Anticipation builds for Wimbledon

WIMBLEDON, England -- They pride themselves on pomp and circumstance here at the All England Club, but on Saturday around these arresting grounds, things were blessedly casual.

Forty-eight hours before the first ball:

The metal plates with the names of singles players sat scattered in a pile on the ground awaiting their placement on the big draw boards. Vendors were wrestling with signage, and security guards and their dogs were sniffing around various cracks and crevices. The Wimbledon store, with its hundreds of popular changeover towels, was closed.

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Maria Sharapova was fairly quiet Saturday but presumably will be making more noise in a few days.

The chief attraction was the players themselves. Around noon, they easily outnumbered spectators. A large percentage of the world's best 250 players were on site, grooving their strokes for Monday and Tuesday's first-round action.

Out on Court 14, in the shadow of Centre Court, eight-time French Open champion Rafael Nadal conferred with his coach, his uncle Toni Nadal, in whispered Spanish. He was hitting with Kevin Anderson, a willowy South African, who is on the other side of the draw. Not to alarm anyone, but Nadal seemed to be nursing a slight limp as he worked his way around the court. Nadal, a little fast and loose to start, eventually got serious and started hitting some ridiculous forehands you could actually hear tearing through the air. When a half-volley clipped the top of the net -- and fell back -- Rafa issued a comic "oooh!" that drew a snicker from the dozen or so fans watching.

After sitting out seven months with a knee injury, Nadal has played nine tournaments -- and reached all nine finals. This will be his first on grass.

"Since I start from today, I was able to play all the tournaments that I wanted to play," Nadal said. "That's the best news possible. Before I came back, I take this year like a transition year. I will compete here as good as possible. I going to try my best, and then we will see what's next for me."

Up the gentle hill toward the Aorangi practice courts, two statuesque players were trading blows on Court 17. You had to look twice to be sure it was the 2004 Wimbledon champion and recent French Open finalist -- because Maria Sharapova was actually practicing gruntless against Daniela Hantuchova, as quiet as a mouse in church. Really.

A while later, Sharapova made some real noise, criticizing Serena Williams for her comments in a recent Rolling Stone article. 

"If she wants to talk about something personal, maybe she should talk about her relationship and her boyfriend that was married and is getting a divorce and has kids," Sharapova said.

Catty, perhaps. Maybe it's because Williams has won the past 13 matches between them. 

In the parking lot adjacent to the practice courts, No. 1-ranked Novak Djokovic was having an animated conversation with former No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki.

"The best breeds," he told her, "are Scandinavian."

He seemed to be talking about dogs.

Less than two hours later, he was addressing the yawning disparity in the top and bottom of the men's draw. Djokovic's biggest threat in the top is No. 4 seed David Ferrer, who threw the men's tournament into disarray by reaching the finals of the French Open. The bottom? It's almost comically loaded with No. 2 Andy Murray, No. 3 Roger Federer, No. 5 Nadal and No. 6 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. That bracket starts play Monday.

The very first question of his pre-tournament news conference concerned not his half of the draw but those nasty bottom-feeders.

"Straight to the point," Djokovic said, smiling. "The draw is something that you cannot affect. So I honestly wasn't thinking about it too much because it's a matter of luck and it's a matter of a coin toss, as well.

"It is what it is now. I mean, some people would say that I was lucky with the draw. Everybody wants to play well, so I got to take it slowly and think only about my next opponent."

The Radwanska sisters, Agnieszka and Urszula, were hitting on Practice Court 1, with Spaniards Nicolas Almagro and Fernando Verdasco, sporting his new, boyish (short) haircut. Perhaps Verdasco, who turns 30 in the fall, is trying to look younger. It seems to be working.

"I love that guy," said one female player, as she walked in the front entrance, with a friend.

And they stopped to admire him.

Perhaps the best matchup on Aorangi was between a pair of major champions, Li Na and Petra Kvitova. They played some serious, sweat-producing points, but there was some laughter, particularly between Kvitova and Li's husband, Jiang Shan.

As they discussed the logistics of the session, Jiang Shan shook his head and said, "You know, she is in charge."

Sharapova was in charge here, almost right out of the box. She played the junior tournament in 2002 and reached the final, losing to Vera Dushevina. A year later, at 16, Sharapova reached the fourth round before breaking through with her first major win a year later.

"It's been special ever since I was a junior," Sharapova said. "I love everything about it, including the weather. I love the rain, so maybe that's why I don't mind breaks. I expect to be going off the court a few times. Comes with the territory of being here."

Being here two days before the matches begin in earnest, soaking up the atmosphere, even under overcast skies and amid chilly temperatures, was something different. Before the turmoil and anxiety and all that circumstantial pomp, Casual Saturday was a revelation.

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