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Wimbledon 2007 - That Grass is Smokin'

by Aidan Elder |  Published: Jul 01, 2007

Sexist. Old-fashioned. Elitist. Utterly compelling. Plus, Cliff Richard is a massive fan, which gives you an uneasy feeling that you shouldn't be enjoying it. Wimbledon is drenched in history like ice cubes in a freshly poured glass of Pimms and lemonade.

There are four Grand Slams in the tennis season, all of which give the winner the honour of having joined the pantheon of the sport's legends and similar amounts in terms of prize money, but a long history and sentimental British public means Wimbledon is perceived as the doyen.

For all of its problems, and there are many, it is one of those rare sporting events that has embedded itself in the fabric of a nation's cultural identity. Long rain delays are commonplace due to the reluctance to put a retractable roof over one of the show courts. Players must conform to strict dress codes that echo the days when the sport was solely the preserve of the middle and upper classes. This year will be the first time that the winners of the men's and women's titles will receive equal prize money - something which has been standard at other tennis events for many years. If it was any more old-fashioned, competitors would travel to matches on Penny Farthings and the money would be paid in guineas.

Andre Agassi tells a story of the champions dinner, another vaguely archaic element of the fortnight in SW19. In 1992, he took the men's singles title, and his current wife, Steffi Graf, got her hands on the women's title yet again. At the celebratory dinner, Agassi says he was not allowed to dance with Graf, as it was against the rules, despite having developed quite a fondness for the German. With Agassi looking like a Bon Jovi doppelganger at the time, perhaps the prospect of himself and Graf dancing would have looked too similar to a lesbian couple for the powers that be at the All England Club.

Are you being served?
Much like the U.S. Masters in golf or the FA Cup in soccer, Wimbledon has a status within the game that is arguably greater than the sum of its parts. But what it undeniably does is uncover truly deserving champions. It is open for debate, but there is a perception that to win on grass, you need a better all-round game than to win the other Grand Slams.

A good first serve is a must at all events - that isn't unique to Wimbledon. Over the last decade, there was a great deal of discussion about the serve and its place in the men's game. At certain times, concerns were expressed that the power servers would simply blow their opponents away and the rally would become all but defunct.

There was talk of returning to the old days of using smaller wooden rackets and even of getting rid of the second serve so that the players would have to focus on a more accurate first serve that would rely less on brute force. Those concerns seem to have largely abated with Roger Federer's breathtaking ability to anticipate and return even the fastest of serves.

Speed of the weed
The speed of grass courts combined with the relative lack of bounce ensures that speed and good footwork are absolutely essential. Lateral mobility and general movement will be tested by powerful passing shots, delicate drop shots, and elegant lobs. Again, accuracy is a trait that will get rewards on all surfaces, but the players who can add devilish spins to their forehands and backhands will prosper, as the grass tends to be more receptive to this than other surfaces.

Perhaps, the fitness and stamina of the players may not be tested as much as in the baking heat of the Australian Open in January, but anyone who makes it to the latter stages of Wimbledon will not lack for physical condition.

Federer express
All of this points to another title for Federer. Sorry to be so unoriginal, but based on the fundamental truths of what it takes to lift the famous trophy, he is again the prime candidate. The problem is that he is virtually unbackable at odds of 1/200 or 1/100 in the early rounds as he takes on qualifiers and players hundreds of places below him in the rankings. Even when he meets more established pros in the latter stages, he will still be 1/20 or 1/16 to triumph. There is always the option to lay him at these prices on the exchanges.

Federer has suffered a couple of shock defeats in recent months, and if you think that's in the cards, you stand to make a lot of money with a minimal amount of exposure should he lose. At times, Federer looks bored at the lack of competition, and maybe he hasn't been the most focussed. He has bemoaned the length of the season, and the tennis public haven't seen him as much as they would have liked. But the chances are that the normal service will resume in the heat of Grand Slam battle.

The last remnants of the Sampras era had barely been taken down when along came the Swiss player to usher in another epoch of domination from one man. The reason for this is the grass courts. If you find one talented player who is particularly comfortable on grass, he has the potential to be a multiple winner. This is because there are very few opportunities for the other players to improve their grass-court games throughout their careers.

At grass-roots level, many tennis clubs use artificial grass courts, which play nothing like the real-grass surface. They're easier to maintain and allow tennis to be played year-round - a luxury that the turf courts of Northern Europe don't enjoy.

Experience required
Of the 68 events played during the season, only six are played on real-grass courts. That represents just under 9 percent of all events during the season. The hard and clay courts are featured much more frequently on the calendar, at figures of around 47 percent and 35 percent, respectively.

