Novak Djokovic goes for history –

  • D’Arcy Maine,

Jun 30, 2023, 07:00 AM ET

It hasn’t even been three weeks since the French Open concluded, but Wimbledon is already upon us.

The grass court major gets underway on Monday in London and there’s a lot to be excited about. From Novak Djokovic’s quest for a record-setting 24th Grand Slam title to Venus Williams breaking the record for most main draw Wimbledon appearances, this looks to be a tournament for the history books.

That’s not all. With the continued rise of young superstars like Iga Swiatek and Carlos Alcaraz, the return of Russian and Belarusian players after being banned from participating in 2022 and the recent resurgence of beloved British favorite in Andy Murray, Wimbledon is already as compelling as ever this year.

So get your strawberries and cream ready, here are the biggest storylines entering this year’s tournament.

Djokovic’s quest for history

After winning his record-setting 23rd major at the French Open earlier this month and becoming the first men’s player to do so, Djokovic turns his sights on another record. Currently tied with Serena Williams for the most Grand Slam titles in the Open era, if he were to win at Wimbledon he would take sole possession and be tied with Margaret Court for the most ever.

Williams came incredibly close to achieving the feat — she reached four finals with a chance for major title No. 24 — but was unable to get over the historic hurdle. However, Williams was returning from a life-threatening childbirth and Djokovic appears to be still physically at his peak. As a seven-time champion at Wimbledon and winner of the past four titles, he is very much the favorite. Not to mention, he would tie Roger Federer for the most Wimbledon titles by a men’s player if he were to emerge victorious.

Djokovic didn’t play in any of the lead-in grass court events, but he didn’t last year either and that worked out pretty well. The 36-year-old proved at Roland Garros that he remains the best player in the world when it comes to best-of-five set matches (just ask Alcaraz) and his experience and confidence in those settings, and on grass, could be the difference.

He has always been candid about his desire to win as many majors as possible, and Djokovic was already excited about the next opportunity, just hours after winning in Paris.

“I still feel motivated, I still feel inspired to play the best tennis on these tournaments the most, you know, Grand Slams,” he told reporters. “Those are the ones that count I guess the most in history of our sport.

“I look forward already to Wimbledon.”

The Big Three’s big opportunity

Having won the past five major titles and with eight crowns between them this season, Swiatek, Aryna Sabalenka and Elena Rybakina have become the women’s players to watch. They’ve collectively acquired the “Big Three” moniker during their recent reign of dominance.

The trio holds the top three seeds in the draw and will all be vying for some new hardware in SW19. But while they are the betting favorites and their recent résumés certainly support that distinction, it won’t be an easy feat for any of them.

World No. 1 Swiatek won her fourth major trophy at Roland Garros, but she’s never had the same success on grass as she has on clay or hard court. Her best result at Wimbledon was a fourth-round appearance in 2021, and she lost in the third round last year, ending her 37-match win streak. Although she reached the semifinals at Bad Homburg before withdrawing due to an illness on Friday, she’s yet to win a title on the surface and knows it’s where she is most vulnerable. She even told alpine skiing star Mikaela Shiffrin to come during the first week if she wanted to watch her play during a recent Instagram Live –“Because [during the] second week it’s possible I’m not going to be there anymore,” Swiatek said.

Sabalenka reached the semifinals during her last Wimbledon appearance in 2021 but was unable to participate last year due to the tournament’s banning of Belarusian and Russian players because of the invasion of Ukraine. The Belarusian lost in her second match at Berlin, her only grass court tuneup event, so she doesn’t have a ton of recent experience on the surface. She received many questions from reporters about the Russian invasion of Ukraine at the French Open and might find herself in a similar situation at Wimbledon, which could become distracting.

And then there’s Rybakina, the defending Wimbledon champion. The 24-year-old was sensational during her run to the trophy in 2022 and has the game for grass, but she’s been dealing with a lingering virus for several weeks. She was forced to withdraw ahead of her third-round match at the French Open and was unable to play at Eastbourne as well. She did play in Berlin but was nowhere near 100% and lost in the round of 16. Her health remains one of the biggest questions.

So, despite their recent dominance and impressive results, this is an opportune time for someone else to get their hands on the Venus Rosewater Dish. Who else has the best chance? Petra Kvitova, the 2011 and 2014 Wimbledon champion, won the grass title in Berlin last week and certainly has the experience to do so. Ons Jabeur — the 2022 runner-up — will be looking to finish what she started and is fresh off of a quarterfinal appearance at the French Open. Jelena Ostapenko won the title at Birmingham and and reached the quarterfinals at Eastbourne. And Roland Garros finalist Karolina Muchova, who lost to Swiatek in three nail biting sets earlier this month, is even better on grass and is a two-time quarterfinalist at the All England Club.

