When upsets first burst upon the scene, a thrilling tremor ripples through the air of a tournament. Sooner or later, though, the aftermath of those upsets emerges to cause a situation less than thrilling: a sequence of predictable matches later in the draw just when the suspense should mount. The Wimbledon men’s quarterfinals mark the moment at which spectators pay the price for the earlier excitement, when three top-six players meet opponents outside the top 20. Nevertheless, anything can happen at this year’s edition of the summer classic, so we look ahead to these matches with perhaps a flicker more intrigue than we might otherwise.
Djokovic vs. Mayer: When this tournament started, Mayer stood just one victory above an even win-loss record. Four matches later, his stunning quarterfinal appearance provides yet another source of pride in a scintillating month for his nation. One of four Germans to reach this round, he survived two five-setters earlier in the tournament, saved match points in the third round, and needed to escape a two-set deficit in the second round against his compatriot Petzschner, whom most would consider more dangerous on this surface. Although he has compiled limited experience against the top four, Mayer defeated Nadal in Shanghai last fall and won a set from Murray during the clay season. Clashing with Djokovic just once before, he may benefit rather than suffer from that lack of familiarity with the world’s best player.
Defeating a similarly streaky opponent in Gasquet on Tuesday, Mayer faces the challenge not only of overcoming the talent chasm that yawns between his foe and him but also of redoubling his energy for a match likely to require extreme physicality. As impressive this tournament as he has looked since the Australian Open, Djokovic emanates an aura of confidence intimidating in its understatement. The defending champion looks as though he could stroll to another title without even exerting himself to his fullest, an impression surely produced in part by the benign opponents who have populated his draw. A round ahead, the Serb might project a different image, but for now one struggles to imagine Mayer’s unstable game posing more than a trivial obstacle. So much does he rely upon the most precise timing of his strokes, both on serve and from the baseline, and so much does his form fluctuate as a result that Djokovic comfortably can lie in wait until a dip in his challenger’s form offers an opportunity to spring an ambush. Following the initial earthquakes delivered by Gulbis and Rosol, the draw has grown progressively more tranquil with each round.
Federer vs. Youzhny: Undefeated in their thirteen previous meetings, the Swiss master has won 21 of his last 22 sets against a Russian who has grown resigned to the legend’s dominance. When their paths intersected in Halle, Youzhny mustered virtually no resistance to Roger in a capitulation that would have looked embarrassing outside the context of their non-rivalry. Not until the last game, amidst a negligent patch by Federer, did he even threaten the six-time Wimbledon champion’s serve. But Youzhny perhaps can consider the example of Davydenko, a compatriot who also endured a double-digit losing streak to the Swiss before toppling him at the year-end championships.
Almost toppled here in the third round, Federer should feel fortunate to have escaped the title-less Benneteau by the margin of two points in a fourth-set tiebreak. Not greatly revitalized by that escape, he alarmed his supporters again in the fourth round by vanishing for a protracted injury treatment before dropping a set to the virtually irrelevant Malisse. Rarely afflicted by such physical concerns, Federer quickly dismissed questions about this disconcerting sign of frailty. Doubts still may hover if he looks at all uneasy against Youzhny, though, against whom anything but a dominant victory would stir concern in the Swiss star’s camp and spark even greater hope among Djokovic’s faithful. Succumbing in this round to Berdych and Tsonga at his last two campaigns here, Federer has suffered at times from his fading reflexes on his return of serve, a crucial and potentially costly shot here. Able to break serve somewhat more frequently this year, he can expect to create plenty of openings on Youzhny’s solid but far from overpowering delivery. A versatile all-court player without a single fearsome weapon, this submissive victim allows Federer to showcase his mastery at leisure in a match where raw power plays a less central role. When Nadal departed from London for now, the six-time champion saw the stars align in an uncommonly propitious configuration that he will not squander easily.