Carpet courts also play a cameo role. Due to the fact that a lot of these grass-court tournaments run concurrently, over the course of a 10-year career on the tour, it is conceivable that a player will contest only 20 tournaments on the surface - most likely Wimbledon and the tournament at the Queen's Club, which serves as a warm-up to the Grand Slam.

Many players won't even accrue this much experience of playing on grass, meaning if a player is better than everyone else at Wimbledon, it's going to be very hard for other players to improve enough on the surface to seriously challenge.

Nadal threat
One player who has improved on grass is Rafael Nadal. The young Spaniard is at his best on the clay, and after a couple of disappointing displays in London, he put on an encouraging display the last time around to reach the final. We can expect more improvement this year, but it's a bit much to expect that he will usurp Federer. There might be a bit of value in backing him to win his matches in straight sets, something which he managed in five of his six matches at last year's tournament before losing to Federer in the final.

The spectacular rise up the world rankings of Novak Djokovic means that we may have missed the best of the value about him for Wimbledon, but the young Croat is seen as being an excellent player on all surfaces. This improvement combined with some decent displays on his last couple of visits to Wimbledon mean that he could be a player to support, particularly in the early rounds when you expect that he will win with little bother.

Sideshow lob
Behind the excitement of the singles tournaments, there is a whole raft of competitions going on in the background at Wimbledon. There are boys and girls singles, where the champions of the future get their first tastes of the All England Club. The legendary Martina Navratilova hasn't been on the radar of the mainstream tennis consciousness for many years, but only last year, at 49-years-old young, did she bid farewell to the event as a player by winning the mixed-doubles event at the U.S. Open with Bob Byran.

The doubles events for the men, the women, and the mixed couples are wonderfully entertaining. From the betting perspective, it's difficult to know what to expect, because the doubles specialists are less well-known than the singles specialists, and sometimes you will have a doubles partnership that almost sounds like a dream team based on their singles form.

For years, Martina Hingis teamed up with the likes of Jana Novotna, Anna Kournikova, and Mary Pierce, talented players to varying degrees, to add a number of Grand Slam doubles titles to her already impressive singles haul. The matches are huge fun to watch, with plenty of seemingly outrageous rallies to entertain the crowd, and they lack nothing in competitiveness. The Bryan twins in the men's game have dominated the men's doubles scene for a couple of years, but have done little in the singles version.

Scotch missed
The doubles part of the game is part of the reasons I have doubts about Andy Murray. It's important to remember that when players enter a Grand Slam, only two out of a possible 128 will been involved on the final day. With each round, players get knocked out, and that's why the doubles tournaments can be an appealing sideshow should you crash out early on. Murray has entered the doubles events frequently in the course of his professional career, often with his younger brother Jamie, but as he grows - he was 3 inches taller at the end of 2006 than he was at the start of the year - you have to wonder if his body is ready for such strains.

Rafael Nadal is only slightly older than the Scot, but to look at their respective physiques, there is a world of difference, and Murray still needs to catch up on the more athletic older days. As we have seen in the past, perhaps worst of all when he vomited on the court at the U.S. Open, stamina has been something of a thorn in his side so far in his career. Although I know for certain that he is a stronger and fitter player than last year, you have to question the wisdom of entering the satellite events.

At times, the vagaries of the tournament schedule mean that a player like Murray could have to play a fierce four-hour, five-set singles match in the morning before having to compete in the doubles events in the afternoon or evening, and then possibly having to play another singles match the next morning. Perhaps he will sidestep them on this occasion, but you should probably do your research before backing him in the men's singles.

That's not taking away from Murray as a talent. He is an excellent player and he will win Wimbledon - perhaps not while Roger Federer is around, but eventually. Over the last year, Murray has gotten the better of the Swiss player on a couple of occasions, which shows that Murray will be undaunted by whomever he faces. The young Scot seems to have a preference for the faster hard and grass courts, with his win/loss percentage on the grass courts suggesting that it is marginally his best surface. Added to that is the home support. Wimbledon crowds are very knowledgeable and tend to be supportive of all players, but when a British player is involved, they are wonderful.

Henman under pressure
A case in point is Tim Henman. Henman's career record is solid but not stunning, yet he still managed to put on some remarkable displays to reach the semifinals on four occasions and the quarterfinals on another four. No offence to Tim, but the crowd played a huge part in this. Unlike football, where you have teammates to shoulder the intensity of the fiercely partisan crowd, a tennis player has nothing. He is utterly on his own, with the exception of some family members in the crowd.

This magnifies the effect of the crowd even further, as the supported player gets the benefit of motivation whilst the rival will find it hard not to be disheartened, especially if a couple of calls go against him. At times you can see a player's game go to pieces under the pressure, while the opponent visibly improves by virtue of the support. Tim Henman drew great inspiration from the Henmaniacs, and I believe that resulted in him putting in the level of performance that was probably better than he could have normally achieved.

