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Nadal Plays Russell at Wimbledon; Serena Williams Meets Rezai

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June 17 (Bloomberg) -- Defending Wimbledon champion Rafael Nadal plays Michael Russell of the U.S. in the first round of the grass-court major, while Serena Williams starts her first Grand Slam in a year by taking on France’s Aravane Rezai.

The Spaniard beat Roger Federer at Roland Garros almost two weeks ago for a record-tying sixth French Open title that secured his No. 1 ranking. He may meet Andy Murray, the No. 4 seed, in the semifinals. The Briton plays his opening round against Daniel Gimeno-Traver of Spain. Nadal is one of four men who can win the title, former champions and players say.

“Rafa’s played tremendous, Roger Federer has got a track record, Novak Djokovic has been on fire this year, and Andy Murray just won Queen’s,” former world No. 4 Brad Gilbert said on an ESPN conference call earlier this week.

In the women’s draw, the Williams sisters are in opposite halves, meaning they could only meet in the finals. Top seed Caroline Wozniacki could meet China’s Li Na in the semifinals, while Vera Zvonareva, who lost last year’s final, could take on No. 4 seed Victoria Azarenka of Belarus.

The former top-ranked Federer, a six-time champion at the grass-courts of the All England Club in southwest London, starts against Mikhail Kukushkin of Kazakhstan. The Swiss won his last Wimbledon title in 2009, and lost in the quarterfinals to eventual finalist Tomas Berdych of the Czech Republic last year.

Federer, who may play Djokovic of Serbia in the semifinals, said he feels back to his best after he made his first Grand Slam final since the 2010 Australian Open at Roland Garros earlier this month. The second-seeded Djokovic plays his opening round against France’s Jeremy Chardy.

Longest Rematch?

John Isner of the U.S. and Nicolas Mahut of France, who played the longest match in tennis history at last year’s Wimbledon, will face each other again this year. Their opening round last year took more than 11 hours and ended 70-68 in the fifth set.

After making his first French Open semifinals even while struggling with an ankle injury, Murray won a Wimbledon warmup event at Queen’s Club in west London the week after. A British man hasn’t won a Grand Slam singles title since Fred Perry’s victory in the U.S. National Championships in 1936.

The top-seeded Nadal is the 2-1 favorite to win his third Wimbledon title at U.K. bookmaker William Hill Plc. That means a successful $1 bet would return $2 plus the original wager. The third-seeded Federer follows at 5-2, with Djokovic at 11-4 and Murray at 6-1.

Total Tossup

“I don’t think ever before we’ve had four guys in contention,” 18-time Grand Slam champion Chris Evert said on the ESPN call. “It’s always been two. I cannot even give anybody the edge. It’s a total tossup between the four of them.”

Djokovic took two weeks off after Federer ended his perfect season in the semifinals in Paris. That loss prevented the Serb from tying John McEnroe’s record of 42 consecutive wins from the start of a season, set in 1984. Djokovic would have been the new No. 1, replacing Nadal, if he had made his first French Open final, or if the Spaniard had lost in the championship match against Federer.

After beating France’s Gilles Simon 6-1, 6-2 at The Boodles exhibition event at Stoke Park near London in his first match on grass this season, the Serb said he’s never felt stronger going into Wimbledon and that he had just played his best match on the surface.

“I’m very satisfied with the way I’ve played in the last six, seven months,” Djokovic told a small group of reporters at Stoke Park yesterday. “It’s been the best period of my career. I’m just trying to keep the momentum going, keep on playing well.”

Women’s Draw

In the women’s draw, defending champion Serena Williams takes on Rezai, who made it to the second round last year. Williams made her comeback to the women’s tour this week at Eastbourne after a foot injury and blood clots in both lungs sidelined her since she won her fourth Wimbledon title in July. Her elder sister and five-time champion Venus Williams, who also made a comeback at Eastbourne this week after a five-month injury-related lay-off, faces Akgul Amanmuradova of Uzbekistan. The sisters are in opposite halves, meaning they could only meet in the finals.

Maria Sharapova, the 2004 champion, plays fellow Russian Anna Chakvetadze. Li Na, the first player from China to win a Grand Slam singles title at the French Open almost two weeks ago, starts against Russia’s Alla Kudryavtseva. Women’s top seed Wozniacki of Denmark, who is seeking her first major title, faces Spain’s Arantxa Parra Santonja.

Women’s Odds

Serena is the 3-1 favorite to retain the title, according to William Hill. Former world No. 1 Sharapova, who reached her first French Open semifinal this season, follows at 7-2. Venus Williams is 13-2, while Li, who reached the Australian Open finals at the start of the season, is at 7-1. Wozniacki is at 10-1.

A lot will depend on how quickly the Williams sisters will adept to playing competitive matches again, according to Jimmy Connors, a two-time Wimbledon champion.

“Walking into Wimbledon, you’re going to be nervous anyway, and to be away and to have this as almost your comeback event, it might play a little bit of a part,” Connors said on a World Team Tennis conference call earlier this week. “But with their record, they certainly have done it all and know what it takes to win. It’s just a matter of whether they can fit into the flow of playing the matches right from the beginning.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Danielle Rossingh at Wimbledon through the London sports desk at drossingh@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Christopher Elser at at celser@bloomberg.net

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