At Wimbledon an open draw signals opportunity for the unheralded

The titanic figures of Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer look set to renew their rivalry in the bottom half of the Wimbledon men’s draw. Whilst two matches still stand between the Swiss and the Spaniard and a place in the last four with the likes of Sam Querrey, a semifinalist at the Championships in 2018, and Kei Nishikori, once ranked as high as fourth in the world, hoping to stop them in their tracks, there is no doubt that Nadal and Federer are the heavy favourites to advance and rightly so.

But in the top half, opportunity beckons. Though defending champion and world #1 Novak Djokovic remains on course to return to the semifinals for the ninth time, who may end up facing him there is uncertain to say the least after a flurry of upsets. Seventh seed Stefanos Tsitsipas, the highest seed in the Serb’s quarter lost in five sets in the opening round to Thomas Fabbiano of Italy. Fellow young gun and sixth seed Alexander Zverev also fell at the first hurdle, losing to Jiri Vesely in four.

Three-time Major champion Stan Wawrinka impressed in crushing Ruben Bemelmans in the first round, only to be served out of the tournament by the giant Reilly Opelka in the second. Fourth seed Kevin Anderson, runner-up last year but hit by injuries this, laboured into the third round, but had no answers for Guido Pella of Argentina, who scored a comprehensive 6-4 6-3 7-6 win. Tenth seed Karen Khachanov joined Anderson in the last 32, but he too lost there, to Roberto Bautista Agut in three.

That mass exodus of the top seeds has left Pella, 2016 finalist and 15th seed Milos Raonic, 28th seed Benoit Paire and 23rd seed Roberto Bautista Agut all with a real chance of reaching the Wimbledon semifinals. For all of them save Raonic, it would mark a first appearance in the last four at a Major. Indeed, Pella and Paire have not yet reached a Grand Slam quarterfinal, whilst Bautista Agut has only one quarterfinals showing at a Slam to his name, which came earlier this year in Melbourne.
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Raonic then, who also made the semifinals at Wimbledon in 2014 and at the Australian Open in 2016, unquestionably has the most experience of the four men bidding for a semifinal spot. But were he to make it into the last four, and possibly beyond, once again, it would be a real statement from the Canadian, who has spent much of the past two-and-a-half years on the side lines due to a succession of injuries.

In that time, he has been bypassed by the new young stars, the mantle of bringing to an end the dominance of Djokovic, Nadal and Federer taken from him by the likes of Tsitsipas and Dominic Thiem, Zverev and Felix Auger-Aliassime. For a player who once harboured real ambitions of winning multiple Grand Slams and reaching the #1 ranking, that will surely sting. But it is hurt that would begin to be soothed by a third Wimbledon semifinal.

Bautista Agut, meanwhile, is enjoying surely the finest season of what has been an excellent career. The highlight thus far has been his memorable run to the Australian Open quarterfinals (lost to Tsitsipas), but the veteran Spaniard also won his ninth tour-level title at the Qatar Open in January and reached the last eight at the Miami Open, beating Djokovic at both events. But at the moment, his legacy is rather lacking. A Wimbledon semifinal showing would do much to change that.

Pella is another man enjoying the best season of his career to date. Last year, he stunned the world by rallying from two sets down to beat third seed Marin Cilic in the second round and he has backed that up with another fine performance at the All England Club. With the conditions by all accounts playing slower than usual, Pella’s consistency and accuracy from the baseline have served him well. That said, he surely will need to play superbly well to contest with the thunderous power of Raonic.
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And finally to Paire. That the Frenchman is talented and entertaining has never been doubted, but questions have been asked about his application and desire in the past, not without justification. However, he has found a rich vein of form in recent months and came to within a game of the French Open quarterfinals last month. On a grass court, perhaps better suited to his aggressive style of play, he might just be able to do what he could not in Paris.

But for all four men, this year’s Championships have presented them with a rare opportunity to compete on one of the very biggest of stages in the sport, most likely against one of the very best to have ever played the sport. All that remains to be seen now is which one of them can take it.

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