The 64-player men's singles draw for the Olympic tennis tournament was held in London earlier today, and a consensus quickly emerged that Roger Federer of Switzerland has probably the easiest path - on paper -- to the gold medal match to be contested on August 5.
Here's how the tournament's 16 seeds shook out. With arch-rival Rafael Nadal of Spain missing the Games because of tendinitis in his knees, Federer's main potential obstacles in the upper half of the draw now include No. 4 seed David Ferrer of Spain, No. 7 Janko Tipsarevic of Serbia, No. 8 Juan Martin Del Potro of Argentina, No. 10 John Isner of the U.S., No. 12 Gilles Simon of France, No. 14 Fernando Verdasco of Spain, and/or No. 15 Kei Nishikori of Japan.
Some observers immediately characterized the draw as "lopsided" because the lower half contains four players who have Wimbledon achievements unrivalled by anyone on Federer's side of the draw. If the form charts hold, world No. 2 Novak Djokovic must be prepared to face 2012 Wimbledon runner-up and No. 3 seed Andy Murray of Great Britain, No. 5 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga of France (also a semifinalist at Wimbledon three weeks ago), No. 6 Tomas Berdych of the Czech Republc (Wimbledon finalist in 2010), No. 9 Juan Monaco of Argentina , No. 11 Nicolas Almagro of Spain, No. 13 Marin Cilic of Croatia, and/or No. 16 Richard Gasquet of France.
I think it would have been hard to bet against Federer even before the Olympic draw after his win at the Wimbledon championships three weeks ago. But surprisingly it was not until today (July 26), after the draw was announced, that Federer began to edge ahead of world No. 1 Novak Djokovic among London bookmakers as the odds-on favorite for gold.
Federer's confidence has to be high going into the Olympic tournament. It's being held on grass, one of his favorite surfaces, for the first time since Antwerp in 1920, and he will surely be playing most of his matches on the same hallowed Centre Court where he has won seven of his 17 major championships. Moreover, the quality of the tennis he played three weeks ago was arguably as high as he has ever sustained. All the omens seem favorable for him to complete a career "Golden Slam."
So, What's the Hesitation?
It may very well turn out that Federer will steamroll through the Olympic tournament. Nothing would surprise me less at this point. But there are several interesting hints that the path to victory may not be as smooth or direct as many fans may want to believe.
For starters, there's the history of unusually unpredictable Olympic tennis results -- and unlikely singles gold medalists who have emerged since tennis became a medal sport again in 1988: Miloslav Mecir of Czechoslovakia in 1988, Marc Rosset of Switzerland in 1992, Andre Agassi of the U.S. in 1996, Yevgeny Kafelnikov of Russia in 2000, Nicolas Massu of Chile in 2004, and Rafael Nadal of Spain in 2008. I'd guess that only Agassi, playing in his home country, and Nadal would have been rated among the top gold medal prospects going into the Games they won. That's two of six or 33%. There are undoubtedly interesting individual stories that help explain the other four victories, but I can't see what, if anything, they have in common. Olympic inspiration or some other surge of national pride versus the tour's relentless march after cold, hard cash? Go figure.
Best Two-of-Three, Head-to-Head Match-Ups
Then there's the format: best two-of-three sets through the first five matches, followed by a best three-of-five final. The seeding pattern is also slightly different from what the ATP pros are used to. With only 16 seeds in a 64 player field, the chances are greatly heightened that the very top players will draw very good players as early as the first round. Just ask world No. 4 Andy Murray, who has drawn Swiss flag-bearer and ATP No. 26 Stanislas Wawrinka in the first round in London. And with matches in the first five rounds being best two-of-three sets, some upsets seem inevitable.
In terms of individual match-ups and lingering recent nightmares, Federer has to be remembering that he faced his first round Olympic opponent, Colombian Alejandro Falla, in 2010 at Wimbledon in a traumatic first round match (for his fans, if not for him). Indeed, it's worth remembering that if the match had been best two-of-three, Federer would have been ousted cfrom the tournament because he dropped the first two sets before coming back to win decisively in five.