One thing is for certain, this could be a very interesting women’s draw.

Hungry for more

Like Jabeur, Nick Kyrgios reached his first major final at Wimbledon in 2022. Long known for his talent and potential, the Australian played some of his best tennis during the fortnight, upsetting Stefanos Tsitsipas in the third round and even winning the first set in the final against Djokovic. But while he would like to have a return trip to the championship match, his health remains a substantial question mark.

The 28-year-old missed the first half of the season after knee surgery and didn’t return until Stuttgart earlier this month. However, he struggled in his first-round match, openly complaining about the pain he was experiencing, and he lost in straight sets to Yibing Wu. He later took to Twitter to urge his fans to “be patient” and called his comeback a “process.” He then withdrew from the Halle Open the following week to focus on Wimbledon. Kyrgios enters the tournament having played just one match — and only two sets — this year.

His 2023 campaign will begin against David Goffin, who reached the quarterfinals last year. Kyrgios is always unpredictable, and it feels nearly impossible to know what to expect from him. But if anyone is capable of a surprise run, it most certainly is him.

If there’s one thing we know about Kyrgios’ time at Wimbledon, it’s that he will undoubtedly be asked about his recent comments in support of Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) and its attempt to purchase a stake in the ATP. That topic will likely become a major talking point throughout the tournament.

Venus and the American contingent

After receiving a wild card for entry, five-time champion Venus Williams will be playing in the Wimbledon singles draw for the 24th time, breaking a tie for the most main appearances in the Open era with Martina Navratilova. The 43-year-old Williams has been sidelined for most of this year but made her return in time for the grass season and even recorded her first win over a top-50 opponent in nearly four years during a marathon match against Camila Giorgi in the first round at Birmingham. She lost in her next match but pushed Ostapenko, the tournament’s eventual champion, to a decider.

While ranked No. 554 and a long shot to win the title, Williams reminded her peers in Birmingham that she remains a challenging and dangerous opponent. She will open play against Elina Svitolina, another wild card who returned from maternity leave in April and reached the quarterfinals at the French Open in her first major back.

Of course, Williams is one of dozens of Americans at Wimbledon who have the potential to do something special. Coco Gauff made her major debut at the event in 2019, and even defeated Williams — a longtime hero — in the first round. Now the 19-year-old is preparing for her fourth Wimbledon appearance and hoping to achieve her next milestone. She’s twice reached the fourth round and was a finalist at the French Open in 2022. Gauff reached the semifinals at Eastbourne this week, and faces fellow American Sofia Kenin, the 2020 Australian Open champion, in the first round.

Jessica Pegula, Gauff’s doubles partner, is the top-ranked American at No. 4 and has reached the quarterfinals at four of the past six Grand Slams. But she hasn’t quite had the same success at Wimbledon. She reached the third round in 2022, marking her best result at the event. She enters the tournament having reached the quarterfinals at Eastbourne before falling to Gauff.

Madison Keys, a former Wimbledon quarterfinalist and the No. 25 seed, has looked resurgent on grass this week at Eastbourne. She advanced to her first final of the season with a 6-3, 6-3 win over Gauff on Friday in the semifinals, and has yet to drop a set all tournament.

Frances Tiafoe arrives after just winning his first grass title at Stuttgart and cracking the top 10 for the first time. He reached the fourth round at Wimbledon in 2022 and made his first major semifinal since then (at the 2022 US Open). With momentum on his side, he is more than capable of achieving another breakthrough.

Taylor Fritz, Tiafoe’s fellow American in the top 10, had his best major showing at the All England Club in 2022 by reaching the quarterfinals and was oh-so-close to the semifinals before losing to Rafael Nadal in a fifth-set tiebreak. Fritz has a 2-3 record this season on grass, but maybe last year’s heartbreak will fuel him at Wimbledon.

Sebastian Korda was sidelined for three months with a wrist injury but looks to be back to full health after reaching the semifinals at Queen’s Club, his lone grass court event leading into Wimbledon. The 22-year-old reached the fourth round during his only previous appearance in 2021 and seems poised to go even further. Korda opens play against Jiri Vesely and could potentially face Cameron Norrie in the third round.

No. 1 for a reason

Djokovic is the overwhelming favorite for the men’s title, but Alcaraz is the top seed. While already a dominant force on the hard court and clay, the 20-year-old Alcaraz doesn’t have much experience on grass and the surface was considered his weakest.

That was until last week. Playing in just his third grass tournament, Alcaraz won the title at Queen’s Club — and didn’t drop a single set. He looked more than comfortable on the surface.

Reaction skills 💯@carlosalcaraz & @alexdeminaur with a cat and mouse point in Queen’s Club!#cinchChampionships

– Tennis TV (@TennisTV) June 25, 2023

Alcaraz reached the fourth round at Wimbledon in 2022 and it seems likely he’ll improve upon that result.

