Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic head to Wimbledon fearing the title may be beyond them as the season’s third Grand Slam tournament shapes up to be the most open in a decade.
World No. 1 Nadal, fresh from a record ninth French Open title, was Wimbledon champion in 2008 and 2010 and runner-up in 2006, 2007 and 2010.
However, his past two visits have been humiliating disasters.
The Spaniard suffered his first-ever opening round exit at a Grand Slam last year to Belgian journeyman Steve Darcis, who was ranked No. 135 at the time and has not won a main tour match since.
Twelve months earlier, the world’s 100th best player, big-hitting Lukas Rosol put him out in the second round, a defeat that precipitated a seven-month absence from the sport for the man from Mallorca.
The 28-year-old hinted at another Wimbledon letdown in the immediate aftermath of his triumph over Djokovic in the French Open final two weeks ago where he claimed his 14th major.
“I am healthy, that’s the most important thing. I hope my knee will have a positive feeling on grass because I felt my knee was better last year on the other surfaces,” said Nadal, who has been seeded second for Wimbledon.
“Grass is always a little bit harder for me after injury. I played Wimbledon in 2012 with my knee injury and I never played another match after. Last year, I tried, but I was not ready enough to compete. Let’s see how are my feelings this year.”
Those feelings would not have been boosted by an opening exit on the grass at Halle last week, a straights sets loss to German world No. 85, Dustin Brown.
“The match was negative in all ways,” Nadal said.
World No. 2 Djokovic, who won his only Wimbledon title in 2011 and was runner-up to Andy Murray last year, has not played a grasscourt warm-up event since 2010.
The 27-year-old Serb, the top seed for Wimbledon, won the last of his six majors at the Australian Open last year.
However, his latest thwarted attempt to win a first French Open and become just the eighth man to complete a career Grand Slam represented his seventh defeat in 13 finals at the majors. Even more worryingly, Djokovic has now lost five of his past six Grand Slam finals.
The coaching role of three-time Wimbledon champion Boris Becker has never looked so crucial.
Meanwhile, Murray, having become the first British man since Fred Perry in 1936 to win Wimbledon when he trounced Djokovic in straight sets last year, goes into the tournament with his form also giving cause for concern.
The world No. 5, who recently hired Amelie Mauresmo as coach, has not reached another final since and lost in the third round at Queen’s Club last week to 35-year-old Czech, Radek Stepanek.
“The difference between this year and last year is that I’ve played a lot of matches on clay in the last couple of weeks this time,” said Murray, who made the semi-finals at the French Open, losing to Nadal. “Last year, I had about a week to 10 days’ preparation on grass before Queen’s.”
Murray has been seeded three for Wimbledon, above seven-time champion Roger Federer, who may have most reasons for being confident about an eighth title having captured the Halle grasscourt trophy for the seventh time at the weekend.
The 32-year-old, who won the last of his 17 majors at Wimbledon in 2012, hopes his success in Germany is a sign of things to come.