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What can we expect from the 2019 grass court season?

By BARRY FLATMAN - TENNIS CORRESPONDENT OF THE SUNDAY TIMES, April 16, 2019

Barry Flatman 

 

When all is said and done, the name of the sport is lawn tennis and so the upcoming weeks on English grass are correctly perceived as just being that little bit more special. So as the days tick away until the first shots are unleashed across the net and skid on the magnificently prepared turf surfaces, anticipation grows for Wimbledon, Queen’s Club and several other revered venues.

 

Australian, French and American tennis aficionados may argue differently but the All England Club Championships held at London SW19 remain the most prestigious and historic tournament in the world. And this year, with the official unveiling of the new retractable roof on No.1 Court, the grounds of Wimbledon’s All England Club will become even more impressive.

 

If, and on the evidence of another Masters 1000 series tournament title at the Miami Open, it is not such a big if as it seemed just a few months ago, history will very likely be made. The chances of Roger Federer again prevailing with his ninth Wimbledon men’s singles titles just 25 days before celebrating his 38thbirthday seem exceptionally favourable. 

 

Federer appears as motivated now as he did back in 2003 when began collecting Grand Slam titles on his beloved Centre Court and although the chances of defending champion Novak Djokovic should never be written off after extending his array of major titles with wins at the US Open last September and the Australian Open in January, there is something about the great Swiss certainly makes him a popular favourite this year.  

 

Especially the Djokovic vice-like grip on the big titles appeared to just disappear in March as he surprisingly lost out in the early rounds of the big two American tournaments, the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells in the Californian desert and Miami Open, newly situated at Miami Dolphins’ Hard Rock Stadium. 

 

Last year Djokovic also suffered defeat a couple of weeks before Wimbledon at the Fever Tree Championships title at Queen’s Club. So the affable Croatian Marin Cilic will be defending his title. However this summer much of the excitement at the traditional West London event will be generated by youth and three potential Grand Slam champions of the future. 

 

Stefanos Tsitsipas, the 20 year-old Greek who knocked Federer out of the Australian Open and subsequently barged his way into the world’s top ten, will be a major attraction alongside the exciting pair of young Canadians Denis Shapovalov and Felix Auger-Aliassime.

 

Auger-Aliassime is the youngest player to have reached the Miami Open’s semi-finals in the tournament's 35-year history, and achieved the feat two months younger than Spanish great Rafael Nadal when he first made the tennis world sit up and take notice 14 years ago. 

 

No less a judge than Federer was fulsome in his praise of Auger-Aliassime and compared the 18 year-old’s attitude on court to both Nadal and serial  Queen’s Club champion Lleyton Hewitt. The pair practiced together in Dubai earlier this year, at Federer’s invitation, and he said: ““He was a joy to work with.

 

“I knew his ranking would soon be on the rise but maybe not as quickly as it has turned out. He’s got an amazing, bright future ahead of himself and is already one of the big shot makers in the game. I just love his forehand and he’s got a great attitude and just keeps going for it.”

 

Grouping Auger-Aliassime with Shapovalov and Tsitsipas, Federer continued: “They will carry the sport when Rafa, Novak and I are long gone. We’ll be sitting on the couch watching those guys slug it out and they’ll be a joy to watch because not only are they great, great players, but they’re good people too.”

 

Shapovalov showed his potential on a grass court by winning the Wimbledon junior singles title three years ago and made his Queen’s Club debut two years ago. Tournament director Stephen Farrow enthused: “Denis had a great run in our tournament a couple of years ago, and he told me at the time that I should watch out for his good friend Felix because he is an incredible talent.”

 

Unfortunately Federer has a lucrative contract to play the rival German tournament to Queen’s Club in Halle for the remainder of his career so he will never grace the lawns of Baron’s Court. But so long as he remains competitive, he will make the trip to Wimbledon that has long been something of a pilgrimage. 

 

He has held the grassy acres of London SW19 close to his heart since watching childhood heroes such as Stefan Edberg, Boris Becker and Pete Sampras lift a trophy with which he has subsequently become so familiar.

 

“There’s a bit of everything in Wimbledon for me,” he answers when asked to quantify why it is his most exalted tournament and most special place on the entire tennis trail. “Who knows, if I had won the French Open first then Roland Garros would have been the special one for me but I doubt it. 

 

“Pete and Edberg and Becker and all those guys who won Wimbledon before me; that’s what I was looking at.  They were the players I was holding as idols.  I won the juniors in 1998.  I beat Pete there on Centre Court in 2001. Then I won my first Grand Slam title there two years later and went on that stretch of five successive years.”

 

There is a marked difference between Federer and that trio of greats he still regards with reverence. All three were comfortably retired when they were approaching their 38thbirthday. 

 

Federer has ceased to get just a little irritated by talk of his advancing age. “Clearly I know I am not in the beginning of my career but at the same time I’m happy where I am today,” he maintained. “From my perspective, you don’t actually think about time, although I have been asked and bugged about it too many times.

 

“In some ways it’s calmed down now. I think people have let go of it a little. Perhaps it’s because last year was very successful for me against the other top ten players. It gave me confidence if I play my normal tennis I can not only hang with them but sometimes beat them comfortably.

 

“And my motivation comes from the simple fact I like winning.”

 

During the last decade, Andy Murray has been the only player to achieve the English grass court double, winning both titles in 2013 and again three years later. This year it seems certain the Scot’s recovery from hip surgery will not allow him back on the singles courts. But will we the tennis public be applauding another familiar tennis champion at Wimbledon or a bright new hero just a few weeks earlier across the River Thames at Queen’s Club? The prospect is exhilarating.

 

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