Wimbledon: Serena Williams plays but Roger Federer absent as GOAT race nears end
|Venue: All England Club Dates: 27 June-10 July|
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It might not be quite the end of an era at Wimbledon this year but we appear to be approaching it with Serena Williams only confirming last week that she would play after 12 months out, while Roger Federer is absent from the main draw for the first time since 1998.
Rafael Nadal’s participation has been in doubt because of a chronic foot injury that has the potential to end his career, while Andy Murray’s preparations have been hampered by an abdominal strain that forced him to miss Queen’s.
Defending men’s champion Novak Djokovic is due on Centre Court on the opening Monday, but with 2020 women’s victor Ashleigh Barty retiring in March, many of the multiple Grand Slam champions have had an anxious build-up to SW19.
We assess whether this could be the endgame for at least some of the players who have dominated the race to be crowned the GOAT – greatest of all time – of tennis. And we take a look at the youngsters hoping to step into the spotlight.
End of an era?
The last time Wimbledon was held without a Williams sister was 1996, when Steffi Graf won her seventh and final title, a 21-year-old Tim Henman made his first run into the second week and the old Court One was still in use.
American Venus Williams – herself a seven-time Grand Slam singles champion – made her Wimbledon singles debut in 1997 with Serena joining her from the following year.
Venus, who was 42 on 17 June, has only missed one Wimbledon since 1997 but has not played since last summer and will not be in London this year.
Serena, 40, has been absent since last year’s tournament, when she tearfully retired from her first-round match after injuring herself slipping on Centre Court.
She only returned to the tour this week, taking a wildcard into the doubles at Eastbourne as preparation for participation in the singles at Wimbledon, where she also needed a wildcard.
Given her age, injury issues and long absence from the tour, could this be her Wimbledon farewell? The Centre Court spectators are sure to be studying her body language when she walks off for the final time at this year’s tournament.
Barring an incredible comeback, it seems highly likely her Grand Slam singles title tally will forever remain on 23, one short of Margaret Court’s all-time record. She reached four Grand Slam finals after returning from maternity leave in 2018 but, so far, has been unable to secure the coveted 24th.
Absent from the entry list for this year’s Wimbledon is fellow 40-year-old Federer.
Similarly, he hasn’t been seen on a tennis court since the 2021 tournament, when he also endured a painful exit, losing in straight sets to Hubert Hurkacz in the quarter-finals.
The Centre Court crowd watched uneasily as the third of those sets was lost 6-0 and within weeks he required a third knee operation, which he said would give him “a glimmer of hope” to return to action.
Swiss Federer, the winner of eight Wimbledons and 20 Grand Slam titles overall, has been very careful in his rehabilitation. He is scheduled to play the Laver Cup in London in September before a return to the ATP Tour in his home city of Basel in October. He said earlier this month he “definitely” wanted to continue playing in 2023.
However, having played only 19 competitive matches since the start of 2020, there has to be serious doubt over whether his body will allow a meaningful comeback.
His long-time rival Nadal, 36, has had to manage his own injury problems in recent years, most notably that foot problem, but he has somehow managed to win the Australian and French Opens in 2022 to move clear of Federer and Djokovic on 22 Grand Slams, a men’s record.
Straight after his record-extending 14th Roland Garros title, the Spaniard said he “doesn’t want to keep playing” if he continues to need anaesthetic injections to numb his chronic pain, which is caused by Mueller-Weiss syndrome – a rare degenerative condition that affects bones in the feet.
Nadal had radiofrequency ablation treatment – a procedure which uses heat on the nerve to quell long-term pain – after returning from Paris. He has since said he “intends” to play Wimbledon after the pain “subsided”.
Britain’s Murray, 35, has been even more affected by injuries, requiring a hip resurfacing operation in January 2019. The 2013 and 2016 Wimbledon champion has had to deal with a series of niggling issues since then, the latest being the abdominal problem that flared up in the Stuttgart Open final, which he lost to Matteo Berrettini.
If he manages to recover for Wimbledon, no player would be happy to draw the unseeded Murray in the first round.
Djokovic, a week younger than Murray, seems to be clear of serious injury concerns and appears likeliest to be the last man standing. However, his push to move clear in the GOAT race stalled when he was deported from Australia before the Australian Open in January for not having the Covid-19 vaccine. While there are no such restrictions for Wimbledon, he could still be prevented from entering the United States for the US Open if he remains unvaccinated.
Who comes next?
