As Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer step back on the grass at Wimbledon, each has reason to believe he will be hoisting the trophy overhead in two weeks’ time.
None of the other 125 men in the field honestly can say the same.
Indeed, it’s tough to imagine anyone outside that trio winning this year’s championship at the All England Club, where play begins Monday.
“They’ve, you know, been pretty selfish about Grand Slam titles for a little bit,” said 2003 U.S. Open champion and three-time Wimbledon runner-up Andy Roddick.
Either Nadal or Djokovic has won each of the past nine major tournaments, and they met in the past four finals, to boot.
Add in Federer, owner of a record 16 Grand Slam titles, and the totals rise, of course: Those three men have combined to win 28 of the past 29 majors, a seven-year run of dominance that began with Nadal’s victory at the 2005 French Open. (The lone exception was the 2009 U.S. Open, where Federer lost in the final to Juan Martin del Potro.)
The top-seeded Djokovic is the defending champion at Wimbledon — and while it’s the only grass-court title on his resume, it’s a significant one.
“I mean, this is what I’m born for,” he said after beating Nadal in four sets in the 2011 final. “You know, I want to be a tennis champion. I want to win more Grand Slams. I will definitely not stop here.”
He moved to No. 1 in the ATP rankings the next day and has remained there, while compiling a 27-match Grand Slam winning streak that included titles at the U.S. Open in September and Australian Open in January, before ending with a loss to Nadal in the rain-interrupted, two-day French Open final two weeks ago.
Nadal once was thought to be a clay-court expert but has shown that he can adapt to, and excel on, other surfaces, joining Federer among the seven men who completed a career Grand Slam. At Wimbledon, the Spaniard reached the final each of the past five times he entered the tournament, winning twice and finishing runner-up to Djokovic or Federer the other three.
And Federer? All he’s done is win six championships plus make one final at the All England Club in a seven-year span from 2003-09.
“I would just like to get another Wimbledon crown. It would be amazing to get No. 7,” said Federer, who lost in the quarterfinals the past two years, to Tomas Berdych in 2010, and to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in 2011.
He’s gone about 21/2 years without winning a Grand Slam title, his longest drought since he won his first nine years ago.
But Federer’s mastery of faster surfaces such as the grass at Wimbledon and the hard courts at the U.S. Open makes it tough to rule him out, even if he’s approaching his 31st birthday on Aug. 8.
Asked to size up his prospects for adding to his Grand Slam total, Federer said, “I think the upcoming two,” referring to Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, “those will be my best chances to win.”
While players such as Berdych or Tsonga or Roddick or del Potro have shown they can compete with the best on their best days — and No. 4 Andy Murray, a three-time major finalist, gets plenty of home-crowd support because he represents Britain — the expectation is that Djokovic, Nadal or Federer will extend their hard-to-believe rule at Grand Slam tournaments.
There is more parity in the women’s game, where six players divided the most recent six Grand Slam titles, capped by Maria Sharapova’s triumph at the French Open.
That return to the top — and to No. 1 in the WTA rankings — makes her a popular pick to do well at Wimbledon, too. She did, after all, make her breakthrough at the grass-court tournament by winning it at age 17 in 2004.
There also are cases to be made for four-time Wimbledon champion Serena Williams, who is sure to be intent on making up for a first-round loss at Roland Garros; defending champ Petra Kvitova; recent No. 1 Victoria Azarenka, a semifinalist a year ago; and former No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki, probably the best player without a Grand Slam title.