It is 19 years since any man other than Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic or Andy Murray won Wimbledon, but as the world’s most famous tennis tournament returns on Monday the time when the younger generation of men finally make their big breakthrough is surely drawing ever closer.
While 34-year-old Djokovic is the clear favourite to win Wimbledon for the sixth time and match Federer and Nadal on 20 Grand Slam singles titles, the other members of the so-called “Big Four” have been showing their age of late.
Nadal pulled out of Wimbledon to protect his body after a gruelling clay court season, Federer has played just eight matches in the last 18 months after undergoing knee surgery, and Murray has played in only four of the last 14 Grand Slam tournaments since hobbling out of Wimbledon in 2017 with a hip injury that eventually required a major operation.
In the meantime, the “Next Gen” players have been storming the ramparts of some of their older rivals’ strongholds. Daniil Medvedev, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Alexander Zverev have all played in Grand Slam finals and won the prestigious year-ending Nitto ATP Finals, Andrey Rublev has become a serial winner on the main tour, and Matteo Berrettini underlined his Wimbledon credentials with his triumph at Queen’s Club last week.
One factor that could count against the young guns is their lack of experience on grass after last year’s season was wiped out by the coronavirus pandemic and this year’s was shortened by the delay to the French Open, but there are plenty of signs that they are adapting to the surface without too much trouble.
Medvedev won his first grass court title in Mallorca on Saturday, Berrettini quickly found his rhythm at Queen’s the previous week and Ugo Humbert, a 22-year-old Frenchman, emerged as a serious contender with his triumph at Halle.
After arriving at the All England Club on Sunday following his victory in Mallorca, Medvedev said he felt confident on grass, despite never having gone beyond the third round at Wimbledon. “For my strokes, for my serve, even for my return, the grass suits me very well,” he said.
Tsitsipas, meanwhile, chose not to play any grass court tournaments in the build-up to Wimbledon. Although he admits that his shortage of matches is a concern, the Greek knows he has the game to prosper on grass. “I’m a player that can come to the net,” he said on Sunday. “I’m confident when it comes to serving and volleying, moving in.”
Stan Wawrinka, Dominic Thiem, Milos Raonic and David Goffin, who are all injured, join Nadal on the list of absentees, but otherwise the men’s field features many of the regular favourites of recent years. Tomas Berdych is the only leading men’s player to have retired since Wimbledon was last staged, though two of the biggest figures in the women’s game, Maria Sharapova and Caroline Wozniacki, have put their rackets away since Simona Halep won in 2019.
Serena Williams, who made her Wimbledon debut 23 years ago, will be making her latest attempt to match Margaret Court’s all-time record of 24 Grand Slam singles titles. It could be the last big chance for 39-year-old Williams, who revealed on Sunday that she will not be playing at the Olympics this summer, for reasons she chose not to explain.
A wind of change has been blowing through the women’s game. Since Wimbledon was last staged, the female champions at the subsequent six Grand Slam tournaments – Bianca Andreescu, Sofia Kenin, Iga Swiatek, Naomi Osaka (twice) and Barbora Krejcikova – have all been aged 25 or under.
The form player since last summer’s resumption of competition has been the 23-year-old Belarusian, Aryna Sabalenka, while 17-year-old Cori Gauff played in her first Grand Slam quarter-final at the French Open earlier this month. The American will be keen to revive memories of her breakthrough run at Wimbledon two years ago, when she made the fourth round.
What prospect of British success over the next fortnight? Although none of the home singles contingent can be regarded as among the tournament favourites, for the first time in 43 years the host nation has three seeds, all of whom have proved they can perform on grass.
Johanna Konta, a Wimbledon semi-finalist in 2017, won her first title for four years at Nottingham earlier this month, Dan Evans is one spot off his highest position in the world rankings at No 26, and Cameron Norrie has finished runner-up in three of his last five tournaments, most recently at Queen’s Club.
Murray, who thinks he can still make a major impact at the tournament where he enjoyed his greatest triumphs in 2013 and 2016, will play his first singles match at Wimbledon for four years when he takes on Nikoloz Basilashvili on the opening day, but the 34-year-old Scot will be sharing top British billing with a 19-year-old making his Grand Slam debut.
Jack Draper, Britain’s most exciting male prospect since Murray, takes on Djokovic as the world No 1 begins the defence of his title in the traditional opening match on Centre Court. Djokovic was sufficiently concerned about Draper to ask Jannik Sinner about him on Friday, the Italian having been one of two top 40 players who lost to the teenager at Queen’s Club less than a fortnight ago.
As a pilot event in the government’s events research programme, Wimbledon will admit more spectators than it had feared would be possible earlier in the year. The grounds will be at 50 per cent capacity at the start, but the finals weekend is set to be played with capacity crowds. All spectators will have to show evidence of either full Covid vaccination, with their second injection having been given at least 14 days previously, or of a negative lateral flow test within the previous 48 hours.
For the players Wimbledon will have a very different feel because of measures introduced as a consequence of the pandemic. Staying in private rented accommodation near to the grounds had been one of the pleasures of playing at Wimbledon for many players, but this year they are all having to stay in a biosecure London hotel, including those Britons who live nearby. That was a government requirement in order for the tournament to admit players from all over the world.
Federer, who has not missed a Wimbledon since his debut in 1999, admits that this year feels unlike any other. “Living the bubble life is different,” he said. “It took me some getting used to the first day or two, understanding where we’re allowed to go, what we’re allowed to do. Same thing with the on-site protocols. How does it work? By now I’ve got used to it. I’m embracing it. I’m OK with it. I still feel a big privilege that I’m actually able to play Wimbledon.”