More remarkable than any feat in tennis outside the majors, the Indian Wells-Miami double title requires many factors to fall together for those who would complete it: sustained form across twelve matches, resilient fitness in heat and humidity, efficiency in early rounds, the ability to raise one’s level in later rounds, adjustments to contrasting playing styles, and—perhaps—a bit of luck from fortuitous upsets late in the draw. Since Federer completed a stunning pair of doubles in 2005-06, only one player on either Tour has matched his accomplishment, but several have come close. We take a look at each of the leading threats to rampage through March in both the ATP and WTA.
Djokovic: The aforementioned architect of an Indian Wells/Miami double, the Serb demonstrated his improved fitness by sweeping these arduous draws early in his spectacular 2011 campaign. Even before he became the fearsome member of the big four, moreover, he came within a match of the same feat by finishing runner-up at the first and champion at the latter in 2007. Last year, Djokovic came within a tiebreak of the Indian Wells final before defending his Miami crown. The slow courts should favor his more physical style over Federer’s preference for short points, and he currently holds the momentum in his rivalry against Murray with three straight victories. Entering the Dubai semifinals, Djokovic had won 16 straight matches and 26 of his last 27, opening a massive lead as world #1.
Murray: Four years ago, he came within a win of the double when he fell to Nadal in the Indian Wells final before sweeping Del Potro and Djokovic to win Miami. Often at his best on North American hard courts, Murray has won six of his eight Masters 1000 titles there—but has lost three straight matches at Indian Wells, where he has advanced past the quarterfinals just once That futility in the desert, which should suit a high-percentage game adaptable to variable conditions, has stemmed from emotional hangovers after losses in the Australian Open final. Although he lost there again this year, Murray seemed less distraught afterward, so he could bounce back sooner. He might well avoid long-time nemesis Nadal at both events but probably will have to reconquer the Djoker at least once.
Berdych: A Miami finalist in 2010, he never has reached the final at either of the tournaments in any other year and has won just one Masters 1000 shield. Nevertheless, Berdych has grown more consistent in the last several months against players outside the elite, and he will take comfort from the knowledge that he may not face either Federer or Nadal. Securing his fair share of success against Murray over the years, he never has defeated Djokovic on a hard court. For a player of his size and (limited) mobility, Berdych handles slow courts unusually well because his groundstrokes still can power through them, while he often will have the time to run around his backhand for forehands.
Del Potro: The only active major champion outside the Big Four, he does own a somewhat recent victory over Djokovic and momentum against Federer following two victories last fall. But Del Potro never has defeated either Djokovic or Murray on an outdoor hard court, at least pending his Dubai semifinal against the former. Most of his notable successes have come on faster courts like those at the US Open or the year-end championships, where his forehand can break open rallies more quickly. Although his fitness has proved unreliable in the heat, his four-title surge during the summer of 2008 showed that he can stay torrid for a long time when his game starts to sizzle.
Federer cannot complete the double because he has not entered Miami. Nadal? Well, he remains entered in both tournaments as of this writing and thus will have a chance to complete a feat that he never quite has approached. In the reality of his comeback, however, Nadal surely cannot sweep twelve straight hard-court matches in elite draws and conclude an exhausting four weeks by winning Miami for the first time after losing three finals there. Nor might he want that accomplishment, for it surely would drain him before the crucial clay season.
Sharapova: Within one win of a 2006 double, when she won Indian Wells and finished runner-up to Kuznetsova in Miami, she has produced outstanding results at each of the March mini-majors in the last two years. Denied only in the finals of both 2012 tournaments, Sharapova has started this year with a relentlessness similar to what she showed last year despite a surprising loss to Li Na in the Australian Open semifinals. She has not defeated Azarenka on an outdoor hard court since 2009, but she towers above the rest of the Indian Wells field in credentials. Much more complicated is Miami, where she has lost all four of her finals and must hope for someone else to dispatch Serena.
Azarenka: Undefeated entering Indian Wells for the second straight year, she often has raced to a fast start early in the season before losing momentum as injuries accumulate. Last year, she won Indian Wells with ease but arrived significantly depleted in Miami, where she could not survive the quarterfinals. The world #2 shares Djokovic’s affinity for a surface that showcases her transitions from defense to offense as well as her returning prowess. Apparent niggles with her fitness already have surfaced this year in every tournament that she has played, however, leaving her durability still in doubt. Rarely has she won titles in consecutive weeks.
Radwanska: By contrast, the Pole whom Azarenka ruthlessly has suppressed since the start of 2012 has demonstrated her ability to win key titles in consecutive weeks. Radwanska swept the Premier Five/Premier Mandatory pair of Tokyo and Beijing in 2011, catalyzing a surge that has not yet ended, and she should welcome the slow courts. The defending champion in Miami, where she defeated Venus and Sharapova last year, she should approach the pressure of that status with her characteristic tenacity. But Radwanska has reached a major semifinal only once because of her failure to outlast the WTA’s fiercest aggressors through a seven-round tournament, and the same pattern might undo her in the attempt to win consecutive six-round tournaments against the best in the sport.
