Luck of the Draw: Wimbledon 2013

The draw for the 2013 edition of Wimbledon has been released in its traditional manner. Under the watchful supervision of the All England Club’s chief gamekeeper, a number of burly beaters take to a nearby copse with long paddles, in order to flush their prey out. Startled, the fledgling draw takes desperately to the skies, whereupon it is dispatched by a single gunshot from the club president, who is elected precisely for his skill at this task. Upon hitting the ground it is finished off with a croquet mallet, and then laboriously dissected by the world’s media. It has ever been thus. The attempt to read the future in animal entrails is called haruspicy, and is considered barbarous and cruel. Wimbledon 2012The act of reading the future in tea leaves is called tasseography, and is a harmless hobby. The act of reading the future from a tennis draw is called Bracketology, and its practitioners treat it like pseudo-science.

The truth is anyone with a basic knowledge of men’s tennis should be able to read the Wimbledon draw, and arrive at something like the correct conclusions, notwithstanding the inevitable distortions of fandom. Tennis fandom is nothing if not conflicted, though another thing it often is is tedious. I imagine those without a basic knowledge of the sport do not care either way, which is their right. Assuming those who don’t care are busying themselves fruitfully elsewhere, I therefore won’t tarry overlong on the details. The draw ceremony as ever took hours. While British journalists extolled the glories of tradition, the rest of us winced as the president’s shot merely winged the draw, which meant the old lady with the mallet had a hell of a time finishing it off.

Of the top seeds, Novak Djokovic has the simplest path to the final, an unridged tarmac paved with feathers and the pulverised dreams of every other player in his half. This is the traditional point when people usually chime in with the adage that anything can happen in sport. It’s true, anything can happen, but, unremarkably, it usually doesn’t. If it did, there’d be even less reason to analyse the draw. In fact, there’d be no point at all. The only significant reason to suppose Djokovic won’t reach the final is that Tomas Berdych might beat him the quarterfinals. For that to happen a lot of things need to go right – or wrong depending on one’s tastes – not least the requirement for Berdych to win four matches first. The idea that Djokovic has the toughest opening opponent in Florian Mayer would be more amusing if it wasn’t merely irrelevant. If it mattered more it might be debatable, but it doesn’t: I doubt whether any of the big four will lose their opening match. This leaves the Serb, or more particularly his more ardent fans, in the uncomfortable position of ceding underdog status to another player. (Thus backed into a corner, this usually marks the point when people suddenly decide that the whole concept of favouritism is spurious: if I can’t be the underdog, then no one can.)

He could usefully cede it to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Of all the men who might otherwise threaten for the title, Tsonga has by a considerable margin the harshest draw. His path could well prove taxing from the outset: David Goffin followed by Ernests Gulbis. Meanwhile, progression through the later rounds will require defeating nearly all the finest players in the current era, a tennis version of The Avengers, minus Scarlet Johansson and that guy whose special power is arrows. The first Avenger Tsonga will encounter will be Andy Murray, who I think is the Hulk in this scenario, though I’m happy to be corrected. In any case, it is about the cruellest draw I’ve ever seen, though if anyone is capable of remaining psychotically positive in the face of such malignant caprice, it’s Roger Rasheed.

As per all the headlines, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal will face each other in the quarterfinals, assuming they face each other at all. There was a twenty-five per cent chance that this configuration would eventuate, which means that it was considerably more likely than Djokovic losing before the final. The upshot is that Federer will likely find his an eighth Wimbledon title rather harder to win than his seventh, in which he ‘merely’ beat Djokovic and Murray.

Assiduously courteous types have gone to agonising lengths to pretend the general hope wasn’t that Nadal would be drawn in David Ferrer’s quarter instead. As ever, any discussion of Ferrer at the Major level is liberally peppered with the fatuous phrase ‘With all due respect’, usually followed by a lumbering tap-dance around the reality that despite his top four ranking there are still four players who are undeniably better at tennis than him. While Ferrer hasn’t lost to anyone but Djokovic Murray or Nadal at a Major in two years, when he has lost to those guys, he has done so with rough certainty. The weird supposition is that respect matters at all. I assume Ferrer is amply respected by the people who matter to him, and well remunerated for his time. Why worry on his behalf?

The venerable statistic that Nadal and Federer have never met before the semifinal stage at a Major has been duly exhumed, and paraded about. Assuming they do meet, then after this tournament they will have met precisely once at the quarterfinal stage at Major level. Another streak will have ended, whereupon human civilisation will once more demonstrate its resilience by pretending it hasn’t been shaken to the core. Municipal services will continue as before.

I sometimes wonder if a portion of the anguish attendant upon Federer’s shallow decline reflects a certain distaste at seeing his streaks cut short. More than any other champion, he has accrued not merely records, but records that reflect excellence sustained for longer than seemed possible. For example, between 2004 and 2010 Federer reached twenty-three consecutive Major semifinals, exceeding Ivan Lendl’s original record by thirteen. In other words, the best any man had ever done, in all the history of tennis, was ten semifinals in a row, and Federer not only doubled that streak, but kept on going. Nonetheless, as astonishingly high a number as twenty-three is, it remains dramatically, if not categorically, less than twenty-three and counting. There’s just something about unbroken streaks, a quality of unhindered possibility akin to youth, and witnessing their end feels like an intimation of mortality. The long summer can feel eternal while you’re living through it, or the long winter interminable. The players know differently, of course, and they’re invariably less given to sentimentality. Of everyone, Federer was the least interested when his semifinal streak ended at Soderling’s hand, and suggested wryly that there was still a quarterfinal streak to get excited by. (There still is. Imagine the angst when that ends. John Hannah is standing by to recite ‘Funeral Blues’ again.)

Federer and Nadal’s rivalry is famed for similar reasons; unlikely repetitions rendered heroic by their duration. There are Wikipedia pages devoted to nothing else. They spent so long ranked numbers one and two that plenty of casual sports fans still think of them that way, which is completely unfair to Djokovic, not to say Murray. There were whole years when Nadal and Federer only met in finals. Then it became semifinals. Now a quarterfinal? Is this what growing old feels like? The only thing I know for sure is that if an encounter comes to pass both men will be queried about it at length, and both, consummate professionals that they are, will try to look interested for our benefit.

In the current era we expect any first round involving a title contender to provide either sporadic interest, or none. Nonetheless, this Wimbledon draw is striking for how few of the other first round matches grab ones attention. Stanislas Wawrinka and Lleyton Hewitt offer arguably the only truly tempting prospect, for all that Wawrinka’s unsuitability to grass has been established over a career. Normally at Major level there are half a dozen first rounds as enticing as that. I could claim that it is an issue of the surface – and it is, since there are several players who might be grass-court specialists but for the lack of a season in which to specialise – but even Wimbledon usually provides for better openers than this. Nor does thirty-two seeds explain it.

This isn’t to say the first round won’t produce its usual quota of memorable matches –  let’s no forget the apparently dangerous Florian Mayer – although I’d suggest anyone eager to drum up interest in such potential humdingers as Lopez-Simon and Tipsarevic-Troicki should focus their efforts elsewhere. Malisse and Verdasco might deliver, but there’s no telling what. The same goes for Cilic and Baghdatis. Tomic and Querrey?

If only the AELTC’s president could shoot straight. In the best years the draw is dead before it hits the ground, its feathers unruffled and form pristine. Instead, wounded it thrashed and squawked mournfully while dear old Mavis went about her business with the croquet mallet. What a mess.

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