The Wimbledon of tennis tournaments will begin next week when The Championships, Wimbledon swings into action on the storied lawns at the All England Club.
Last year's champions Novak Djokovic and Petra Kvitova will be on hand, as will other top contenders such as Rafael Nadal, Maria Sharapova, Roger Federer, and Serena Williams.
Djokovic reached his first-ever Wimbledon final and captured his first-ever Wimbledon title last year by outdueling the two-time champion Nadal in the championship round, while the 2011 women's titlist was decided when the left- handed Kvitova cut down the former winner Sharapova in the final.
The 25-year-old Djokovic will head to SW19 with three of the four Grand Slam trophies in his possession, as the formidable Serb is the reigning Wimbledon, Australian Open and U.S. Open champ. He's reached the last four major finals, winning three of them, and has won four of the last six Slams overall.
Djokovic tried to complete a career Grand Slam a couple of weeks ago in Paris, but Nadal got the better of him in another 1-versus-2 final to secure a third straight and men's-record seventh overall French Open title. The great Nadal has played in the last five Grand Slam finals and won twice, with all three of the losses coming against Djokovic. The top two players in the world have clashed in a men's-record four consecutive major finals, with the Serb winning three straight at one point before Rafa got him in Paris.
Note: Djokovic is a brilliant 27-1 over his last four major events and 39-2 over his last six Slams.
Over on the women's side, Sharapova made a return trip to No. 1 with her recent outstanding run in Paris. The tall Russian tennis queen headed to Roland Garros needing a French Open title to complete a career Grand Slam of her own, and that's exactly what she did by topping upstart Italian Sara Errani in the women's finale. Sharapova became the 10th woman in history to win all four majors, having captured each one now on one occasion.
The high-flying Sharapova has performed in three of the last four Grand Slam finals, going 1-2. She was this year's Aussie Open runner-up to Victoria Azarenka, whom she supplanted atop the women's rankings last week.
Kvitova landed in her first-ever major final a year ago at the AEC and made it count with a straight-set victory over Sharapova. And the powerful lefty, who also captured last year's prestigious season-ending WTA Championships, can certainly win Wimbledon again this time around.
Is Nadal closing in on Federer's men's-record haul of 16 Grand Slam titles? The Spanish strongman nailed down major No. 11 in Paris and doesn't appear to be slowing down any time soon. It looks like the only man who can is Djokovic, who had beaten Rafa in seven straight finals before the Spaniard righted the ship in Paris, having beaten the Serb now in their last three meetings (all on clay) in title tilts.
Federer is certainly still no slouch at this point, even though he's failed to produce a title now at the last nine Grand Slam events, his longest such drought since becoming "Federer."
Roger the Dodger is, however, a six-time Wimbledon champ who needs one more title there to tie the great Pete Sampras for the men's Open Era record. "Pistol Pete" captured seven Wimbledon titles in an eight-year span during his remarkable career.
Can Federer equal Pete's mark this year?
I don't think so.
The great Federer has failed to get past the quarterfinals in his last two trips to the AEC and titled there only once over the last four years. And he lost to aging German Tommy Haas in a grass-court final in Halle, Germany last week. That wasn't supposed to happen. Federer is a five-time champion in Halle who's had a street named after him there (unless they changed it to Tommy- Haas-Allee this week?) for cryin' out loud.
Are the wheels starting to fall off for the once-mighty Swiss?
Meanwhile, the 2011 U.S. Open runner-up Williams is expected to compete at Wimby, where she's won four of her 13 Grand Slam singles titles. She was going for a three-peat there last year before losing to former runner-up Marion Bartoli in a fourth-round affair.
The powerful American was a shocking first-round loser at Roland Garros a few weeks ago, however, as veteran Frenchwoman Virginie Razzano sent the former No. 1 packing in three sets to hand Williams her first-ever loss in the opening round of a major.
Williams will certainly be among the favorites at the 2012 Wimbledon fortnight, but she won't be THE favorite this time around.
Some other legitimate "contenders" on the men's side figure to be British hopeful Andy Murray, flashy Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, menacing Czech Tomas Berdych, towering American John Isner, and I believe, Canadian slugger Milos Raonic.
Murray is a three-time Grand Slam runner-up who has continually disappointed the British faithful by failing to reach that elusive Wimbledon final. He's lost in the semifinals there the last three years and just can't get over the Djokovic-Nadal-Federer hump.
