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A time for changes
Roger Federer may be the favorite at Wimbledon again, but not everything will stay the same.
By DAVE SCHEIBER
Published June 24, 2007
At least one tradition appears safe as tennis' hallowed tournament, Wimbledon, begins Monday -- the sight of Roger Federer winning another title. The most dominant player on the planet has captured four consecutive crowns and, despite his usual stumble at the French Open, is heavily favored to win his fifth straight.
But in other respects, signs of change have come to the All England Club. Make way for Hawk-Eye, the instant replay challenge system that will make its Wimbledon debut via high-tech video screens.
It's enough to blow the roof off Centre Court. Of course, the partial covering that protected spectators from the predictable downpours has been removed, making way for a retractable, translucent roof that will be ready in 2009. That change will cut down on an age-old tradition: rain delays.
Meanwhile, we take a look at Wimbledon '07 through the eyes of some experts.
Five for Federer?
The only blemish on Roger Federer's stellar career has been his inability to win the French Open, where Rafael Nadal recently won his third straight title. But Federer still looks like the man to beat at Wimbledon, where he can close in on Pete Sampras' record seven singles titles (shared by William Renshaw).
But has Federer had to face the same kind of tough competition that Sampras and such greats as Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe did in their eras?
"I think that at the very, very top - certainly in Borg's day with (Jimmy) Connors and my brother, and then (Ivan) Lendl coming on - it was maybe slightly stronger than it is now, " ESPN analyst Patrick McEnroe says. "But for the most part, I think it's really just about how good Federer is."
Venus and Serena factor
It's hard to know these days what to expect from the Williams sisters. They've owned Centre Court in their prime - Venus winning singles titles in 2000, 2001 and 2005, and Serena winning in 2002 and 2003. Serena, ranked No. 7 in the world, looked sensational in winning the Australian Open but wilted last month in the quarterfinals at Roland Garros against eventual winner Justine Henin. Venus, No. 31, lost in the third round to Jelena Jankovic. But you can't count Serena or Venus out of contention.
"Over the last couple of years the players who have done well at Wimbledon on the women's side have been the top seeds, the players who've been in form - with the exception of Serena and Venus Williams, " says Larry Scott, CEO of St. Petersburg's Sony Ericsson women's tour. "Venus came through and won as the No. 14 seed in 2005, and Serena is always a danger as she proved at the Australian Open. Venus and Serena are sort of in their own category. At Wimbledon, it doesn't really matter what form they've been in. They're capable of winning if they get on a hot streak and get their confidence up and don't run into somebody hot early on."
Nick Bollettieri, legendary coach of many of tennis' greats at his elite Bradenton academy, is never short on insights. Contacted in England, he provided his take on the favorites.
"Right now, the one who can do a little bit of everything, is quite confident with her movement and serve and can volley well is Justine Henin, " says Bollettieri, whose tournament blogs can be found at nickbollettieri.com. "She's probably the one with the most ammunition to be able to do a little bit of everything. And she also has the French Open title underneath her belt."
On second-ranked Maria Sharapova, 2004 Wimbledon winner: "Her (right) shoulder is peculiar in that it's very loose. That allows her to generate a lot of power when it's not hurting, but when it gets fluid, it almost gets wishy-washy, and they have to be very, very careful. Remember, Maria counts on her serve. Her movement is not exceptional, so if she doesn't have a solid base and a good serve, it's not going to be easy. But she's highly competitive, which helps."
On No. 3-ranked Jelena Jankovic: "Right now, Jelena probably covers the court as well as anybody on the ladies' tour. She has great ground strokes - especially her two-handed, down-the-line shot - hits the ball quite flat, volleys well and above all has improved her mental game. That's always been the factor. She's become very competitive and doesn't look to the sidelines or panic anymore. Watch out for Jelena."
As for the men, he foresees another Roger Federer title. "It's going to be interesting - you can't bet against Federer, but watch out for Andy Roddick, " he says.
"We're all rooting for Roddick to have a really good Wimbledon. He's got to play smarter, but his backhand is getting more spin on it, more versatility, and he has that big serve (the fastest in the game, clocked at 155 mph). And of course, there's (Rafael) Nadal. You never know what he might do. Then you have Nikolay Davydenko, who hasn't done well at Wimbledon because he hasn't gotten past second round, but by God he should get by the second round this year."
