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Roger Federer of Switzerland arrives for a training session at the All England Lawn Tennis Championships in Wimbledon, London, on Wednesday, June 26, 2019. The Wimbledon Tennis Championships 2019 will be held in London from July 1 to July 14. (Peter Klaunzer/Keystone via AP)  
Roger Federer of Switzerland arrives for a training session at the All England Lawn Tennis Championships in Wimbledon, London, on Wednesday, June 26, 2019. The Wimbledon Tennis Championships 2019 will be held in London from July 1 to July 14. (Peter Klaunzer/Keystone via AP)  |Associated Press
Tennis

There are only 9 men who CAN win Wimbledon: Abrams picks Djokovic, Federer, Nadal and the Other 6 in his fortnight preview

The men’s draw starts Monday morning EDT.

Neal Abrams

Neal Abrams

In a day, the 2019 Wimbledon Championships will be upon us, and like most anyone else, I’m looking into my crystal ball to see if it can clear up who is going to hoist the trophy two Sundays from now and lead the first dance at the Wimbledon Ball. Like pretty much every year since Roger Federer beat Pete Sampras in 2001 and then won his first Championship, way back in 2003, the Master from Switzerland must be considered a favorite, and will be coming into this year’s tournament as the controversial second seed behind defending champion and No. 1 ranked Novak Djokovic. The remaining member of The Big Three, Spain’s incomparable Rafa Nadal, fresh off his 12th (TWELTH!!) French Open title, is the third seed, even though he is the ATP’s second ranked player, and last year’s losing finalist, South African Kevin Anderson, has been placed as the fourth seed.

But when discussing the tournament prior to it being played, it’s more important to look at who CAN win, not just who is considered a favorite. And in looking at the draw and the seedings carefully, I’ve come to the conclusion that, although there are a number of truly phenomenal talents, there are only six players who, aside from The Big Three, actually possess the talent, the drive, the stamina, and the ability to win this tournament.

The Pretenders

First, let’s look at the pretenders. In my opinion, Nick Kyrgios, the mercurial Aussie, is simply put, the most talented player alive today. When he wants to play and compete, and his mental resources are set on the right settings, he can and does beat anyone. His run through the draw in Acapulco, where he beat Andreas Seppi, John Isner, Wawrinka, Nadal and Sascha Zverev surely pointed that out. But other results (Delray Beach, and at the Internazionali BNL d’Italia in Rome) also show that there’s another side to the Wonder from Down Under. As assuredly as I know that Kyrgios has the physical ability to win this tournament, I also know that he is mentally ill. And as such, he has no chance whatsoever to complete seven best-of-five set matches in a two-week span without flipping out and letting out Mr. Hyde. That immediately eliminates him from those who I believe can win this tournament, and that’s a real shame because we (and he) have yet to see his outstanding play elevate for a full fortnight. When and if that ever happens, it will really be a thing of beauty. He owns the world’s greatest gifts, and is the most tormented at the same time.

Dominic Thiem, the second best clay court player in the world, also stands no chance to win a grass court tournament that is best of five sets. He has gotten to the finals of the French Open two years in succession, and had been a losing semi-finalist for the two years leading up to that, but his dominion is the slow clay, and although he has either the best or the second best one-handed backhand in the game today (Stan Wawrinka has the other), a beast of a forehand, and a cannon for a serve, his strokes are way too long to be adapted to the grass game. Yes, he can win matches, but asking someone who winds up with abandon to shorten his strokes to adapt to the sliding, dipping, darting balls that swoosh through the green stuff is asking too much, at least at this point in his career. Not only that, but he opens up against the very-tough-on-grass American Sam Querrey, a match he could easily drop.

How about some big servers? Well, American John Isner has been out since he cracked his knee in Miami and was unable to compete to the finish against Federer in the finals there. To imagine him coming back and to being able to win seven best-of-five set matches is asking too much. Unfortunately, Argentine hero Juan Martin del Potro suffered the same injury (again!) just a few weeks ago and won’t be making an appearance in this year’s draw, and we may have seen the last of the gentle giant. The aforementioned Kevin Anderson? No chance. He spent the whole Spring rehabbing a bad elbow, and although he’ll still be able to serve bombs, he won’t be able to do it effectively enough for two weeks to win this tournament. The brilliant Italian, Fabio Fognini shouldn’t be a factor on the grass (nor should his compatriots Thomas Fabbiano or Marco Cecchinato), and neither should Britain’s #1 Kyle Edmund, a losing semi-finalist at last year’s Australian Open. The other losing semi-finalist, South Korea’s Chung Hyeon, has seen his ranking fall so far that he wasn’t even able to get into this year’s main draw. This year’s NCAA champion, always thought of as a budding pro star (remember when Ashe, Smith, Lutz, Connors, McEnroe, Scanlon, Mitchell, and Mayotte waltzed into London and wreaked havoc?), is Britain’s Paul Jubb, who played for South Carolina. He’s not even considered good enough to be called a pretender, but as a homeboy favorite, did get a wild card into the main draw.

Others that I mentioned in my article leading up to this year’s Australian Open, which was so long ago (almost seven full months) that it seems quaintly out of step with the times today, included Taiwan’s #1 Junior Chun Hsin Tseng, who the New York Times highlighted in an end-of-December article, American up-and-comers Francis Tiafoe, Stefan Kozlof, Taylor Fritz, Reilly Opelka, Michael Mmoh, and Tommy Paul, and American veterans Jack Sock and Tennys Sandgren. They all have no chance whatsoever. Tiafoe played well for the first four months of the year but has fallen on hard times lately and faces a tough task to even get out of the first round, where he has drawn Fognini. Taylor Fritz has improved immensely and should be knocking on the Top 25 soon, but he’s nowhere near ready to become a Grand Slam champion. Reilly Opelka has shown the ability to win some matches and to scare some players, but that’s about as far as his development has taken him. Tommy Paul looks like he’s working hard and improving after suffering an injury, but he’s just looking to win a match or two in these tournaments. Kozlof and Mmoh have fallen off of the radar, and veterans Sandgren and Sock are non-factors today, and are not likely to change their status any time soon. American Sam Querrey is dangerous on grass, but if he wins two or three matches he’ll go home happy, especially since he’ll have a war with Dominic Thiem in Round One.

