Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
The third Grand Slam event of 2011 will commence Monday, when Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams will headline as the defending champions at Wimbledon.
Nadal is fresh off his second straight and sixth overall French Open title, while Serena will head to the All England Club next week with only one tournament under her belt since capturing a second consecutive and fourth overall Wimbledon title almost 12 months ago.
Rafael Nadal has won in his last two trips to The Championships.
Serena finally returned to action this week at the grass-court Wimbledon tuneup in Eastbourne, which marks her first WTA activity in more than 11 months.
The 29-year-old superstar had been sidelined since last July, when she severed two tendons in her right foot that wound up requiring a pair of surgeries after stepping on some glass at a German restaurant. And then in February of this year, she underwent emergency treatment for a hematoma as a result of a pulmonary embolism -- a blood clot in her lungs -- which Williams said could have ended her career.
Williams, who is still the highest-ranked American on the planet, and her big sister Venus have combined to win nine of the last 11 women's Wimbledon singles titles.
The former world No. 1 and currently 25th-ranked American great is also a 13- time major champion.
Meanwhile, the 25-year-old Nadal, who currently holds three quarters of the men's Grand Slam titles, will head to The Championships seeking a third title in three tries.
Serena Williams returned to action this week after being sidelined by health issues for the last 11 months.
After outdueling Roger Federer in the 2008 Wimbledon final in one of the greatest tennis matches of all-time, Nadal missed the 2009 edition because of injuries and then returned to win it all again last year, topping Czech Tomas Berdych 6-3, 7-5, 6-4 in the title bout.
So, Rafa is actually riding a 14-match winning streak at the AEC. And the Spanish stalwart was the back-to-back Wimbledon runner-up to Federer in 2006 and 2007, which means he's reached the final there in each of his last four trips.
Federer, meanwhile, is one of the all-time greats in part because of his prowess at SW19, where he's captured six of the last eight titles that includes a run of five straight from 2003-07. Only Federer and Bjorn Borg have captured five consecutive men's titles at the AEC in the Open Era (since 1968). Borg was the first to turn the trick, doing so from 1976-80, including a legendary victory over John McEnroe on Centre Court in the 1980 final, a match which many people still consider to be the greatest of all-time. Many others feel that the Nadal-Federer final from three years ago was the greatest match ever played.
It's certainly up for argument.
Roger Federer will seek a record-tying seventh Wimbledon title.
Federer is a brilliant 55-6 lifetime at Wimbledon and has lost only two matches there since 2002.
That's pretty good.
The 29-year-old Swiss will try to match Pete Sampras' Open Era-record by winning a seventh Wimbledon championship.
Rafa and Roger won't be the only contenders at Wimby, as Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Berdych and possibly even Andy Roddick could figure into the equation at the world's most prestigious tennis event.
Djokovic is the reigning Aussie Open champ and U.S. Open runner-up who has opened his 2011 season at 41-1, with his lone setback coming at the hands of Federer in the French Open semifinals two weeks ago. The Serbian slugger was off to an amazing 41-0 start before running into Federer in Paris. The Djoker had been 3-0 against Federer this year prior to that Roland Garros setback.
The two-time Aussie Open titlist Djokovic has never appeared in a Wimbledon final, having finished as a semifinalist there last year and in 2007. Berdych got the best of him in last year's final four.
Novak Djokovic is 41-1 this year, including an Australian Open title.
Grass is the Djoker's least-favorite surface (in terms of results), but the cocky Serb does have enough game on it to prevail.
Murray, fresh off his grass-court title at The Queen's Club in London, has appeared in the final four at Wimbledon the last two years but came up short on both occasions in his attempt to give Britain its first male Wimbledon singles champion since the great Fred Perry in 1936. AM succumbed to Rafa in last year's semis.
Note: The last British woman to capture the Wimbledon title was Virginia Wade back in 1976.
The 24-year-old Murray was this year's Aussie Open runner-up to Djokovic and has reached two other major finals, losing on both occasions. He has yet to win a set in a Grand Slam final (0-9). Can he break through at the Big W?
Berdych was last year's Wimbledon runner-up to Nadal and has reached at least the quarterfinals in three of the last five majors. He's definitely a threat on the Wimbledon grass, but I don't quite see him going all the way at this particular Slam.
Roddick has played sparingly this year due to injuries, but he's always a contender at the All England Club. The 29-year-old American is 37-10 lifetime there and has appeared in no less than three Wimbledon finals, losing to the great Federer in all three that included a title match for the ages two years ago, when the super Swiss needed all five sets and outlasted Roddick in an epic 30-game fifth (16-14) to come out on top.
Andy Murray reached the last two final fours at The All England Club.
So Roddick is a bit rusty heading in this time around, having played in only nine events this year, but he's still got that big serve and massive forehand which suits his game perfectly on grass.
Serena, who is also a two-time runner-up in addition to her four titles at Wimbledon, may or may not be among the favorites -- depending on who you talk to -- and will be joined in this year's field by the likes of her sister Venus, current world No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki, reigning Aussie and U.S. Open champion Kim Clijsters, 2010 Wimbledon and U.S. Open runner-up Vera Zvonareva, French Open champion and Aussie Open runner-up Li Na, Belarusian slugger Victoria Azarenka and former Wimbledon winner Maria Sharapova.
