Murraysworld writer Nigel Graber assesses the chances of the Big Three and Everyone Else ahead of the 2012 Wimbledon men's singles, which kicks off tomorrow
Back in the day, we'd go into Wimbledon in late June with a list of possible men's winners as long as the history of the All England Club.
But in 2012, seasoned analysts are in complete accord. Nobody outside the world's top three-ranked players will be clutching that silver gilt cup on Centre Court on July 10th.
It's not that there's a dearth of quality players in the men's game. Just a dearth of credible contenders. The supremacy of Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer has been complete in recent years. So complete that they've taken home every grand slam tournament since the French Open of 2005, with the sole exception of the 2009 US Open title.
That triumph by Juan Martin del Potro looks increasingly like an aberration, a freak occurrence in an era of utter domination at the sharp end of the game. This is the age of kings, of men playing against the judgement of history as much as themselves and their opponents.
On the most-gilded throne sits Federer, with 16 slams and six victories in South West London. But as the Swiss genius winds down his career, questions are surfacing. Approaching his 31st birthday, Federer's given to spurts of effort rather than the endless grinding dominance of 2007.
The Swiss is without a slam title since the Australian Open of 2010 and he hasn't won at Wimbledon when Nadal has competed since 2007. Moreover, Federer has shown his five-set vulnerability on English lawns to heavy hitters, notably Berdych and Tsonga, who dispatched him in the second week in 2010 and 2011 respectively.
Despite Nadal and Djokovic claiming the last nine slam titles, Federer remains upbeat. "It's my time of the year now," he said this week. "I fancy my chances here and at the US Open. It's exciting times ahead."
Federer's best chance might lie with the weather. In this soaking English summer, the damp grass will keep trajectories low, which should favour him in a head to head with Nadal.
So what of the Spaniard? His injury-enforced absence in 2009 aside, Nadal has been one half of every Wimbledon final since 2006, collecting two trophies. Those facts alone have a sheer weight that make him a credible contender.
The 11-time slam champ also appears to have shaken off the voodoo that prevented him from hurdling the all-conquering Djokovic of 2011. Indeed, Nadal has won their last three meetings, albeit on his favoured clay.
Some of this can be attributed to subtle changes instigated at the end of 2011 by Uncle Toni, Rafa's coach. “First, I want that he make a change in his racket with more weight because we need a little more power in the decisive shot to finish the point," said Toni Nadal.
"In 2011, Rafa hadn’t made enough winners. We also made some changes in his movement. Not his movement around the court, but his movement through the ball. I wanted more bounce in his legs. In 2011, he hit the ball and he was standing with two legs on the floor. I wanted him to jump more."
In 2012, with lead weights in his racket head and legs clear of the deck, he's benefited from significant extra power through the court.
The Mallorcan should prosper once more provided he can husband his energies – no top player drops as many early-round grass-court sets as Nadal – for a tournament conclusion that's likely to feature world number four Andy Murray and either Federer or Djokovic.
And Djokovic? If he defends his title, he'll be in legendary territory. After his astounding 2011, Nole could be forgiven the odd mental lapse in 2012.
There's been a little throttling back in the minor events, but the Serbian's performances in the Australian Open and the French, where he made the final, having been dumped by Federer in the semis of 2011, have surpassed last year.
Speaking after his exhibition victory over Andy Murray at The Boodles event last week, Djokovic said, "I'm happy with the way things are going. I'm striking the ball well, I feel good on grass and I'll be ready. I like to focus on every year separately but I'm satisfied with how I'm feeling."
If this is an era of three kings, then Andy Murray is the prince in waiting. Unanointed and unappointed, the Scot is statistically now the best player never to have won a slam.
A semi-finalist for the last three years at SW19, Murray can take heart from Wimbledon's marginalisation this year. Euro 2012 rumbles on, the Olympics are around the corner and the Scot's already shaky popularity with home audiences reached its nadir at the recent French Open, where he was accused of faking injury.
Under the radar
It's the very embodiment of 'under the radar'. And, in a development laced with irony, the Scot will no doubt be backing the English football team tonight as they take on Italy in the Euro quarter-finals. England's continued participation in Poland and Ukraine will only dim the spotlight further on Britain's sole star as he battles a brutal draw littered with ball-bashing beanpoles.
Should the Scot survive the scuds dropped by likely opponents Ivo Karlovic, Kevin Anderson, Milos Raonic and Del Potro, who all stand at 6'5" or more, his game will have been tempered in some serious fires.
Whether that's enough to negotiate a probable semi-final with Nadal remains to be seen. More worrying for the Scot is that he has yet to win a match on grass this year, falling in the first round of Queens to Nicolas Mahut and in two exhibition matches at The Boodles.
But, buoyed by a series of painkilling injections that Murray insists will see him through the fortnight and his extensive work with coach Ivan Lendl on a remodelled offensive forehand, the British number one might yet surprise us all.
Beyond the big names, Tsonga has proved he's capable of winning serious battles – he dispatched Federer last year from two sets down – but the war could be a step too far for the Frenchman, who's also currently troubled by a finger injury.
Tomas Berdych is another with a grass-court pedigree. If the 2010 runner-up could match his mental fortitude to his physical presence, he could be a credible contender. Over seven rounds, though, the psychological aspects of the game probably weigh a little too heavy for the world number seven.
Nadal aside, Spaniards and grass make poor bedfellows. David Ferrer, though, is having the season of his life with 43 wins, and is fresh off his second title in the Unicef Open. Gritty and determined, the Spaniard should make the second week.
Much has been made of Milos Raonic, or at least his serve. The Canadian will be almost unbreakable on the slick grass. Of more concern for Raonic will be his return game and his less than quickfire stroke preparation on the faster courts.
All roads appear to lead to a Nadal-Djokovic showdown. But, in the Queen's Jubilee year, how fitting would it be for a British prince to rise up and claim his crown?
Semis: Nadal vs Murray; Djokovic vs Federer
Final: Nadal beats Djokovic