The post-GOAT era has long been anticipated but is yet to properly arrive, at least on the men’s side. Since the start of 2004, Nadal, Djokovic and Federer have hoovered up 61 of the 73 Grand Slam singles titles, with Murray and Stan Wawrinka sharing six of the remaining 12.
The other six have gone to six players, the most recent to Russian Daniil Medvedev, who prevented Serb Djokovic from achieving a calendar-year Grand Slam in last year’s US Open final.
World number one Medvedev will be absent from Wimbledon after the All England Club banned players from Russia and Belarus following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Italian Berrettini, 26, is perhaps the most likely new name to win at Wimbledon, reaching the final last year and retaining his Queen’s title on Sunday.
Aside from Nadal, the men’s form player of 2022 has been his fellow Spaniard Carlos Alcaraz, who has four titles this year. The 19-year-old beat Nadal and Djokovic on his way to winning the Madrid Open. Possessing a fearless attitude and fearsome all-court game, Alcaraz looks every inch a future world number one and multiple Slam champion.
Some people considered him the favourite going into the French Open but he lost in the quarter-finals to Alexander Zverev, who will miss Wimbledon after tearing ligaments in his Roland Garros semi-final against Nadal.
Another young player who appears on the cusp of a Slam breakthrough is 21-year-old Canadian Felix Auger-Aliassime, who pushed Nadal all the way before losing in five sets in the last 16 in Paris.
Ranked ninth, he reached the quarter-finals at last year’s Wimbledon and the semi-finals at the US Open. He won his first ATP Tour title in Rotterdam in February after losing in eight previous finals, and the variety in his game suggests he will be particularly dangerous on grass.
A year younger than Auger-Aliassime, Italy’s Jannik Sinner has won five titles and moved into the top 10 late last year but has since dropped back to 13th. Twice a Grand Slam quarter-finalist, he is yet to win a match at Wimbledon.
Denmark’s Holger Rune, 19, will be seeded after a good showing on the clay, knocking out Stefanos Tsitsipas on the way to reaching the French Open quarter-finals. There, he lost a stormy match to eventual finalist Casper Ruud and later admitted he needed to show “more emotional control”.
Britain’s most promising men’s player is 20-year-old Jack Draper, who moved into the top 100 for the first time last week, although he has now dropped back to 108.
Left-hander Draper has a powerful serve and groundstrokes. He appeared to embrace the occasion when he took a set off eventual champion Djokovic at Wimbledon last year and beat American world number 14 Taylor Fritz in the first round at Queen’s last week.
A potential future major contender missing from this year’s Wimbledon is 21-year-old American Sebastian Korda, who pulled out on Monday because of “terrible shin splints and beaten-up feet”.
Swiatek v the field
Overwhelming favourite for the women’s title at Wimbledon is Iga Swiatek, who made it 35 consecutive victories by winning the French Open this month.
Since Barty retired after her Australian Open success in January, 21-year-old Pole Swiatek has established herself as clear number one, winning six titles since her last defeat in the middle of February.
Her record is scarily impressive: she has won nine finals in a row in straight sets.
Outside Swiatek, it looks a very open draw with plenty of youngsters hoping to make a mark.
US Open champion Emma Raducanu, 19, will naturally get most of the home attention following her startling and still barely believable run to the Flushing Meadows title as a qualifier last year.
Before that, Raducanu reached the Wimbledon fourth round, where she was forced to retire against Ajla Tomljanovic after suffering breathing difficulties.
Coco Gauff, who lost to Swiatek in the French Open final, made her breakthrough at Wimbledon in 2019 when she reached the fourth round as a 15-year-old qualifier. The American reached the same stage last year and could well go deeper this time.
The only player to take a set off Swiatek at Roland Garros was Chinese 19-year-old Zheng Qinwen, who pushed the Pole for nearly three hours, fighting back from 5-2 down in the first set and saving five set points as she threatened a huge upset in the fourth round. Now up to 53 in the world, this will be her Wimbledon debut.
One player who may go in under the radar is 2019 US Open champion Bianca Andreescu, who has been plagued by injuries since then.
The Canadian, 22 on 16 June, considered retiring from the sport last year and delayed the start of her 2022 season because of mental health concerns.
She had won only one tour-level grass-court match before this year, but it would be heartening to see her climb back up the rankings continue at Wimbledon.
Fellow Canadian Leylah Fernandez, who was beaten by Raducanu in last year’s US Open final, misses Wimbledon with a stress fracture of her foot.