Andy dandy
In this respect, Murray can benefit greatly from the home support. Murray is very Scottish. He is outspoken for such a young man and already has developed a reputation for complaining that doesn't always show him in the best of light. Before last year's football World Cup, it was alleged that he made some comments regarding a dislike of England. Although it turns out that he didn't actually say these things, he will probably never be grasped to England's sporting bosom in the same way that the loveable loser Henman was.

Still, he can rely on vociferous support from the crowd, and given that Murray is notorious for his emotional outbursts on court, this is a big positive for him. After a couple of good visits to SW19, Murray now has a better all-round game than he has in the past, and I expect him to go quite far. It is preferable if he takes no part in the doubles competitions, but aside from Federer, Nadal, and arguably his good friend Djokovic, he is likely to beat anyone else he comes up against.

Even taking on players who may be in similar or better positions in the world rankings, such as Roddick, Davydenko, Nalbandian, and Ancic, you can bank on Murray doing the business at odds that will probably be slightly on the better side of odds against. Each of these players is good, but Murray is on home soil, and that will elevate his performance above the standards we have seen so far. This may not be enough to go all the way, but there could be some value in backing him to get to around the semifinal stage.

Girls, girls, girls
After bemoaning the sexist ways of the tournament earlier, it's ironic that the men's event has taken up much of the focus thus far. But the simple truth is, no one knows what will happen with the ladies event. Despite the fact there is no single player dominating the division in the same way that Graf and Navratilova did in the recent past, it's a wonderful time for women's tennis. In each tournament, there is a wide range of possible winners.

The performances of Sharapova, the Williams sisters, Henin-Hardenne, and Mauresmo over recent years means they deservedly occupy the top spots in the betting, but there are a number of talented, improving players slightly below their level who are capable of upsetting the big guns. It is remarkable that Venus Williams, a proven Grand Slam winner, is available at double-digit figures to win the event. She has suffered injuries and the dubious distractions associated with her attempts to launch an interior-design business, but if her fitness and focus have returned in time for Wimbledon, it's hard to remove a three-time Wimbledon winner from the equation.

While not reaching the levels of previous years, she has quietly set upon the road to recovery this year by winning in Memphis and progressing to the latter stages in a couple of other events. Based on Mr. Williams' persona, the passionate coach and father of the sisters, he has probably had a word in their respective ears to remind them that tennis is their bread and butter and they can move on to other projects when their playing days are behind them.

Cek mate
One player who could provide a bit of value, particularly in the early rounds, is Michella Krajicek. She is the half sister of former men's singles winner Richard Krajicek, and although this is trivia rather than an endorsement of pedigree, she is one to follow.

Having had only one unsuccessful appearance at senior level at Wimbledon, when she lost in the first round, it's her win on grass at the 's-Hertogenbosch tournament last year that sparks a bit of interest in her return to London. She beat a couple of decent players in a run to the quarterfinals of the Family Circle Cup in April, so there is some decent form in the book. While she is unlikely to win, there will probably be a bit of value about her match prices early in the tournament.

Lay, lady, lay
In more general terms, a strategy of taking on some of the seeded players early on could prevail. In recent years, it has become something of a custom to see a couple of seeds bow out early in the women's event. If you see a highly rated player who is going into the tournament on the back of some disappointing performances, take them on. Women's matches are the best of three sets, as opposed to five for the men. This means that if a woman gets off to a bad start in the match, she is closer to defeat and has a lesser chance of turning things around before her tournament comes to a premature end.

Hopefully, the rain will stay away, we will get treated to some superb tennis, and we can make a few quid on it. Failing that, just hope that Cliff Richard doesn't get his hands on the microphone.

How to make money at Wimbledon
Lay Andy Roddick. Roddick's past achievements and current lack of form make him hard to price up. Some people will look to keep him on side, but the reality is, he hasn't been playing his best tennis for a while and is a prime candidate for an upset when he is big odds on to win a match toward the start of the tournament.

Back Rafael Nadal to win his matches in straight sets. Nadal was concerned with not living up to his high standards on grass and has worked on it. Back him to win his matches in straight sets, until he meets Federer.

Back Andy Murray until he meets the biggest guns. Home support, raw talent, and improving strength and fitness will out. If the draw goes his way, a run to the semifinal is a distinct possibility. Whether he can kick on from there is another matter.

Back Venus Williams. The outright price looks tempting, and she is a proven winner on the surface. Injury doubts remain, but on talent alone, she is right up there with the market leaders.