Federer, Murray in prime form


LONDON -- Players are no longer required to bow or curtsey toward the Royal Box, but the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club still maintains a number of charming customs.

There's the all-white clothing edict, the strawberries and cream -- and the sometimes overlooked power of discretionary seeding. Wimbledon is the only Grand Slam that doesn't feel compelled to blindly follow the rankings when dropping the 32 best players into the draw.

This year's grid looks a lot like the rankings, but with three subtle exceptions at the very top. No. 3-ranked Stan Wawrinka may be the reigning Australian Open champion, but he's been bounced here in the first round three of the past four years. As a result, he was downgraded to the No. 5 seed. Novak Djokovic, ranked No. 2, is the top seed because No. 1 Rafael Nadal has been shaky here recently. Andy Murray, ranked No. 5, slides ahead of No. 4 Roger Federer because he is the defending champion.

The end result? The Big Four has been restored to its place of glory, atop the world of men's tennis. Hey, maybe the All England Club is on to something. For 11 consecutive years, beginning in 2003, one of them has won the title here. Back then, Tiger Woods was still winning majors, Twitter didn't exist and Barack Obama was an Illinois state senator.

As we contemplate a fabulous second week of this fortnight, let's assess where the big dogs find themselves. Players are listed in order of the degree of difficulty their journeys into the fourth round required.

Rafael Nadal: Maybe he just needs to drain a few of those lovely cappuccinos so popular on High Street in Wimbledon Village.

Here, in a nutshell, is the problem with Rafa's run here: On Saturday he was playing Mikhail Kukushkin, a man with a 1-8 career record on grass coming into this event. Sure, the Special K has a game built for grass and, yes, when they closed the roof it altered the chemistry; Rafa prefers to play outside, while Kukushkin's only title came indoors four years ago in St. Petersburg. But Nadal was no longer playing on the comfortable red clay of Roland Garros. In the first-set tiebreaker, Kukushkin punished his safe serves, winning four of six points.

It was the third time in three matches that Rafa dropped the first set, a troublesome trend. At the time it happened, the other three players had won 24 of 25 sets.

When the draw was made, the consensus was that Nadal had the most difficult path to the final. Martin Klizan, a tricky lefty, and Lukas Rosol -- who stunned Nadal here in the second round two years ago -- were unusually difficult early opponents. And, indeed, they proved to be tough outs. But shouldn't the rust have been knocked off by the last day of the first week?

In his first visits to Wimbledon, Nadal played on the grass as he had on clay, standing 10 feet behind the baseline and looking to play safe shots, extend rallies and let his superior fitness prevail. Eventually, he moved in, flattened out his shots, punched up the serve -- and won two Wimbledon titles.

Predictably, Rafa adjusted and came back to handle Kukushkin 6-7(4), 6-1, 6-1, 6-1.

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