The Watch List spotlights the must-know storylines for the upcoming week in tennis. This week the ATP and WTA No. 1s get back to business with Rafael Nadal christening the clay in Rio de Janeiro and Serena Williams set to take the court in Dubai for the first time since 2009.
Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships
Serena Williams will play her first tournament since the Australian Open after taking a last-minute wild card into Dubai, where she leads a field that includes seven of the top 10. Dubai remains one of the few big WTA titles Serena has never won; she made the semifinals in her two attempts, in 2005 and 2009. As an added bonus, she’s also pairing up with her sister Venus in a rare non-Slam doubles appearance.
Serena is the top seed, followed in her half by defending champion Petra Kvitova, Jelena Jankovic and a streaking Simona Halep, who won the Qatar Open last week. Halep beat three top-10 players to win her seventh and biggest title of her career, all while managing an Achilles injury. Halep, the WTA’s breakthrough player last season, continues to impress, but the one thing missing from her résumé is a signature win. If she can sustain her form and make the semifinals to possibly face Serena, that match would be a great gauge. Aside from Halep, the most intriguing aspect of Serena’s half is the presence of Sloane Stephens, who landed in Serena’s quarter.
The bottom half of the draw is led by new No. 3 Agnieszka Radwanska, who made the semifinals of Doha and moved ahead of Victoria Azarenka in the rankings. Radwanska is joined by Sara Errani, Angelique Kerber and Caroline Wozniacki as the remaining top seeds. The bottom half features three marquee first-round matches. Venus takes on Elena Vesnina, who is 2-0 against Williams, Kerber meets Ana Ivanovic and Wozniacki renews her rivalry with Sabine Lisicki.
What more can you ask for than for No. 1 Rafael Nadal to help christen your new tournament? The inaugural Rio Open, a joint ATP/WTA event held on outdoor clay, features a strong ATP field and an undeniably weak WTA field, an understandable glitch given the presence of the Premier-level Dubai tournament the same week. In addition to Nadal, the ATP 500 tournament includes David Ferrer and Fabio Fognini, both of whom made the Copa Claro final last week.
This will be Nadal’s first tournament since the Australian Open, where he sustained a back injury before the final. He withdrew from the Copa Claro, citing a viral illness that interrupted his preparation for what was to be an extensive spring clay-court season. Assuming he’s healthy, anything less than a title run for the King of Clay would be a shocker.
The European indoor swing moves to Marseille, France, where Richard Gasquet, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Ernests Gulbis and Andreas Seppi are the top-four seeds. It’s a particularly important tournament for Gasquet and Tsonga, neither of whom has been able to put his stamp on this season. The good news for Gasquet is his countryman Gael Monfils isn’t in the draw this week. Of his three losses this season, two have come to Monfils, including in the final in Montpellier two weeks ago. Tsonga has played just two tournaments this season, losing to Roger Federer in the fourth round of the Australian Open and to Marin Cilic in the second round of the ABN AMRO World Tennis Tournament last week in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.
Then there’s Gulbis, who defeated Grigor Dimitrov and Juan Martin del Potro at the ABN AMRO World Tennis Tournament. The Latvian has a load of points to defend this spring and needs to follow up his semifinal run last week with a deep run this week to ease some pressure.
Delray Beach Open
John Isner is set to play his first tournament since an ankle injury led him to retire from his first-round match in the Australian Open. That injury not only derailed him in Melbourne but also forced him to sit out the first round of Davis Cup. He’s the No. 2 seed behind Tommy Haas, and his bottom half of the draw includes Cilic and Memphis champion Kei Nishikori. Cilic is one to watch this week. The big-serving Croat has won nine of his last 10 matches, making back-to-back finals at the Zagreb Indoors (where he won the title) and Rotterdam (where he lost to Tomas Berdych).