Wimbledon 2023: the favourites, the ones to watch and the new faces
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This article is part of a guide to tennis from FT Globetrotter
With Wimbledon looming, FT Globetrotter tracked down a trio of tennis experts and summoned them to a pub in Putney, just north of SW19, to shed light on the prospects for this year’s Championships. David Law, Catherine Whitaker and Matt Roberts are hosts of The Tennis Podcast, which began in 2012, as Law puts it, “with Catherine and me around my parents’ dining table”. More than a thousand episodes and more than 20mn downloads later, it has become the sport’s leading podcast, with input from current players such as Daniil Medvedev and legends such as Billie Jean King, Chris Evert and Goran Ivanišević. Law can also be found commentating on BBC radio and Whitaker anchors Amazon Prime’s tennis coverage, while Roberts, who began as an intern on the podcast, has emerged as a tennis-stat supremo. All three can be heard quoted in Netflix’s tennis docu-series Break Point.
So what does it take to win Wimbledon?
“The grass-court season these days is only five weeks long,” notes Catherine Whitaker. “Most players play just one warm-up tournament, and that’s not a long time to figure out the most unique and difficult surface in the sport.”
However, David Law points out that the repertoire of shots required has narrowed. “If I go back to my formative years of watching tennis, it was all about the volley,” he says. “You didn’t win Wimbledon unless you were at the net. Nobody did until Andre Agassi in 1992.” These days, players tend to hug the baseline even on grass, helped by the fact that a slower mix of grass was introduced in 2001. “But you still need a great serve,” says Law. “Last year, Elena Rybakina, the best server in the world, won Wimbledon.”
“The thing that distinguishes those who have cracked grass and those who haven’t is the movement and the footing,” says Whitaker. “Part of that is a reality, and part of it is in players’ heads. There’s quite a lot of fear of grass in some young players. It only takes one little incident early on in your career to make you unsure of your footing.”
Novak Djokovic (Serbia)
Wimbledon champion: 2011, 2014, 2015, 2018, 2019, 2021, 2022
The clear runaway favourite. The unstoppable Serb won a record 23rd Grand Slam title in Paris in June and hasn’t lost a match at SW19 since 2017, winning four Wimbledons straight (the tournament was cancelled due to Covid-19 in 2020).
If he triumphs again this year, he will match Roger Federer’s record of eight Wimbledons. “Djokovic really stands out because he’s not only arguably the best player, but he also separates himself on grass,” says Law. “He’s got a lot better on it over the years. I don’t think we ever thought he could equal Federer’s tally — that would be extraordinary.” Roberts notes that Djokovic doesn’t even play a warm-up grass tournament: “He just knows instinctively how to move on it, and that’s such a such an advantage over the rest of the field.”
Carlos Alcaraz (Spain)
Best Wimbledon result: Fourth round, 2022
With Rafael Nadal out, recovering from injury for the rest of this season, and last year’s finalist Nick Kyrgios returning from surgery and a lengthy absence, Carlos Alcaraz is widely regarded as Djokovic’s main rival for the title. The 20-year-old Spanish phenomenon is the current world number one, the reigning US Open champion and won his first grass-court tournament at London’s Queen’s Club in June.
Last year at Wimbledon he reached the fourth round, falling to Italy’s Jannik Sinner (see below) in four sets. “I felt like I was watching Alcaraz get better before my eyes last year,” says Whitaker. “If that had been a five-month-long grass-court season, I’m sure he would have ended up winning Wimbledon at the end of it.” Law adds an observation from Britain’s number two: “Dan Evans said to me, ‘Djokovic better get on with it, because in two years Alcaraz could be just untouchable.’ He’s the most exciting, electrifying player I think I’ve ever seen from day one.”
Elena Rybakina (Kazakhstan)
Wimbledon champion: 2022
“Right now, if I had to pick a favourite, I’d go for Rybakina,” says Whitaker about last year’s willowy Wimbledon champion, who was born in Moscow but plays under the flag of Kazakhstan. “We’ve learnt a lot about her since then,” says Law. “Last year I commentated on one of her matches at court level, and I was really taken by the trajectory of the ball she hits. It was like an arrow: very little clearance over the net, no looping spin. She hits the ball so cleanly, so flat.” However, since our meeting Rybakina’s Wimbledon preparations have been hampered by a virus picked up during the French Open that caused her to withdraw from that tournament and skip the Eastbourne International on grass in June.
Aryna Sabalenka (Belarus)
Best Wimbledon result: Semi-finals, 2021
“I would 100 per cent put Sabalenka in the mix,” says Roberts of the Belarusian, who beat Rybakina to win the Australian Open in January. “She couldn’t play Wimbledon last year [due to the ban on players from Russia and Belarus], but two years ago she reached the semi-finals and had success [on grass] at Eastbourne. She has a big game and a bit of a point to prove.” Her second serve has been a weakness in the past, but “generally it’s under control at the moment”. Her first serve is one of the biggest in the women’s game.
