Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
When Wimbledon 2005 commences next week, all eyes will be on the great Roger Federer, who's looking to become the first three-peat champion on the storied grass since the legendary Pete Sampras.
The amazing Federer will head to the All England Club sporting a seemingly- unstoppable 29-match grass-court winning streak. He's fresh off his third straight Halle championship and hasn't dropped a match at Wimbledon since getting stunned by Mario Ancic in the first round there in 2002.
Federer's won his last 14 matches at the Big W, where he's 18-4 since making his first appearance in 1999.
By titling at last week's Gerry Weber Open, Federer moved his incredible finals winning streak to 20, as he held off Marat Safin in three sets to avenge his loss against the big Russian in the Australian Open semis back in January.
Federer will head to the All England Club seeking his third title there in three years.
The world No. 1 Federer (an awesome 51-3 this year) leads the 2005 ATP Race and also owns a tour-best seven titles this season.
The last three-peat winner at Wimbledon was Sampras, who nailed down four straight championships from 1997-2000 and secured three straight crowns from 1993-95. Big Dutchman Richard Krajicek won the sport's most prestigious event in 1996, otherwise Pistol Pete may very well have run off eight in a row.
As it turns out, the iconic Bjorn Borg still holds the Open Era record with his five straight titles from 1976-80, while William Renshaw holds the all- time mark of six in a row, from 1881-86.
Is Federer on his way to that kind of run?
"I feel confident, but there can always be a tough draw, there can always be a shock loss in the first round," the reigning U.S. Open and two-time Wimbledon champion Federer said. "I don't really think about it, that's what I was more concerned about last year defending my first time Wimbledon title. Now it's easier for me to deal with the situation than last year."
Can anyone beat the sweet-swingin' Swiss at Wimbledon over the next few weeks?
I doubt it.
Several men can play well on the fast grass surface, but only a handful figure to seriously challenge the sublime Swiss at SW19.
Former champion Lleyton Hewitt, last year's runner-up to Federer Andy Roddick and Safin could pose a threat to the Swiss. Hewitt captured the event in 2002, Roddick pushed Federer in last year's finale, and appeared to even have the edge before a rain delay, and Safin gave the elegant star everything he could handle on the grass in Halle last week, falling in a tough three-setter.
The two-time Grand Slam titlist and former No. 1 Hewitt has played very little tennis over the past couple months, but the fiery Aussie is a contender in any tournament he enters, as long as he doesn't have to face Ivo Karlovic. The 6- foot-10 Croat shocked Hewitt in the opening round at Wimbledon 2003 when the Aussie was the defending champion and stunned the speedy star again in a quarterfinal bout in London last week.
Does Hewitt have an answer for Federer? Forget that. Does Hewitt have an answer for Karlovic?
The world No. 2 Hewitt was this year's Aussie Open runner-up to Safin and last year's U.S. Open runner-up to Federer.
The former U.S. Open champion and former world No. 1 Roddick is fresh off his third straight Stella Artois championship, having beaten the giant Karlovic in last week's finale at The Queen's Club.
Roddick on grass with a 150-something-mph serve? He's definitely in the mix.
The hard-hitting American, however, is a laughable 1-8 lifetime against Federer, including last year's loss in the Wimby final and a semifinal setback at the AEC in 2003.
The Aussie Open titlist Safin has struggled for a majority of 2005, but the mercurial star is 10-1 at the Slams this year and looked good on the grass at Gerry Weber Stadium last week.
French Open champion Rafael Nadal is an impressive 2-1 lifetime against Federer, but the aggressive Spaniard is all but allergic to grass-court tennis. He topped Federer in the semis at Roland Garros two weeks ago, but followed up his title-winning performance in Paris with a first-round loss against German doubles specialist Alexander Waske in Halle last week. In all fairness to Nadal, he headed to Halle nursing injuries and was exhausted after playing a ton of clay-court tennis over the past few months.
The Spanish sensation erased Argentina's Mariano Puerta in the all-lefty Roland Garros final two weeks ago.
Can favorite son Tim Henman give the home fans their first male Wimby champion since Fred Perry way back in 1936? Of course not! "Our Tim" has reached four Wimbledon semifinals, but his last one came in 2002, and this guy just can't win seven straight matches at a major.
Expect more disappointment out on "Henman Hill."
Andre Agassi will not be on hand, as he announced his withdrawal for a second straight year due to injury. The American superstar was slowed by a hip problem at the French Open a few weeks ago and promptly bowed out against Finn Jarkko Nieminen in the opening round in Paris.
