Wimbledon warm-ups: Roger Federer the notable absentee
With Wimbledon just days away, most of the top seeds begin their last-minute adjustments for SW19
The seedings for Wimbledon are out and there are no surprises – all 32 of the top-ranked men fill their allotted places.
What does vary are the preparations those top men are making ahead of their Wimbledon campaigns. While some pack the two weeks between Paris and London with everything they can find, others have retreated to the shadows.
Chief of those notable by their absence is Roger Federer, who made an unexpected withdrawal from the Halle tournament that he has always played with steadfast consistency.
Citing a groin injury and the need for recuperation from his Roland Garros exertions, he disappeared amid mutterings from Halle and has only now resurfaced -away from anything smacking of competition -looking slim and chilled on some unnamed London turf.
And after a return in Paris to some of his best tennis of 2011, he has also become many pundits’ favourite for his own favourite title.
Rafael Nadal, perhaps against his better judgement, rushed aboard the Eurostar within 24 hours of winning his French title to open his grass account at Queen’s, just as he did last year.
But where Nadal won every clay match he played in 2010, this year has proved far more demanding. He lost in the finals of both Madrid and Rome to the dominant Novak Djokovic and then showed signs of a battered confidence in his Roland Garros press conferences.
An increasingly tired Nadal made it to the Queen’s quarters but he was, it seemed, a little relieved to finally give way to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.
Nadal said: “The positive thing is I have a few days off and can stop a little bit mentally. I wake up every day with that pressure that you have to play, [which] is not easy.”
Fresh from his rest, and away from too many prying eyes, he is back on Wimbledon’s grass and preparing to defend both his title and his No1 ranking.
To do the latter, he has to do the former, though Djokovic will in any case take pole position if he reaches the final.
As for Djokovic, he has been almost as low-profile as Federer – and who can blame the winner of 43 matches since last November for the loss of just one?
Djokovic pulled out of Queen’s to recover from his exhausting 2011 achievements and to rehabilitate a sore knee, but this week he breaks cover at The Boodles – the sixth time he has favoured the event for his final warm-up.
Only the persistent June drizzle may impede his schedule, but that is a very real possibility.
And so to the fourth seed and the man who has been playing himself into contention for his first Grand Slam title with a vengeance.
Andy Murray carried an elbow injury ahead of Rome but still pushed Djokovic to the limit in the semis. He injured his ankle at Roland Garros but went on to reach his first semi-final there. And last week, he found what even he conceded was great form to win the Queen’s title.
The tennis Murray played to win that event has set the British media abuzz ahead of Wimbledon, yet even that has failed to worry the most relaxed and confident Murray to appear all year.
So content is he that he has made a late decision to show up for a one-off exho at The Boodles later this week. Why practise behind closed doors when you can play a fun match in front of what is rapidly becoming an adoring British public?
So each of the four top seeds has gone about their business in very different ways. Most experts cannot envisage a man outside this quartet lifting the Wimbledon trophy, but the rest of the seeds are working hard to cause just such an upset.
David Ferrer -ranked, at No6, higher than he’s been for nearly three years -has been noticeably improving his all-court skills and is now a more-than-proficient volleyer.
He has never made it past the fourth round in London but his confidence, work ethic and growing variety of skills may well take him further than ever before.
Ferrer’s time on Stoke Park’s grass against fellow Spaniard Fernando Verdasco was marred by numerous rain stoppages but he squeezed out a straight-sets win.
The result, in conditions such as this, probably means little, and Verdasco, also throwing considerably more volleying into his game both here and at Queen’s last week, appears determined to reverse the downward cycle he has endured since the start of the year.
Juan Martin Del Potro opened his grass preparation at Queen’s but has still to knock the rust off a game impeded since April by a groin injury.
He lost in the third round in London and still looked a little sluggish in the cold, damp conditions at The Boodle event, but he eventually out-powered Gilles Simon before racing for some cover and warmth.
If the sun comes out in SW19 and his fitness is sound, Del Potro could be the biggest threat to the top four.
Other players who will worry the big names include No13 Richard Gasquet, who has been going deeper into big events this year than he has since his peak almost four years ago.
He has clearly begun to regain the confidence, and with it the attack, of his old self and, as he turns 25 on Saturday, he looks ready to invade the top 10 in a new phase of his career.
Gasquet certainly looked relaxed and stylish in taking out No8 Gael Monfils in their friendly this week. Monfils, at his highest ever ranking, showed early good form on grass by reaching the semi-finals in Halle last week.
Victor Troicki reached the quarters in Halle and he, too, is at a career-high: No 12. He has the big serve, improving volley and fast reactions that may surprise some opponents, though he has yet to really prove himself over the long Grand Slam format.
Two other danger men with some good grass results this year are Tsonga -who reached the final at Queen’s with some scintillating tennis -and Tomas Berdych, a semi-finalist at Halle.
Tsonga is apparently back to full fitness after as succession of injuries and is clearly determined to make an impact at Wimbledon. He went straight from Queen’s to Eastbourne this week, losing early enough to get some rest and practice before Monday.
Seed No7 Berdych is getting some extra grass grooming in Hurlingham this week and, lest anyone forgets, he reached his first Slam final last year -at Wimbledon.
Every other seeded man apart from the injured Mikhail Youzhny and Marin Cilic has warmed up on the turf since Roland Garros closed its doors.
All, that is, except two who join Federer’s exclusive band of three who are keeping out of the public eye: No 29 Nikolay Davydenko, who has won just 10 matches in 12 tournaments since Melbourne, and No5 Robin Soderling.
The Swede is an enigma. He has been in the top five for a year, ever since reaching the quarter-finals of Wimbledon last year.
He reached the quarters of the US Open and the French Open, too. He won his first Masters title last autumn and has already taken three titles this year. He can blow hot and he can blow cold, but he can hit big and serve big.
So Soderling may have spurned the limelight -as is often the case -since his run at Roland Garros but he, along with Del Potro, may well pose one of the biggest threats to the top four come 20th June.