Ferrer vs. Murray: As the Scot stated after his previous match, the Spaniard hardly has resembled a clay specialist while rampaging through the first four rounds for the loss of just one set. Surrendering just eight games to a listless (again) Del Potro, Ferrer played with a degree of confidence not seen from him before on the surface that had frustrated him most until this fortnight. One more victory would earn him the accomplishment of a semifinal appearance at each major, a fitting feat for a man who has built a career upon consistency in his game and effort level. Appearing unexpectedly on Centre Court against the Argentine, he responded by rising to the occasion better than he has for much of his career and playing the same confident, uncharacteristically aggressive tennis that he showcased in defeating Roddick on the same stage. All the same, Ferrer has earned four of his five previous triumphs over the home hope on his favored surface of clay and has lost all four of their matches on outdoor hard courts while winning just one set. On a similarly low-bouncing surface in this city, at the year-end championships, he has split two encounters with Murray in precedents that might reveal the most about their first grass meeting.
Never does a Wimbledon pass without at least one burst of drama from the Scot, and never has it passed until now without a heartbreaking denouement, usually at the hands of repeated semifinal nemesis Nadal. With Nadal gone, opportunity knocks almost as loudly for Murray as it does for Federer, for he will fancy his chances of reaching a first final on these fabled lawns. All of the British Isles no doubt fancies his chances as well, which could complicate the plot for him and perhaps already has. Rather more exciting than necessary was his four-set rollercoaster against Baghdatis, during which he could have wandered into much more dangerous peril had not the Cypriot thoroughly lost focus. Ready to punish any such meander, Ferrer nearly won the first two sets from Murray in an Australian Open semifinal last year before faltering within range of his debut major final. If the Scot slips into his counterpunching mentality, this quarterfinal could whiten the knuckles of his supporters, who watched excessive passivity cost him a winnable match against Roddick three years ago. Stimulated by the electric atmosphere that surrounds all of his matches here, however, he often has played more assertively at Wimbledon and simply must sustain that less natural mentality in adversity. Expect a match filled with crisp returns and longer rallies than grass usually produces. Although a surprising rate of service breaks may occur, Murray has protected his occasionally unreliable delivery impressively throughout the first four matches. That factor may prove decisive in by far the least predictable quarterfinal of this Wimbledon.
Tsonga vs. Kohlschreiber: Part a dream and part a nightmare, Tsonga’s last major quarterfinal just a month ago appears to have catalyzed instead of unhinged him. From his most recent quarterfinal at this major can come nothing but bright memories of perhaps his most impressive victory ever, a comeback from losing the first two sets against Federer. No other man has defeated every member of the current top three at a major, a tribute to Tsonga’s explosive playing style and the virtually unstoppable momentum that he can accumulate when all of his weapons coalesce into a unified whole. Sternly tested by Fish early in their fourth-round encounter, the Frenchman occasionally looked ready to concede a match played in awkward conditions. But his resolve revived together with his focus a day later, as he showed a competitive stamina reminiscent of his accomplishments in the second half of 2011. The grass propels Tsonga through many comfortable service holds, sheltering him from the consequences of his inevitable lapses by allowing him to win points more quickly.
Unlikely to extend the rallies is the German across the net, who might have fallen to his compatriot Haas in the first round but survived long enough to thrive in Nadal’s absence. Although he upset the Spaniard in Halle, Kohlschreiber still will have rejoiced to watch his draw open before him like the portal to Ali Baba’s cave of riches. Not gifted with Tsonga’s abundance of talent, the surprise quarterfinalist still can strike audacious winners from well behind the baseline, and he will not flinch from seeking to seize the initiative from a much more powerful foe. Courage has availed Kohlschreiber little in his previous collisions with Tsonga, the last four of which have turned in the latter’s favor without excessive ado. More than willing to trade blows from the baseline with anybody, Tsonga relishes the straightforward hitting contest that usually develops between them, where he needs to construct points less rigorously and must solve few nuances in his opponent’s game. A contrast between elastic athleticism and fluid stroke production, this quarterfinal should feature the most electrifying shot-making of all.