And just when that ghost is laid to rest, Julien Benneteau appears again, potentially in the second round of the Olympic tournament. Benneteau must defeat Russia's Mikhail Youzhny to get there, and he has lost four times in his career to Youzhny while winning just once. But that single win came on grass. The only time Federer was in serious trouble during his run to the 2012 Wimbledon title was in the third round against Benneteau. As with Falla, Federer lost the first two sets to Benneteau and would have been eliminated in a best two-of-three format. In that same match Federer also narrowly eeked out the fourth set tie-break, 8-6. Benneteau would undoubtedly be eager to have another shot.
Among the other seeds in Federer's half of the draw, none seem likely to threaten him based on their overall head to head records. Federer is 13-0 against David Ferrer, but they have never met on grass - and the fiercely competitive, always improving Ferrer has won two Wimbledon tune-up tournaments on grass at s-Hertogenbosch. He also won a set and lost three tight tie-breakers to Andy Murray in this year's Wimbledon quarterfinals, so he has to be considered a threat, despite his head to head record against Federer.
Federer is 3-1 against John Isner, with three wins on hardcourts and a Davis Cup loss earlier this year on clay. Federer generally handles big servers well, but it was James Blake's power off the ground that knocked Federer out of the Beijing games four years ago. Isner is coming off a grasscourt tournament win in Newport two weeks ago, and if he gets hot, he too could pose real problems for Federer.
Juan Martin Del Potro is the only player with a win over Federer in a Grand Slam event among the players in the top half of the draw. But after two consecutive losses to Del Potro in 2009, Federer has won the last six consecutive matches (none on grass). Del Potro clearly has the power to win, but hasn't shown the return game or overall versatility that makes Federer so difficult to beat.
Janko Tipsarevic is 0-5 against Federer, though they have not yet met on grass. Tipsarevic is a two-time career finalist on grass, and is recognized as a strong server (10th presently on the ATP's list of percentage of first serve points won), an excellent volleyer and an accomplished overall grass-court player. He would be perhaps the longest shot to upset Federer among the players discussed immediately above, but it's not out of the question.
The only other players who seems like sleepers to me in the upper half of the draw are Yen-Hsun Lu of Chinese Taipei and Kei Nishikori of Japan. Lu, who has been ranked as high as No. 33, has a couple of very impressive big-match wins to his credit. He shocked the world by sending Andy Murray packing in 2008 at the Beijing Games, and two years later he defeated Andy Roddick at Wimbledon 9-7 in the fifth set. He can play on grass.
Nishikori defeated Lu in their only meeting to date at Roland Garros in 2011, and has risen steadily in the ATP rankings during the past two years, reaching No. 16 earlier this year. It's mainly his return of serve that makes him a threat against Federer (he is ranked seventh among all ATP players on his percentage won on both first serve returns and second serve returns). He reached the third round at Wimbledon this year before losing to Del Potro, and he was a semifinalist at Eastbourne last year.
And Speaking of Grass… Will It Heighten the Unpredictability of the Results?
Even the reigning gold medalist Rafa Nadal lamented at Wimbledon just before losing his five-setter to red-hot Lukas Rosol of Austria this year that it's much more difficult to predict match winners on grass than on any other surface.
In his post-match press conference on July 26, he said that to play the best two‑of‑three sets, "the match can be decided in just a few points. In every match, you are at the limit." He went on to add: "It's a little bit more difficult to predict what's gonna happen. That's what I wanted to say. I think it's great to have the Olympics here in Wimbledon, but playing best‑of‑three on grass in a very important competition makes the tournament, no, more difficult for everybody because there is no favorites then."
Nadal is enough of a realist to concede, after this year's Wimbledon, that there probably is a favorite going into the Olympic tournament now. But even if Roger Federer makes it to the finals, a formidable challenger should emerge from the other semifinal.
A look at the bottom half of the draw tomorrow.