WIMBLEDON, England -- Roger Federer's first-week nemeses are lined up as if in a gantlet determined not to let him win a fourth consecutive Wimbledon, and this may be, in fact, the toughest draw any defending champion has faced.
When Wimbledon begins tomorrow, Federer will be looking at Richard Gasquet in the first round, with the winner to probably play Tim Henman, likey followed by Kristof Vliegen, Tommy Haas and Mario Ancic. All but Vliegen have beaten Federer at least once and Gasquet and Haas forced him to three sets in Halle, Germany, a week ago.
If Federer is to join Pete Sampras and Bjorn Borg as the only males in the Open era to win at least four straight Wimbledons, he'll have to produce the greatest two-week performance of his career.
Four wins will get him through the first week, but it may not immediately measure the wear-down effect. The shortness of these grass-court matches, combined with the inevitable rain delays, doesn't wear on champions physically, but it can be devastating emotionally.
It might have been for Sampras in 1996, when he defeated, in order, No. 21 Richey Reneberg, No. 33 Mark Philippoussis, a very young No. 107 Karol Kucera and No. 16 Cedric Pioline before he went down to No. 13 Richard Krajicek, the eventual titlist, in the quarterfinals.
If Federer fights through six matches, he could play Andy Roddick in a third straight final here. Roddick, seeded third, was selected Friday to the lower half of the draw and will open against No. 108 Janko Tipsarevic of Serbia-Montenegro. A win would pit him against Robin Vik or Florian Mayer.
In the women's draw, defending champion Venus Williams, here with her father/coach Richard Williams, is in a comfortable quadrant in the upper half of the draw with No. 1 Amelie Mauresmo, No. 9 Anastasia Myskina and No. 14. Dinara Safina. Williams begins against No. 102 Bethanie Mattek. She could face Mauresmo in the quarterfinals.
There are 13 American women in the draw, but 10 are in the upper half, which means they'll soon be playing each other.
Favorite Justine Henin-Hardenne, seeded third and in the bottom half, is trying to join an all-star list of women who have won each of the four Slams and, with past winners Serena Williams and Lindsay Davenport recovering from injury, her chances seem good.
Her first opponent is No. 99 Meng Yuan of China. She has the least dangerous of the four quadrants of the women's draw.
With 41 consecutive grass-court victories, Federer seems as unstoppable on the lawn here as Rafael Nadal, the No. 2 seed, does on clay. But in his one lead-up event, at Halle, four of his five opponents took sets from him.
He's winning but not with ease.
What Gasquet and Haas have that give them a chance at an upset is a forceful backhand. Federer's backhand is not vulnerable, but it's not nearly as strong as his forehand and, though it wasn't enough, Gasquet and Haas exploited that backhand-to-backhand weapon a week ago.
Federer leads Gasquet 3-1, but the young Frenchman beat Federer on clay at Monte Carlo in 2005.
Henman, with a 6-4 edge on Federer, hasn't won a set in their past three matches, but in their only meeting on grass, Henman won at the 2001 Wimbledon.
Federer leads Haas 7-2, but Haas went five sets with Federer at the Australian Open.
Charles Bricker writes for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.