Veteran tennis commentator and former WTA competitor Mary Carillo, a Naples resident, will once again be a familiar voice of Wimbledon coverage - for NBC and the network's event partner, ESPN2. Some key story lines Carillo identifies for the Times:
* "Does (Rafael) Nadal win Wimbledon before (Roger) Federer wins the French? He could. That loss at Roland Garros seemed to take a lot of starch out of Roger, and the way the Wimbledon grass plays these days, baseliners like Nadal, (Serbia's Novak) Djokovic, (Chile's Fernando) Gonzalez and (Spain's David) Ferrer can play the kind of tennis that can take them deep into the second week there."
* "Is this the big chance for (Andy) Roddick? Yep. Here's his good chance to make something happen. Maybe Federer's a little rocky; maybe Nadal's not ready. If there was ever a chance for Andy, it's now."
* "Can (Amelie) Mauresmo repeat? Highly unlikely, with the small amount of tennis she's played this year."
* "Can Justine Henin win her first Wimbledon? Don't bet against it. She's tougher than anybody, hungrier than anybody."
* "Can Serena or Venus (Williams) win again? You bet. Neither is anywhere near (Henin), but it hardly matters on grass, where athleticism counts for so very much. I like Venus to go far."
* "(Maria) Sharapova? She's struggling with self belief, which is unusual for her and hard to watch. In the big matches this year, she's faltered badly, especially with her serve. She's still one of the best grass-court players at Wimbledon this year, but she's got to prove to the other players that she can still bring it. And more importantly, she's got to prove it to herself."
* "Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic? Oh, yes, they can play well on grass. In fact, the top women play well on all surfaces - not so with many of the top men. It's always been true. The women aren't surface specialists like so many of the guys. They play, and play to win, everywhere."
Search for stars (and stripes)
Other than the Williams sisters and Andy Roddick, American stars remain few and far between in the pro ranks.
"It's for sure not deep on the women's side, " ESPN commentator and former tennis standout Mary Joe Fernandez says. "We're still struggling. Besides Serena and Venus, it's hard to think of anybody who can make it to the second week of a major at the moment. It's frustrating. I'm hoping it's cyclical. We've been blessed in the U.S. for so many years with top female Americans, from Chrissie (Chris Evert) down the line. And we're definitely at a tough road right now."
On the men's side, ninth-seeded James Blake - a Tampa resident and America's top male player in 2006 and top-five overall - has struggled this season. "Blake is more of a question mark, " Patrick McEnroe says. "He hasn't played his best tennis on grass in his career, (and) he's had a relatively disappointing year so far." Still, McEnroe says several other American men might "make some noise": Tampa's Mardy Fish (No. 36), Robby Ginepri (No. 45) and Sam Querrey (No. 83).
Len DeLuca, ESPN's senior vice president of programming and acquisitions, says there is a definite correlation between TV ratings and Americans staying alive late in the tournament.
"Obviously, that drives the casual fan's interest, " he says. As a result, ESPN plans to follow stories of American players closely on ESPN2 and ESPN360, with 152 hours of coverage on broadband. "But clearly, we can do better if the Williams sisters and Blake and Roddick continue into the second week."
A hawk's eye view
It's called Hawk-Eye, and the multicamera system invented by Paul Hawkins made its debut at the U.S. Open last year and at the Australian Open in January. Hawk-Eye electronically tracks the flight of the ball on video screens and assists umpires in making close calls. It has been part of Wimbledon's television coverage since 2003. But this will mark the first time players can use the system to question a call.
At the U.S. and Australian opens, two player challenges were permitted per set, with an extra one in a tiebreaker. If a call was overturned, the player retained the challenge. At Wimbledon, Hawk-Eye will be used on Centre Court and Court No. 1, with 16 1/2- by 10-foot screens displaying the graphics. Players will be allowed three challenges per set, plus the tiebreaker challenge. Because tiebreakers are not used to decide fifth sets for men and third sets for women, challenge opportunities will start from scratch if the score hits 6-6.
One extra point: The Cyclops, which emitted a "beep" for service faults, will not be used.
"I think it's great, " says Patrick McEnroe, whose older brother, John, was famous for arguing with officials. "I think it's been nothing less than a resounding success. It's great for television. It's great for the fans in the stadium. I think that even the players who questioned it at first - like Roger Federer - have realized that its positives far outweigh its negatives. ... Wimbledon, despite all its tradition and history there, has been at the forefront of changing with the times."
Information from the Associated Press and Wimbledon.com was used in this story.