Some other world-class players who have shown flashes of brilliance over the years are also not able to win here. They include France’s Jo-Willie Tsonga, Richard Gasquet, Gael Monfils, Gilles Simon, Nico Mahut, Pierre-Hugues Herbert, Benoit Paire, Adrian Mannarino, Lucas Pouille, and rookie Corentin Moutet. Germany’s Philip Kohlschreiber and Jan-Lennard Struff are also gifted players, but not Wimbledon champions. Belgian David Goffin has played well of late, but is also not a Grand Slam champion. Spaniard Feliciano Lopez is playing excellent tennis, but is probably too old at 37 to win seven matches in a row, and his compatriots Fernando Verdasco, Juame Munar, and Pablo Carrena Busta are not champions-in-waiting. Canada has three top men’s players in Denis Shapovalov, Felix Auger-Alliasime, and Milos Raonic, all of whom are terrific players, and none of whom can win this tournament this year all for different reasons: Shapovalov isn’t good enough yet, FA2 is good enough but not seasoned enough to win seven straight matches, and Raonic isn’t healthy enough to last two full weeks, although if he was, he could be a threat. Kei Nishikori, who got to the finals of the U.S. Open in 2015 is a great player, but no world champ. Great Britain’s Andy Murray, who was the fourth player in the Big Four, has recovered from hip replacement surgery, but is now a doubles player only, at least at this time.

The Possibles

So, who CAN win Wimbledon? Aside from The Big Three the list is short. including only Marin Cilic, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Stan Wawrinka, Sascha Zverev, Karen Khachanov, and Thomas Berdych. That’s it. All of these players either have already shown that they can win seven best-of-five set matches in a two-week period by already having done so (Cilic and Wawrinka). Or they’ve shown enough talent to beat the best players in the world (by having done so) and are just waiting for their turn to ignite their jets and blaze into the winner’s circle (Tsitsipas beat Federer in four tough sets in Melbourne this year, Zverev beat Djokovic in November to win the ATP Championships, Khachanov has wins over RBA, del Potro and Isner, as well as Isner, Thiem, Zverev, and Djokovic to win the Rolex Paris Masters, and Berdych holds career wins over Zverev, Cilic, del Potro, Monfils, Tsonga, and Andy Roddick,).

The least likely of the Other Six to win is Berdych. At 34, he’s three years removed from being in the Top Five, he’s unseeded this year as he’s ranked around 114, and he has fought both appendicitis and a rib injury. But it isn’t unprecedented for an unseeded player to win the Championships—both Boris Becker and Goran Ivanisovic have done it, and Berdych has a very effective, booming serve just like the two of them. His first match will be very telling as he plays the hot American Taylor Fritz. If he advances, he’ll probably have a serving battle with John Isner in the Third Round.

Khachanov is maddeningly inconsistent; as likely to lose in the first round here as he is to reel off five straight wins. But he has all the ability to do it, and he’s shown that he can beat the top players. The real question is: Can he beat seven players and maybe four Top Fifteen players in a two-week period? We’ll see pretty early, as he’ll likely face Sascha Zverev in the Round of 16.

Zverev is an absolute stud, and the fifth seed, but at 22-years-old he’s not all that mature a champion. A mature champion doesn’t have a lot of losses to those outside the Top Ten, and Zverev is inconsistent enough to drop a dud from time to time. He can win this tournament, but a lot depends on the sequence of opponents he’ll have to face to do so.

Wawrinka has won three Grand Slam events, and is an absolute threat to win another. He’s a terrific player, a great competitor, and mature enough to know how much it means to win Wimbledon. He also has a pretty good draw, needing only to get by Opelka and Raonic to book a Fourth Round matchup against Anderson, who he should beat. That would get him to the second week. After that, it’s anybody’s ballgame.

Tsitsipas, in my opinion, is the most likely of the NextGen players to break through and win a Grand Slam title. He already has a nemesis in his age group in FA2—Tsitsipas has lost to him twice out of two tries, but he’s not scheduled to face him in London. However, the draw Gods haven’t been kind to him. He opens against red-hot Thomas Fabbiano, and then, should he get through that test, will probably face the booming serves of Dr. Ivo. After that, perhaps Kyle Edmund, David Goffin, or the tough Russian Daniil Medvedev await. But he should come through all that noise to face off against Djokovic to determine if he’s the real deal.

Cilic is a very dangerous player, and he’s clearly playing well now, considering that he clobbered Rafa in an exhibition last week in straight sets. He’s not as healthy as he was when he won the U.S. Open five years ago, but not one of the players is entirely healthy. Health on the Tour is very relative, as these guys put out every day. Cilic opens against the tough Adrian Mannarino, but he should get by the Frenchman and roll into the Round of 16 where either Rafa, Nick Kyrgios, Tsonga, or even Denis Shapovalov would await him. A Cilic/Nadal Fourth Round match would be tasty, indeed.

Who’s got the best draw, and therefore the best chance of making a very deep run in this year’s Wimbledon? Federer. He shouldn’t be even challenged until the quarters, and if they both make it to the semis, the Federer/Nadal match should be a nuclear war. Either way, put on your hazmat helmets and clothing, because the next two weeks should be a crazy time with the Big Three and the Other Six contending for the title at SW17.