LONDON – Get ready for some unfamiliar names at Wimbledon.
With Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal long gone and Maria Sharapova out, too, after a havoc-filled Week 1 at the All England Club, Week 2 begins today with a schedule that includes participants such as Kenny de Schepper and Adrian Mannarino, Ivan Dodig and Jerzy Janowicz, Karin Knapp and Monica Puig.
None of that group has played in a fourth-round match at any Grand Slam tournament.
Members of the usual cast of characters still are around, of course, such as Serena Williams, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray. None of that trio has dropped so much as a single set yet; all are expected to be around by next weekend.
Still, Djokovic likes the idea of some players getting a chance to introduce themselves to a wider audience.
“It’s interesting ... to see new faces – for the crowd, for (the) tennis world, in general,” said Djokovic, who might not feel quite the same way if he were among the 11 men and women seeded in the top 10 who no longer are playing.
Truth is, there hasn’t been much variety of late at Grand Slam tournaments, especially at the very end: Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have won 31 of the past 33 titles.
“It’s good (to have) change, in a way, because it’s always expected, obviously, from top players to reach the final stages of major events. When it doesn’t happen, it’s a big surprise,” said the top-seeded Djokovic, whose six Grand Slam titles include Wimbledon in 2011. “It’s a bit (of a) strange feeling not to have Federer or Nadal at the second week of a major. In the last 10 years, it was always one of them.”
Over a shorter stretch, it’s also always been Djokovic, who meets 35-year-old Tommy Haas today. Djokovic has played in 16 consecutive Grand Slam quarterfinals – the longest active streak, now that Federer’s 36-major run is done. At the last 10 Slams, Djokovic has reached the semifinals every time, picking up five trophies and three runner-up finishes.
Murray, meanwhile, has been a finalist at the last three major tournaments he entered and won the U.S. Open in September, only increasing the expectation among the locals that he can deliver Britain’s first male champion at Wimbledon in 77 years.
Nothing is guaranteed right now, though.
“Second week of a Grand Slam is a new start, especially here, where you have (time) off,” said 15th-seeded Marion Bartoli, the 2007 Wimbledon runner-up who faces the 104th-ranked Knapp, an Italian making her first appearance in a major’s fourth round. “It’s really a new tournament starting.”
So on the traditional middle Sunday’s day of rest, there they were on the practice courts – six-time Grand Slam champion Djokovic, but also Janowicz, who’d won a grand total of six matches at major tournaments until this one; 2011 French Open champion and two-time major runner-up Li Na, but also 19-year-old Laura Robson, the first British woman to get this far at the All England Club since 1998. Juan Martin del Potro, the 2009 U.S. Open champion, wore thick wraps of white tape around his left knee, which he hyperextended in a tumble Saturday, and a strip of black tape down the back of that leg.
When play resumes today with all 16 men’s and women’s fourth-round matches – Wimbledon is the only Grand Slam tournament that sets things up that way – fans get a chance to discover some folks they might not recognize immediately.
Five of the remaining 16 men are making their fourth-round Wimbledon debuts; only one in that group ever has been that far elsewhere. Six never have reached a Grand Slam quarterfinal: de Schepper, Dodig, Janowicz, Lukasz Kubot, Mannarino,and Andreas Seppi. Perhaps not coincidentally, each of those relatively unknown half-dozen players benefited from at least one of the record-tying 13 walkovers or mid-match retirements from injury or illness so far.
Four of the 16 women left are hoping to reach a major quarterfinal for the first time: Robson, Knapp, 19-year-old Monica Puig of Puerto Rico, and 20th-seeded Kirsten Flipkens of Belgium.
The No. 1-ranked Williams, naturally, is an overwhelming favorite to win the title. She is a five-time Wimbledon champion, including last year. She owns 16 Grand Slam titles all told, while the other 15 women in the tournament own two among them: Li’s at Roland Garros, and Petra Kvitova’s at Wimbledon in 2011.
Narrow the focus and facing Williams becomes even more daunting. She is 46-2 this season and has won her last 34 matches, the longest winning streak for a woman since older sister Venus’ 35-match run in 2000.
Consider this, too: Williams has won six titles in 2013, the same total as the other 15 women combined.
It’s entirely possible that the toughest match she’ll face the rest of the way will come today against 23rd-seeded Sabine Lisicki of Germany. Lisicki is a mediocre 16-15 at other Grand Slam tournaments but 16-4 at Wimbledon, where her powerful serve is nearly as much of a threat as Williams’ is on grass.
Of the women in action today, Lisicki leads the way by having won 93 percent of her service games in the tournament (Williams is next at 91). Lisicki’s 202 aces this season rank second on tour only to Williams’ 292.
Lisicki reached at least the quarterfinals the previous three times she appeared at the All England Club, including a semifinal run in 2011 that included victories over Li and Bartoli. A year ago, she beat 2004 champion and No. 1-ranked Sharapova in the fourth round.
When it was pointed out that everyone pretty much is ready to hand Williams the trophy, Lisicki smiled and said: “I was in that situation last year, when everybody was saying that Sharapova was the favorite. I’m probably going into that match being the underdog, but I like that.”
“Probably” the underdog against Williams?
“Well, you have to play your best to beat her, that’s for sure,” Lisicki said. “But, you know, everybody’s (a) human being.”
Especially, it seems, at this particular edition of Wimbledon, marked by so many injuries and so many surprises.