Serena Williams, Rafael Nadal face toughest tests of Wimbledon stars; preview

AP
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Neither Serena Williams nor Rafael Nadal has played a tournament match since the French Open three weeks ago. And of tennis’ giants, it’s Williams and Nadal who received the most difficult draws at Wimbledon.

Williams, taking her sixth crack at tying Margaret Court‘s record 24 Grand Slam singles titles, could face defending champion Angelique Kerber or and an unseeded Maria Sharapova in the fourth round. If she makes the quarterfinals, top-ranked Ashleigh Barty or 2017 Wimbledon winner Garbine Muguruza could await.

Williams debated daily in May whether to skip the French Open after withdrawing from her previous three events with health problems, namely a left knee injury. She played in Paris anyway, not at 100 percent, and was bounced in the third round for her earliest Grand Slam exit in five years.

The 37-year-old mom, who made the 2018 Wimbledon final after a life-threatening childbirth 10 months earlier, said she’s had “a good week and a half” of prep.

“I just haven’t had enough match play, quite frankly,” said Williams, a seven-time Wimbledon winner. “I haven’t had the best time and preparation that I normally would have.”

WIMBLEDON: Men’s Draw | Women’s Draw

Nadal is seemingly healthier, having trained on grass in his native Mallorca since lifting his 12th French Open title on June 9. His opportunity at Wimbledon: move within one Grand Slam title of Roger Federer‘s male record 20. But Nadal has gotten past the fourth round at the All England Club just once in the last seven years, reaching the semifinals in 2018.

Just to get to a potential semifinal with Federer, Nadal might have to go through Nick Kyrgios in the second round, two-time Wimbledon semifinalist Jo-Wilfried Tsonga or Canadian Denis Shapovalov in the third round, 2017 Wimbledon runner-up Marin Cilic in the fourth round and two-time French Open runner-up Dominic Thiem in the quarters. Kyrgios, Shapovalov, Cilic and Thiem have all beaten Nadal in the last two years.

But Nadal is concerned about his first-round opponent, 258th-ranked Yūichi Sugita, who advanced through qualifying this week and beat Lukas Rosol, who shocked Nadal in the second round of 2012 Wimbledon.

“Tuesday going to be my first match,” on grass this year, Nadal acknowledged. “Going to be a tough one, a tough start against a player who already played three matches here. So is a challenge.”

Eight-time Wimbledon winner Federer and defending champ Novak Djokovic are the favorites.

Federer grabbed his 102nd career tour title at a grass-court tune-up event in Halle, Germany, a week ago. He was drawn into a quarter with No. 8 Kei Nishikori and No. 9 John Isner, neither of whom has taken a set off the Swiss on grass. He’s coming off playing a full clay-court season — swept by Nadal in the French Open semifinals — for the first time since 2015.

“I’m happy I was able to adjust again on the grass,” said the 37-year-old Federer, who became the oldest modern-era Wimbledon men’s champion with his last title two years ago. “I came through Halle, the clay court season, French Open, without any injuries, feeling good. I guess I would be ready for longer rallies.”

Djokovic, like Nadal, has not played since Roland Garros. But Wimbledon was the scene last year of his return to the top of the sport after falling out of the top 20. He was the lowest-ranked man to win at the All England Club since 2001, and it catapulted him to titles at the U.S. Open and Australian Open.

“That’s what kind of gave me that push and also a huge relief,” Djokovic said of his fourth Wimbledon title. His road to a fifth could include No. 7 Stefanos Tsitsipas in the quarterfinals and Kevin Anderson, whom he swept in last year’s final, in the semis.

But as with Williams and Nadal, it’s tougher to gauge prospects before Wimbledon than perhaps any other Slam without the grass-court experience this season. Williams last played a grass tune-up event in 2011, but she’s also won Wimbledon three times since then.

“I know how to play tennis,” she said, smiling.

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