Note: A British male hasn't captured the Wimbledon title since the legendary Fred Perry back in 1936. That's only a stretch of 76 YEARS!!
Can Murray finally do it this year?
Of course not.
Tsonga is a former Aussie Open runner-up who can play on any surface. The strapping Frenchman reached the Wimbledon semis a year ago by stunning Federer in five sets in the quarters in a match that Federer actually led two-sets-to- love.
Berdych was a Wimbledon finalist just two years ago and can beat anybody when his massive strokes are landing in.
Isner, like Berdych and Tsonga, can play on any surface, and when his powerful serve is on -- which it usually is -- he's a very, very tough out (just ask Nic Mahut).
Raonic looks like a No. 1 star in the making. The 20-year-old Montenegro-born racquet man can flat-out mash the tennis ball, especially with a serve which is one of the best in the business right now. The time might not yet be now for Raonic, but nobody's told him that, and I can see the pride of Canada making a deep, deep run at the AEC.
Top 10 men who I can't see in the final four in a few weeks are Spaniard David Ferrer, Serb Janko Tipsarevic and Argentine Juan Martin del Potro, as none of these gentlemen have reached a quarterfinal at the AEC and grass simply is not their preferred surface.
Some other women who should figure into the equation are the world No. 2 and reigning Oz Open champion Azarenka; the grass-court-loving Bartoli; German sluggers Angelique Kerber and Sabine Lisicki; Estonian bruiser Kaia Kanepi; and Kim Clijsters. Sorry, Venus Williams, but you just haven't been a major factor at a major over the last couple of years. (Did I just disrespect the five-time Wimbledon champ?)
Azarenka is the reigning Aussie champion who landed in her first-ever major semifinal at Wimbledon last year. Bartoli was the 2007 Wimbledon runner-up and a quarterfinalist there a year ago. The left-handed Kerber has been terrific against top-10 competition this season and already owns a pair of 2012 WTA titles. Lisicki, if healthy, can serve her way past a lot of women and has reached at least the quarters at Wimby in her last two trips, including a semifinal appearance a year ago. Kanepi is fresh off her quarterfinal showing at the French and was a Wimbledon quarterfinalist two years ago.
Clijsters is playing in her farewell tour this year, a year in which like some many of her other campaigns, has been interrupted by injuries.
The popular Belgian star just returned to action this week for the first time in three months, as she had been sidelined with a hip problem.
The 29-year-old wife and mother first retired from tennis in 2007 before returning again in 2009. She's a four-time major champion, including a trio of U.S. Open titles, but has never reached a Wimbledon final. The next few weeks will mark her final chance to accomplish that.
Clijsters will make only her second Wimbledon appearance in the last six years. She was a quarterfinalist in her last trip there two years ago.
Can she climb all the way to the top in the London suburb? I wouldn't think so. Clijsters hasn't reached a semi there since 2006, and perhaps her best tennis truly is behind her at this point. As a fan of her and her game, I hope I'm wrong.
How about Andy Roddick's chances on the men's side? He IS a three-time Wimbledon runner-up, right?
I don't think so. The fading star hasn't reached a quarterfinal anywhere since March as the game starts to pass him by.
There are a host of top-10 women I don't like at Wimbledon 2012 -- world No. 3 Agnieszka Radwanska, U.S. Open champ Sam Stosur, former No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki, and the French Open runner-up Errani.
Radwanska reached back-to-back Wimbledon quarters a few years ago, in 2008 and 2009, but she just can't get past the big girls at the majors, while Stosur, Wozniacki and Errani simply just don't play their best tennis on a surface that has to be mowed.
Dark Horse Alert: Watch out for Bulgaria's Tsvetana Pironkova, who DOES play her best tennis on grass. The currently 40th-ranked Pironkova reached the quarters at Wimbledon last year and was a surprise semifinalist on the hallowed lawns two years back.
By the way, the last British woman to win it all at the All England Club was Virginia Wade back in 1977.
That winless drought will definitely continue into the foreseeable future.
Time for the picks.
I think I like Nadal to outduel Djokovic and capture Wimbledon title No. three, while the wide-open women's field is pointing me in the direction of Sharapova to corral Wimbledon championship numero dos.