Return of Russian and Belarusian players

After being banned from the 2022 event as a result of the invasion of Ukraine, Russian and Belarusian players are back in the draw — albeit somewhat controversially. As five of the WTA’s current top 20 and three of the ATP’s top 20 were affected, their collective absence loomed large last year and several such players have the potential to make substantial runs this year.

On the women’s side, world No. 2 Sabalenka, No. 11 Daria Kasatkina, No. 12 Veronika Kudermetova, No. 15 Liudmila Samsonova, No. 19 Victoria Azarenka, No. 21 Ekaterina Alexandrova and No. 22 Anastasia Potapova are all competitors who could go deep, with Alexandrova having won her second Rosmalen Open title on grass earlier this month in a final against Kudermetova. In the men’s draw, No. 3 Daniil Medvedev and No. 7 Andrey Rublev could also be factors. Rublev even made the Halle Open final last week and Medvedev reached the quarterfinals. Karen Khachanov, the other countryman in the top 20, had to withdraw from Wimbledon due to injury.

As Sabalenka learned at the French Open, the players will likely face many questions about the war, its latest developments and the involvement of their respective countries. It also remains to be seen how they will be received by the fans in attendance. Crowds at the French Open booed when Ukrainian players refused to shake hands with Russian or Belarusian players after matches — something they are expected to continue at the All England Club — but seemed mostly supportive of Russian and Belarusian competitors. Will that be the same at Wimbledon?

On a related note, due to their absence last year, no ranking points were awarded at the event — much to the chagrin of surprised players who made Cinderella runs into the second week, including semifinalist Tatjana Maria. Now, with no points for anyone to defend and only points to gain, it will be interesting to see who is able to make the biggest leaps up the rankings.

The local favorites

In unsurprising news to anyone who has watched Wimbledon, there will be a lot of eyes on the British players — and with that comes even more pressure. No one knows this better than Andy Murray.

The 36-year-old Scot is a two-time Wimbledon champion and a larger-than-life figure at the tournament. Now playing some of the best tennis he’s played since making his return from multiple hip surgeries, Murray reached his highest ranking since 2018 at No. 38 earlier this month following back-to-back Challenger titles on grass. While just missing out on being seeded and losing in the first round of his final warmup at Queen’s Club, Murray will still be feeling the hopes and expectations of the local crowd.

The crowd will have much to cheer about in his first match — an all-British clash against wild card Ryan Peniston. The winner of that match will likely face Tsitsipas, the No. 5 seed, in the second round.

While it might be a stretch to consider Murray a title contender, it would be very fun to watch him make a run into the second week. And while he remains the most popular of the British players at their home Slam, he’s not the only one who is receiving support and attention.

Norrie is the highest-seeded British player at No. 12. He reached the semifinals in 2022 and could endear himself even further to the crowd with a return trip to the final four, or beyond. Dan Evans is the only other seeded British player at No. 28.

After no British women were in the main draw at the French Open, the countrywomen are significantly better represented this time. That’s largely because of the LTA awarding wild cards to its own players, but there is some collective momentum as well. Katie Boulter, ranked No. 88, won her first title at Nottingham earlier this month. She beat fellow Brit Jodie Burrage in the final. Heather Watson — who made the fourth round at Wimbledon in 2022 — also reached the semifinals at the event, and Harriet Dart made the quarterfinals at both Nottingham and Birmingham. Emma Raducanu, the 2021 US Open champion and the formerly top-ranked British player, remains sidelined from surgery on her hands and ankle.

No British woman has won the Wimbledon title, nor played in the final, since Virginia Wade in 1977. Will this be the year that changes? Unlikely. But the crowd will certainly do its part to help make it happen.

Speaking of fan support

Many tennis players have their own distinct and lively groups of fans, but trust us when we say you won’t be able to miss Sinner’s devoted supporters. Known as the “Carota Boys” — that’s “carrot” in Sinner’s native Italian — the group dresses up as the vegetable in all its orange glory.

The group, which has its own official logo, announced it would be coming to Wimbledon to support Sinner with a hype video on Wednesday. Take it away, Carota Boys.

Must-see opening round matches

No. 3 Elena Rybakina vs. Shelby Rogers
No. 7 Coco Gauff vs. Sofia Kenin
No. 8 Maria Sakkari vs. Marta Kostyuk
No. 10 Barbora Krejcikova vs. Heather Watson
Venus Williams vs. Elina Svitolina

No. 5 Stefanos Tsitsipas vs. Dominic Thiem
No. 23 Alexander Bublik vs. Mackenzie McDonald
No. 30 Nick Kyrgios vs. David Goffin
Matteo Berrettini vs. Lorenzo Sonego