay at the designated accommodations. The normally short car ride or walk to the grounds will be replaced by an approximately 40-minute commute by private transportation.

Anyone who leaves the bubble or breaches protocol faces a $20,000 fine.

Several players, including Gauff and Sloane Stephens, talked openly at the French Open about how challenging the restrictions have been since play resumed last August. With the even stricter rules in place at Wimbledon, it will likely only become a bigger talking point.

Can’t-miss opening-round matches

Men

  • No. 2 Daniil Medvedev vs. Jan-Lennard Struff

  • No. 3 Stefanos Tsitsipas vs. Frances Tiafoe

  • No. 14 Hubert Hurkacz vs. Lorenzo Musetti

  • No. 15 Alex de Minaur vs. Sebastian Korda

  • No. 21 Ugo Humbert vs. Nick Kyrgios

  • No. 24 Nikoloz Basilashvili vs. Andy Murray

Women

  • No. 1 Ashleigh Barty vs. Carla Suarez Navarro

  • No. 7 Iga Swiatek vs. Hsieh Su-wei

  • No. 10 Petra Kvitova vs. Sloane Stephens

  • No. 20 Coco Gauff vs. Francesca Jones

  • Leylah Fernandez vs. Jelena Ostapenko

  • Ann Li vs. Nadia Podoroska

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