- The Washington Times - Monday, June 22, 2009

He stands on the verge of the all-time record for Grand Slam titles. His biggest rival is hobbled and absent.

This is Roger Federer’s Wimbledon to lose - and his legacy to solidify.

For five years, the lasting image from the All England Club was of Federer hoisting the winner’s trophy amid a sea of flash bulbs. That streak ended last year when Federer lost a five-set epic to Rafael Nadal, and the question arose whether Federer ever would regain his regency in London.

But Nadal withdrew from the tournament Friday, citing balky knees, and Federer stands as the prohibitive favorite not only to win Wimbledon but to secure his record 15th Grand Slam title.

Though few would criticize Federer for rejoicing over the absence of his main nemesis, the Swiss player instead expressed disappointment that the two would not reprise their rivalry.

“We’ve had some wonderful matches over the years, and especially the one here last year was the one that obviously stands out,” Federer said. “So that we can’t potentially, maybe repeat, that is obviously sad.”

But Nadal’s absence opens a wide grassy lane for Federer.

Federer has not lost a match in a Grand Slam tournament to anyone other than Nadal since falling to Novak Djokovic in the semifinals of the 2008 Australian Open. His last loss to anyone other than Nadal at Wimbledon came against Mario Ancic in the first round in 2002. That’s right: No one other than Nadal has beaten Federer at the All England Club in seven years.

Federer insisted he is focused on his opening match against Yen-Hsun Lu of Taiwan. But he said his approach to the tournament may mirror the approach he took when he won his first French Open last month, when he concentrated simply on winning the event rather than pursuing records.

“Since I’ve been very close, I knew I had kind of some time on my side,” Federer said. “I knew if things fell into place that I was gonna win more majors, you know. So same thing here. I don’t feel any pressure having to beat [Pete Sampras’] record right now this week, but I know that things are looking good for me.”

Of course, there is a draw of players who have no intention of allowing Federer to walk away easily with the jug, and his biggest obstacle may be a Briton. Scotland’s Andy Murray, seeded third, will offer the London crowd its best hope for a British champion since Fred Perry in 1936. He enters the tournament after winning last week at Queen’s Club, a frequent Wimbledon bellwether.

No pressure, Andy.

“I’m going to try and just concentrate on playing and winning matches,” Murray told reporters in London last week. “I’m not planning on getting caught up in the whole hype and, you know, the pressure and whatnot, because I don’t think that that helps if you do. I’m going to try and just concentrate on playing and winning matches.”

Other hurdles for Federer could include big-serving American Andy Roddick, who appears rejuvenated after nearly a year of playing under coach Larry Stefanki. Roddick reached the semifinals of the Australian Open this year, and his fourth-round appearance at the French Open was encouraging for a player with little affection for clay.

“To me, he’s the next guy that has a shot,” said Patrick McEnroe, U.S. Davis Cup team captain and ESPN tennis analyst. “He’s worked so hard. I see so much more clarity in his game. It would be nice, and this is the major he’s come closest to winning since he won his only title at the [2003] U.S. Open.”

The women’s draw is far more muddled. Though Russia’s Dinara Safina enters as the top seed, she has never moved past the third round at Wimbledon. Her loss in the finals of the French Open to Svetlana Kuznetsova appeared to confirm her reputation as a player with great talent but fragility of mind in the biggest moments.

“I know Safina is seeded number one and ranked number one, but if you don’t have a good attitude about the surface, it’s a major detriment,” ESPN tennis analyst Mary Carillo said.

Smart tennis bettors are likely to back Venus Williams, the five-time winner and defending champion whose power game always shines on the fast grass. Her biggest foe would be her sister Serena, who won the title in 2002 and 2003 but fell to Venus last year in the final. The sisters are lined up to meet in the semifinals.

So does anyone other than the Williams sisters have a legitimate chance to win?

“Real legit? I’d say there are some illegitimate choices to be made,” Carillo said. “But real legitimate? … I think there are some players who can do some real nice work on the surface, but only Venus and Serena are in my mind walking into that tournament believing that they can win it.”

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