Kvitova: Feckless in North America until last year, she suddenly erupted during the US Open Series with two titles and a semifinal. Kvitova can tear through a draw or multiple draws without warning, as she showed by emerging from a slump to claim the Premier title in Dubai without dropping a set, including a victory over Radwanska. She never has defeated Serena and has struggled lately against Sharapova, while she astonishingly has not faced Azarenka since the latter’s rise early last year. More dangerous with every round that she advances further into a tournament, Kvitova will hope to avoid dark horses early in both draws and find the patience necessary to win rallies on the slow courts.
Among the key reasons why no woman has completed the double lately is the presence of the Williams sisters in Miami but not in Indian Wells. Their dominance at the former tournament, near their Palm Beach Gardens home, once inevitably forestalled the champion of the desert from repeating in Miami. While the tottering Venus probably cannot win a title of this magnitude, Serena remains the favorite at any non-clay tournament that she enters when healthy. Healthy she may not be, considering her injury-hampered hobbles through Melbourne and Doha, but the month of rest since the latter tournament may have allowed the world #1 to recover.
One of the strongest ATP 500 tournaments on the calendar, Dubai follows its Premier women’s event by hosting six of the top ten men in the first significant outdoor hard-court tournament since the Australian Open. This tournament claims pride of place in our weekly preview, although events in Acapulco and Delray Beach also feature key storylines that relate to what we can expect at Indian Wells.
Dubai: A three-time champion at this event, world #1 Djokovic did not bring his best tennis to the Persian Gulf last year in the wake of a draining Australian Open. The medium-paced hard court showcases his game splendidly, though, so he might bounce back in 2013 with a less exhausting Melbourne marathon behind him and a comfortable quarter ahead of him. Not since his first meeting with Troicki has he lost to his compatriot, and rarely in the current twelve-match winning streak has the other Serb seriously troubled him. That said, Djokovic did drop a set when they met here in 2010. Also unlikely to threaten him on a hard court is the seventh-seeded Seppi, while Lukas Rosol does lurk but so far remains a one-upset man.
While three qualifiers form a soft center to the second quarter, its edges might feature some intrigue. Seeking to avoid a third straight first-round loss here, former semifinalist Baghdatis faces a tall task in Del Potro, but he has won their last two clashes. That battle of flat groundstrokes and inspired shot-making should offer some of the first round’s best entertainment. Of lesser note is the encounter between the eighth-seeded Youzhny and rising Slovene Blaz Kavcic. How much does the aging Russian with the graceful one-handed backhand have left?
Like the second half overall, the third quarter looks stronger than the two above it. Top-eight threats Tsonga and Berdych bookend it, the former of whom faces a stern test in compatriot Michael Llodra. Neither of those Frenchmen will relish the relatively slow courts here, nor will potential second-round opponent Tursunov. A smart wildcard choice after his astonishing charge to the Marseille weekend as a qualifier, he ranks among the draw’s most notable dark horses. Two comfortable rounds await Berdych, who excelled in Marseille as well as Tsonga and Tursunov. Not known for his consistency, the Czech has maintained some of his steadiest tennis to date over the last several months, and he should fare better against Tsonga on an outdoor hard court than on the fast indoor court where he lost to him on Sunday.
After the hubbub last year when the tournament declined to offer Malek Jaziri a wildcard, the organizers may have smirked a bit when, having received that privilege this year, the Tunisian has landed adjacent to Federer. More worthy of Swiss steel, surely, is the resurgent Tomic in a sequel to an Australian Open encounter closer than the score showed. Never a man to doubt his own chances, the brash Aussie will feel confident of toppling whoever emerges from the Tipsarevic-Davydenko opener. Although that match could present a battle of crisp two-handed backhands, both men have struggled this year and would enter a meeting with Tomic at a significant height disadvantage. Realistically, however, only one man will come out of this quarter.
Final: Djokovic vs. Federer
Acapulco: Of the four top-ten men not participating in Dubai, two lend their illustrious presence to the clay 500 tournament in Mexico. The end of the South American February swing, Acapulco usually offers an opportunity for top-seeded David Ferrer to bolster his rankings points. While the presence of Nadal at the base of the draw will complicate his quest, the man who displaced Rafa as the top-ranked Spaniard brings momentum from winning Buenos Aires and faces no significant clay threats in his quarter. Starting against left-handed compatriot Albert Ramos, Ferrer might face flaky Frenchman Benoit Paire in the quarterfinals, but another Spaniard in Pablo Andujar looms just as large. Outside Nadal, the top seed has enjoyed plenty of success against his countrymen.
The last victim of Ferrer in Buenos Aires, Wawrinka faces a much more intriguing series of tests to secure a rematch in the semifinals. Opening against Fabio Fognini of the famous eyebrows and unpredictable temperament, he might encounter the returning Nalbandian afterwards. A finalist in the first tournament of his return, Sao Paulo, Nalbandian took a set from Ferrer at his home tournament last week before his stamina waned. The fifth-seeded Jurgen Melzer has struggled this year outside a run to the Zagreb final on an indoor hard court, so Colombian clay threat Santiago Giraldo might seem a plausible dark horse to reach the quarterfinals.