Agassi captured the first of his eight Grand Slam titles at Wimbledon back in 1992 and was the AEC runner-up to his long-time rival Sampras in 1999.
Who are the darkhorses in the men's draw you say? How about big-serving Croats like Karlovic, Ivan Ljubicic and Ancic and always-dangerous Frenchman Sebastien Grosjean. Ljubicic has been solid when the surface isn't clay this year, while Ancic reached the Wimbledon semis a year ago and Grosjean has appeared in the last two final fours at the AEC.
Massive-serving Swede Joachim Johansson and 2002 runner-up David Nalbandian could also surprise.
FYI, Federer and rising Russian Nikolay Davydenko are the only men to reach the quarterfinals at this year's first two majors. Davydenko is 9-2 in his Grand Slam activity this year, but don't expect much from the Russian at the Big W, where he's failed to win a match in three trips.
Davydenko is currently third in the ATP Race, behind only Federer and the 19- year-old Nadal.
Following the withdrawal of Agassi, there will be only two former champions in the men's field -- Federer and Hewitt.
On the women's side, the field is deeper than ever and several women appear to have a chance, led by defending champ Maria Sharapova, Lindsay Davenport and red-hot French Open winner Justine Henin-Hardenne.
The 18-year-old Sharapova is a favorite to repeat at SW19.
Sharapova is 17-0 on grass over the last two years, including her big upset victory over Serena Williams in last year's Wimbledon final. The Russian teen is also fresh off her second straight title in Birmingham after beating promising Serb Jelena Jankovic in last week's finale at the DFS Classic.
Davenport is still ranked No. 1 in the world, but she lost to Serena in January's Aussie Open final and gave way to a resurgent Mary Pierce in the French Open quarters two weeks ago.
Davenport is a three-time Grand Slam champ, but hasn't secured a piece of major singles hardware since the 2000 Aussie Open. She nailed down a Wimbledon title in 1999 and was the 2000 runner-up to Venus Williams.
The former world No. 1 Henin-Hardenne has her eyes set on the top-ranking once again. The four-time major champion is currently riding a 24-match winning streak, all on clay, and reached the Wimbledon final in 2001. The 2004 Olympic gold medalist needs Wimby to complete a career Golden Slam.
Henin-Hardenne is a sizzling 27-1 overall this year, with her only loss coming at the hands of Sharapova in Miami.
Hein-Hardenne's fellow former world No. 1 Belgian Kim Clijsters should also figure into the '05 Wimbledon equation, as the athletic star can perform on any surface and is a four-time Grand Slam runner-up.
Serena and Amelie Mauresmo will also be among the favorites to go deep into the second week at the AEC, as Serena has competed in the last three finals there, including wins over her big sister Venus in the 2002 and 2003 title matches. Sharapova stunned Serena in straight sets in last year's popular final.
Serena, however, will head into her beloved Wimbledon having played very little tennis over the last two months. The American superstar has been slowed by an ankle injury and hasn't captured an event of any kind since besting Davenport in January's all-American final in Melbourne.
Since the Aussie Open five months ago, Serena has played in a mere five tournaments, going 8-4, without reaching a final.
Mauresmo is always a threat to win something, but who's kidding who, if she can find a way to choke in the big match, she'll do just that (third-round loss against Ana Ivanovic at Roland Garros?).
Venus is a four-time major champion, including a pair of back-to-back Wimbledon crowns in 2000 and 2001, but it would appear as though her best tennis is in the rear-view mirror. She failed to get past the fourth round at the year's first two Slams, including a lackluster third-round loss against 15-year-old Bulgarian Sesil Karatantcheva at the recently-concluded French.
Are there any darkhorses among the women?
U.S. Open champion Svetlana Kuznetsova and U.S. Open runner-up Elena Dementieva certainly are capable sluggers, as are the Roland Garros runner-up Pierce and big-serving Aussie Alicia Molik, who also boasts a big-time forehand. Molik, however, has been slowed by an inner-ear infection in recent weeks and has played sparingly heading into Wimby.
Five former Wimbledon champs will be on hand among the ladies -- Sharapova, Serena, Venus, Davenport and Conchita Martinez (1994).
Obviously I like Federer among the men, and I like Sharapova to repeat on the ladies' side.
Is Federer the best to ever play the game? Another Wimbledon title would surely fire up that kind of talk again. And don't forget he's still only 23 years old and already owns four major titles and a pair of coveted Masters Cups.
Federer won three of the four majors a year ago, but is still seeking his first Grand Slam win (not to mention trip to a major final) of 2005.