LONDON (Reuters) - Five-times champion Roger Federer will turn up at Wimbledon on Monday knowing his aura of invincibility is fading fast.
The world number one was humiliated by Rafael Nadal 12 days ago in the most lopsided men’s French Open final for 31 years, when he pocketed only four games.
There could be no better place for Federer to reconfirm his tennis supremacy, however, than at the citadel of grasscourt tennis, especially if he lifts a modern-era record sixth successive trophy.
Since 2003, Federer’s dominance on turf has been absolute. With no equal in sight, it seemed as if the most keenly-fought race would be to see who would collide with the Swiss master in the men’s final.
Not this year, however. Bjorn Borg, whose tally of five consecutive titles Federer equaled last July, has tipped him as only third favorite for the championship.
“I pick Rafael Nadal as winner and my second choice is Novak Djokovic, my third is Roger,” Borg said on Thursday.
“For (Roger) to beat those guys at Wimbledon he needs to play much better than he did last summer. He knows he will have to play some unbelievable tennis to win again.”
This season Federer, who suffered a bout of glandular fever at the start of the year, has often looked ragged, winning only two titles.
One of those successes for the 26-year-old was achieved at Halle five days ago and allowed him to extend his unbeaten streak on grass to 59 matches.
That tournament would no doubt have gone some way towards healing the psychological damage caused by the Paris mauling, a loss that prevented him becoming only the sixth man to have captured a career grand slam.
Seven-times Wimbledon champion Pete Sampras believes the lean spell will galvanize Federer.
“He’s still the guy most likely to win the majors. He’s lost a couple but if anything that’ll do him some good, it’ll get him fired up,” said Sampras.
“As great as Roger is he’s going to have his losses and his bad days, it’s just human nature to go through some lulls.”
Should Federer hold aloft the trophy on July 6, he would become only the second man to win the title six times in a row, emulating Britain’s William Renshaw who completed his haul in 1886 during the Challenge Round era when the defending champion played only the final. It would also put him just one title away from Sampras’s overall grand slam record of 14.
But Federer did not need to rely on Borg’s observation to realize that Nadal and Djokovic would stalk him at Wimbledon.
Seven days after winning his fourth French Open trophy, Nadal effortlessly adapted his heavy topspin game at Queen’s Club to win his first title on grass by defeating Djokovic.
After finishing runner-up to the Swiss at the All England Club in 2006 and 2007, the 22-year-old Spaniard will no doubt fancy his chances of ending Federer’s reign this year.
Should he succeed, he would become the first man to win at Roland Garros and Wimbledon in the same season since Borg in 1980.
“I think I am playing well and if I continue to play like this, I am going to have chances to have a good result at Wimbledon,” Nadal said after becoming the first player in 35 years to pull off back-to-back victories in Paris and at Queen‘s.
Djokovic has backed up the hype with results this year, beating Federer en route to picking up his first major at the Australian Open and Nadal on the way to the Indian Wells title.
By reaching at least the semi-finals in five consecutive majors coming into Wimbledon, the 21-year-old Serb has proved that he has the weapons to be a big threat on any surface.
Andy Roddick hopes to be among the contenders again after slipping under the radar for the last two years. Home crowds will hope Andy Murray, who missed last year’s edition with a wrist injury, will be able to mount a serious challenge despite once again being handicapped by injury -- this time by a sore thumb.
Editing by Clare Lovell