Iga Świątek (Poland)
Best Wimbledon result: Fourth round, 2021
The current world number one is already a four-time Grand Slam champion at 21 but is better known as a clay-court specialist. “She’s still unproven at the top level at Wimbledon, but we all think she has it in her to figure it out,” says Whitaker. Roberts points out that the Pole was the Wimbledon juniors champion in 2018. “She says she won it because she was so furious that she lost in the French Open juniors that she came to Wimbledon with this sort of destructive mentality and just took everyone out.”
Ons Jabeur (Tunisia)
Best Wimbledon result: Finalist, 2022
“I’d put Ons Jabeur in the mix, definitely, as long as she’s fit,” says Law. “She got to the final last year, plus she’s just a natural on all surfaces.” A finesse player with an all-court game, Jabeur lost in three sets to Rybakina in the 2022 final. “At the time I probably did think maybe Jabeur should have won it. But what we’ve seen now from Rybakina makes me think differently about that.”
Ones to watch
Daniil Medvedev (Russia)
Best Wimbledon result: Fourth round, 2021
“On the men’s side, watch Daniil Medvedev just for the fun of it, no matter what he’s doing,” says Law of the quick-witted and quick-tempered Russian, a former US Open champion who has never made it further than the fourth round at Wimbledon. Law believes his game is well suited to grass: “He’s not missing anything, raw materials-wise, it’s just that we haven’t really seen his best on grass yet.” Whitaker adds that Medvedev also has the belief: “He’s a self-proclaimed hard-court specialist, but the fact that he used to say grass was his preferred surface shows that he doesn’t have the mental block with grass that a lot of other players have.”
Jannik Sinner (Italy)
Best Wimbledon result: Quarter-finals, 2022
The rangy Italian redhead was the only player to push Djokovic to five sets at Wimbledon last year. “To me, he plays grass-court tennis very similarly to Djokovic,” says Law. “He’s incredibly balanced. He’s prepared to stand in and redirect the ball with short take-backs. He blunts your power.”
Petra Kvitová (Czech Republic)
Wimbledon champion: 2011, 2014
The six-foot Czech is a two-time Wimbledon champion who in April upset Rybakina to win the Miami Open. “I don’t think we’re going to pick Kvitová to win, but she is the sort of player who could sneak through,” Roberts says. “She has the experience and a game that suits grass, with flat shots and a lefty serve that is a weapon.”
Jeļena Ostapenko (Latvia)
Best Wimbledon result: Semi-finals, 2018
“If you want to go and have a good time, regardless of whether she wins or loses, go and watch Jeļena Ostapenko,” says Law. “Every point she’s going to give you a facial expression or gesticulation that is going to tell you exactly how she’s feeling and it’s going to be a rollercoaster.” The colourful Latvian is best known for powering her way to a French Open title in 2017, but Whitaker points to her Wimbledon record. “She’s actually had decent results over the years. In 2018 she got to the semis. It just seems to be extremely random when she pops up — random to her as well as to us.”
The big, established names tend to dominate coverage but it’s worth keeping an eye out for new talent. In 1985, a ruddy-cheeked 17-year-old German called Boris Becker leapt and volleyed his way to the Wimbledon title, and in 2021 18-year-old Emma Raducanu set British pulses racing by reaching the fourth round before struggling with breathing difficulties. Her recovery was swift: mere weeks later, she won the US Open in unforgettable fashion. Who are some of this year’s tenacious teens?
“I like a young French kid called Arthur Fils,” says Law of the 19-year-old, who will make his Wimbledon debut. “I have no idea if he can play on grass. He looks a bit out of his depth on clay, but on indoor courts he looks absolutely sensational.” Roberts picks the fast-rising American Ben Shelton (aged 20), also playing his first Wimbledon this year: “I feel like he should be good on grass. He has a big lefty serve and is comfortable at the net. A great athlete.”
On the women’s side, Law points to the Fruhvirtová sisters from the Czech Republic. Linda (18) is due to play her first Wimbledon while Brenda (16) narrowly missed out on qualifying this year. “Both teenagers and both making waves in the rankings. We’re waiting for them to transfer talent potential into results.” Linda reached the semi-finals of junior Wimbledon in 2021.
Meanwhile, Whitaker highlights another Czech teenager, Linda Nosková (18), another Wimbledon debutant. “She’s a former top-five junior and winner of the junior French Open. She’s been transitioning to seniors in the past 12 months and it’s been up and down, but she’s a big-hitter.”
New episodes of “The Tennis Podcast” will be published daily throughout Wimbledon, thetennispodcast.net
Who have you pinned your hopes on at this year’s Wimbledon Championships? Tell us in the comments below. And follow FT Globetrotter on Instagram at @FTGlobetrotter
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