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.

Nadal has now been on the court for 492 minutes, an average of 2 hours, 44 minutes per match. Come a semifinal with Federer, he might wish he had closed a few of those loose sets out.

On the other hand, Nadal is into the second week here for the first time in three years -- and every previous time he did that he reached the final.

Now he awaits the winner of the Nick Kyrgios- Jiri Vesely matchup.

Novak Djokovic: The Serb won nine of 10 sets and spent an average of 25 fewer minutes on the court than Nadal. This isn't insignificant because last year Djokovic was heavily taxed in his five-set semifinal win over Juan Martin del Potro and looked exhausted in the final.

He also had a little bad luck when Radek Stepanek floated into his path in the second round. Djokovic often practices with the Czech player and, as it happened, they practiced a few days before the draw.

Maybe that's why he was anticipating your down-the-line backhand so well, Novak.

The media was more interested in the tumble Djokovic took along the baseline of his third-round match with Gilles Simon. He felt something pop in his left shoulder, but doctors could not find any significant damage. Perhaps he could get a few pointers from his new coach, Boris Becker, on the art of diving on this green stuff. According to Djokovic, though, Becker's greatest contributions will not involve strategy or technique.

"Where he helps me the most and where I feel the biggest change is from a mental point of view," Djokovic explained. "Obviously it's going to take a little bit of time for us to find the perfect balance and the work that we have will reflect on the court with results.

"There will not be any major changes. I will not start serving and volleying because this is not the way I've been brought up or I've been learned to play. I'm a different player than what he was in terms of play."

Djokovic has a tough one in the fourth round: Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, a two-time semifinalist here, has looked sharp. After playing five straight days because of two suspended matches, he'll be fresh following a two-day rest.

Roger Federer: At 32 -- he turns 33 in August -- the Great One hears his competitive clock ticking, so he's playing with a sense of urgency in the event that has delivered him seven championships.

In his first two rounds, Federer was exceptionally clean, winning all nine of his sets and averaging 93.5 minutes. In 27 service games, Federer saved five break points and was not broken once.

Federer's third-round match was no contest; he beat Santiago Giraldo 6-3, 6-1, 6-3 to advance to a quarterfinal versus Tommy Robredo.

He handled Gilles Muller easily in the second round and was greeted with this fortuitous fact when he sat down for his postmatch press conference: On the three previous occasions he played Muller at Wimbledon, Federer went on to win the tournament.

And more good news, heading into the fourth round, Federer still hasn't dropped a set or service game.

"Oh, really?" he asked, intrigued. "Ohhh. Are you sure?

"I'm speechless. Such a good first question. I'm very happy to be through and happy to hear the news."

Andy Murray: Winning the title here a year ago was probably the hardest thing the Scot ever had to do.

Despite all the pomp and circumstance that came with ending Britain's 77-year drought, he's been rock-solid here so far. He obliterated David Goffin, Blaz Rola and Roberto Bautista Agut, winning all nine of his sets, and seven of them were by three games or more. He averaged about 100 minutes per match, which will leave him in great shape for the second week.

The September back surgery that ended his 2013 season seems like a long time ago.

"My back feels much better than it did at this stage last year," Murray said, "so that's a big positive for me. I've spoken to a few people that have had [similar back] surgeries. They said sort of six to nine months from when they started playing again until they actually started to feel their best.

"I'm fairly happy with where I'm at just now."

Murray has a tough fourth-round opponent: hard-serving Kevin Anderson. The 6-8 product of the University of Illinois has won one of the two matches they've played, three years ago in Montreal.

This is arguably the best first week Murray has seen in this, his ninth Wimbledon.

"I've been asked that a few times when the first week's gone well," Murray said. "I haven't used up too much energy. I don't know if it's the best I've felt. But it's been a good first week."