The women's draw appears to be a wide-open affair heading into the fortnight.
Venus, like her little sister, had been sidelined for months before returning to action this week in Eastbourne. The former No. 1 had been out of action since January's Australian Open because of a hip injury.
If healthy, Venus, who was stunned by Bulgarian Tsvetana Pironkova in the quarterfinals last year, has to be among the faves at the fabled AEC, where she has won five of her seven career Grand Slam titles and been the runner-up three other occasions. Simply put, Venus -- who will turn 31 on Friday -- is one of the greatest to ever play on the famed lawns at Wimbledon.
Venus Williams is a five-time Wimbledon champion.
The perhaps overrated Wozniacki, meanwhile, is still seeking that elusive first-ever Grand Slam title. She's No. 1 in the world despite that fact and having only ever played in one major final, which resulted in a loss against Clijsters in the 2009 U.S. Open championship match.
The five-time 2011 WTA champion Wozniacki is fresh off her indoor hardcourt title in Copenhagen in her native Denmark, but I don't see an '11 Wimbledon title in her very-near future. Do you? The likeable Dane has never reached the quarterfinals at the AEC.
The former No. 1 Clijsters, who could be questionable for next week after aggravating an ankle injury in The Netherlands, has never appeared in a Wimbledon finale, failing to reach the championship round in her first eight attempts. She was a quarterfinalist there a year ago, her first Wimbledon appearance in four years because of retirement and injuries, before losing to a 21st-seeded Zvonareva.
The popular Clijsters has won two of the last three Grand Slam events. Can she make it three-of-four?
I don't think so, especially now with the ankle situation.
Zvonareva's game has come a bit back down to Earth this year after she soared into the last two major finals of 2010. The emotional Russian succumbed to Serena 6-3, 6-2 in last year's ho-hum Wimbledon title tilt.
Li Na has reached both major finals this year, including a French Open title two weeks ago.
Can she get back there this time around?
One of the best stories in tennis this year has been that of China's Li Na. The 29-year-old late-bloomer reached her first career major final in Melbourne back in January, falling at the hands of Clijsters, then stunned the sports world by capturing her first-ever major title at the French Open two weeks ago. By prevailing in Paris, Li became the first-ever Asian player, male or female, to win a Grand Slam event.
She will now try to reach a third straight Grand Slam final, which is a distinct possibility considering the wide-open field at Wimby. And Li can perform on grass, as evidenced by her title in Birmingham, England last year.
Sharapova missed out on a chance to complete a career Grand Slam in Paris, as Li got the best of the tall Russian in the French Open semis earlier this month.
The 24-year-old Sharapova captured one of her three major titles at Wimbledon seven years ago by stunning Serena in the final. She's back to playing some high-quality tennis this year after struggling with shoulder problems the last two seasons.
Sharapova is primed for a title run in southwest London, as I think it would be hard to pick against her right now.
Caroline Wozniacki will head to Wimbledon as the No. 1 player in the world.
Sharapova, Serena and Venus are the only former champions in the 2011 field.
In addition to Nadal and Federer, who have combined to win the last eight titles, the only other former Wimbledon champion in the men's field will be 2002 winner and former world No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt, who should not be among the contenders this time around due to a sheer lack of inactivity (and age, of course).
Other possible contenders on the men's side could be Swedish slugger Robin Soderling and flashy Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. The two-time French Open runner-up Soderling had his best-ever showing at Wimbledon by landing in the quarterfinals last year, while Tsonga is fresh off his grass-court runner-up finish against Murray at The Queen's Club and also enjoyed his best-ever showing at the AEC last year after reaching the quarters.
How about former U.S. Open champ Juan Martin del Potro? No. Grass is not his surface, or it hasn't been to this point (three second-round finishes at Wimby).
Some other notables on the women's side are 2011 French Open runner-up and 2010 French Open champion Francesca Schiavone; 2010 Wimbledon semifinalist Petra Kvitova; former Wimbledon runner-up Marion Bartoli and rising German Andrea Petkovic.
Schiavone doesn't typically play her best tennis on grass, but she did reach the Wimbledon QF's two years ago. Kvitova, the best left-hander in the women's game right now, lost to the mighty Serena in last year's semis. Bartoli has been one of the steadiest players on tour this season. And Petkovic is Germany's best, having started the year at No. 32 and climbing all the way up to No. 11, thanks in part to reaching the quarterfinals at the year's first two major events.
Maria Sharapova captured her lone Wimbledon title back in 2004.
I didn't mention women's world No. 10 Samantha Stosur, only because she is typically a dismal performer at the All England Club, with her best-ever showing being a third-round one in 2009.
Top-10 men I left out here were David Ferrer, Gael Monfils and Mardy Fish, only because none of the three has ever had any notable success at the storied fortnight.
Note: This year's Wimbledon singles champions will each pocket $1.79 million.
Yes. It's that time again. Time to make some predictions.
On the men's side I'm gonna go with Federer to match Sampras with Wimbledon title number seven, while my women's pick is going to be Sharapova breaking through for the first time there in seven years.
This will be the 125th edition of The Championships, which was first staged in 1877, when the only event held was gentlemen's singles.