Federer looks the part, but the question mark remains

London June 29. The games are over. Let play begin.

The Grand Slam tennis championships are, in fact, two tournaments rolled into one. The first week is a sort of carnival when games are played, won and lost. The second is serious business when the big boys sharpen their swords with an eye on the big prize.

In the event, the real Wimbledon, the one where the Agassis and the Willamses and a handful of others can be expected to bring to the field of battle the heavy artillery largely hidden from public eyes so far, begins on Monday with the round of 16 matches.

For a tournament that started with a big bang, with a Croatian who you might have thought had taken temporary leave from his NBA league job of shooting three pointers at the death to turn up at a tennis court and produce the sort of slam dunk that Wimbledon has not witnessed in 36 years, it's indeed a surprise at the end of the first week that so many of the title contenders are still around.

Lleyton Hewitt's sensational loss on the opening day to Ivo Karlovic may have forced the other big league players to put up their antennas. And, as it has turned out, the Agassis, Federers, Roddicks and Henmans have managed to negotiate their way past the first week minefield featuring journeymen bounty hunters with great care.

Through the first six days in the men's championship, apart from Hewitt, only one other player seeded in the top 10 was beaten. Guillermo Coria, the Argentine who made the French Open semifinals, has not really said on record that grass was for cows. But Coria, seeded seven here, may well believe that it is, and his loss on a surface alien to him was no big surprise.

What this means is very simple. You can look forward to some intriguing and wonderfully lively contests during the second week, which kicks off with many a match-up that would make the connoisseur lick his lips in anticipation — not the least the match between Mark Philippoussis and Andre Agassi.

In the other two interesting round of 16 contests, Tim Henman will perform amidst Mexican waves of Henmania to try and figure out a way past David Nalbandian for the first time and the red-hot tournament favourite Andy Roddick will attempt to subdue the brilliant Thai shot-maker Paradorn Srichaphan.

On paper, the fourth round in the women's championship does not look quite as promising. But Justine Henin-Hardenne against Mary Pierce, a two time Grand Slam champion who seems to have reinvented herself as a top notch player, may provide a few sparks.

And a lot of interest — not just public but that of professional cameramen too — will centre on Court No. 13 where the latest glamour-puss of the women's game, Maria Sharapova, will take on her countrywoman Svetlana Kuznetzova to try and stretch her Cinderella run into the quarterfinals — should she succeed, the 16 year old Russian will become the first wild card to have made the last eight.

Then again, looking farther ahead, after a rather interesting first week and three rounds of tennis, who are the men and women who look good enough to lift the trophy that matters over the weekend of July 5-6? Predictably, a lot of attention has been focused on Henman while Roddick and Agassi are clearly the top two favourites with the bookmakers here.

But, in terms of pure talent, if not entirely on the form displayed during the first week, Roger Federer is my choice for the men's championship. The 22-year old from Switzerland has so far disappointed in the Slams but this week he has shown the sort of one-pointed focus that he has lacked in the past.

How well Federer will stand up to the challenges ahead remains to be seen for he has not even made a Grand Slam semifinal so far in his career. And he has the tendency to revert to the hangdog mode now and again in the face of adversity. But few would doubt the genial Swiss star's abilities.

There is a bit of Pete Sampras in him as he goes about his business quietly on the court, his wonderfully versatile all court game doing all the talking. A few have compared him to the great man and predicted that he is the heir to Sampras' throne here.

That maybe. But you cannot afford to push the comparisons too far. To me, the second Sampras will be in sight when someone steps in to play for his seventh title on the second Sunday of Wimbledon. Not until then.

Yet, Federer has what it takes — no doubt at all about that. Sometimes you think that the man is so gifted that he has a problem choosing the right shots at the critical moments. On pedigree and form, Federer, who plays Feliciano Lopez on Monday, and either Rainer Schuettler or Sjeng Schalken in the quarterfinals if he wins his fourth round, should make it through to the last four.

The man widely expected to await him there is Roddick who has bigger roadblocks en route, in the form of Srichaphan and then perhaps the Beast from Belarus, Max Mirnyi. But Federer versus Roddick will be a dream semifinal. The popular view is, Agassi and Henman will feature in the other semifinal.

But men like Philippoussis and the French Open champion Juan Carlos Ferrero — who has so far steered well clear of the tennis version of hay fever — might have a thing or two to say about that.

But, for a championship that was so much poorer when Sampras decided to stay away — surely, he has already played his last match here — and suffered from the withdrawals of Marat Safin, Carlos Moya and a few other top names, things have gone pretty well so far as the second week is packed with class.

As for the women's championship, it is down to the big four — the Williams sisters and the two Belgians, Henin-Hardenne and Clijsters — unless the new kid on the block, Sharapova, or the veteran Mary Pierce, have a surprise or two in store for us.

Meanwhile, late on Saturday evening, around 1.30 a.m. IST Sunday, Leander Paes and Martina Navratilova beat Jamie Delgado of Britain and Anastasia Myskina of Russia 6-4, 6-4 in a first round mixed doubles match

Latest Ladbrokes odds:

Men: Andy Roddick 2-1; Andre Agassi 5-2; Roger Federer 7-2; Tim Henman 7-1; Mark Philippoussis 12-1.

Women: Serena Williams 8-13; Venus Williams 3-1; Justine Henin-Hardenne 6-1; Kim Clijsters 6-1; Jennifer Capriati 16-1.

Saturday's results:

Men's singles (third round): 13-Sebastien Grosjean (Fra) bt Wesley Moodie (RSA) 6-7 (5-7), 6-2, 6-4, 6-4; 3-Juan Carlos Ferrero (Esp) bt Sargis Sargsian (Arm) 6-4, 6-4, 2-6, 6-4; 6-David Nalbandian (Arg) bt Karol Kucera (Svk) 6-4, 5-7, 6-7 (1-7), 6-4, 6-2; 10-Tim Henman (GBR) bt Robin Soderling (Swe) 6-3, 6-1, 6-4.

Women's singles (third round): 3-Justine Henin-Hardenne (Bel) bt Alicia Molik (Aus) 6-4, 6-4; 8-Jennifer Capriati (U.S.) bt Akiko Morigami (Jpn) 6-4, 6-4.

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