Denied by Wawrinka in Buenos Aires, Almagro still looks to steady himself after that strange combination of breakthrough and breakdown that he endured in Melbourne. His draw looks comfortable in its early stages, featuring nobody more dangerous than the long-faded Tommy Robredo. In the quarterfinals, Almagro could meet one of three players who have recorded a strong result each during the South American clay season: Vina del Mar champion Zeballos, Sao Paulo semifinalist Simone Bolelli, or Vina del Mar semifinalist Carlos Berlocq. But Zeballos has not won a match since that stunning upset over Nadal, while Berlocq should struggle to match Almagro hold for hold despite winning a set from Nadal in Sao Paulo.
The easiest pre-semifinal route of all would seem to belong to the man who needs it least, or is it most? Far from bulletproof in his two-week swing through Vina del Mar and Sao Paulo, Nadal managed to scrape out results that looked stronger on paper than on television. He cannot face anyone of note in his first two matches, however, and the week-long respite may have freshened his body and spirits. The heavy left-handed groundstrokes of sixth-seeded Thomaz Bellucci might pose a threat in view of the Zeballos result. All the same, the Brazilian has accomplished nothing during this month’s clay tournaments so far and probably lacks the belief to threaten Nadal.
Final: Ferrer vs. Nadal
Delray Beach: In his last tournament before Indian Wells, where he defends finals points, top-seeded John Isner desperately needs to halt a slide that has seen him lose 10 of his last 17 matches. Although a semifinal at San Jose hinted at a resurgence, he dropped a lackluster straight-setter in Memphis, where the indoor hard courts should have suited his massive serve just as well. Fortunate to receive a modest first-round opponent in Jesse Levine, Isner then could meet Memphis semifinalist Marinko Matosevic. The Aussie upset similarly powerful American giant Querrey last week and the talented Dolgopolov, so he brings much more momentum into this match than the top seed. Before he succumbed to injury, Kevin Anderson enjoyed an excellent January by reaching the Sydney final and the second week of the Australian Open, the first South African to do so in a decade. He could match Isner serve for serve, or more likely surpass him if his pre-injury form revives.
Quite a contrast to Isner’s week in Memphis was the breakthrough delivered by Jack Sock, who upset second-seeded Raonic in the most significant victory of his career. Sock received a reward in a wildcard here, although he may not fancy a second-round rematch with the man who finally stopped him last week, Feliciano Lopez. The American will have gained experience in facing a serve-volleyer in an opener against Aussie Matthew Ebden, which could stand him in good stead against Lopez. And a third straight could loom in the quarterfinals if Karlovic can solve former champion Nishikori. Suggesting otherwise is the recent form of both men, for Nishikori has produced generally solid results so far in a 2013 where Karlovic’s age and nagging injuries finally may have caught up with him.
A semifinalist in San Jose and gone early in Memphis, like Isner, third-seeded Sam Querrey inhabits a section filled with his compatriots. That quirk of fate seems auspicious for him in view of his preference for straightforward opponents who allow him baseline rhythm and lack impressive retturns. Surely able to overpower battered veterans Russell and Blake, he may need to raise his motivation a notch for the ever-impassioned Ryan Harrison. That youngster has accomplished even less than Querrey lately, though, and a recent illness may have dulled his energies. The other seed in this section, Xavier Malisse, retired last week in Memphis.
Also withdrawing from Memphis was San Jose runner-up Tommy Haas, who holds the second seed here but faces an intimidating opener against Igor Sijsling. The Dutchman suddenly has burst into relevance after reaching the Australian Open doubles final, upsetting Tsonga at his home tournament in Rotterdam, and nearly toppling the top-seeded Cilic in Memphis. If Haas can weather Sijsling’s impressive serve, he must slow the surge of Denis Istomin’s second straight sold February. Ever an enigma and ever an entertainer, the fifth-seeded Dolgopolov rounds out this quarter and shares Tommy’s predicament of a dangerous first-round opponent. As his 2011 victory over Nadal proved, Ivan Dodig can trouble anyone on the occasions when his high-risk game explodes rather than implodes.
Final: Nishikori vs. Querrey
While eight of the top ten men are active in the week before Indian Wells, only two of the top ten women have chosen live matches over practice sessions. Two clay tournaments in the Western Hemisphere accompany an Asian hard-court tournament as the last chance to reverse or extend momentum before the March mini-majors.
Acapulco: One of those two top-ten women playing this week, Errani hopes to begin repeating last year’s success on red clay while extending her success from reaching the Dubai final. Little about her section suggests that she should not, although she stumbled unexpectedly on clay against Lepchenko in Fed Cup. Considering that mishap, she might find Arantxa Rus a worthy test in the quarterfinals. Rus once upset Clijsters at Roland Garros and owns a lefty forehand smothered with topspin that cause damage on this surface. She might struggle to survive an all-Dutch encounter in the opening round against Kiki Bertens, though, who broke through to win her first career title at a clay tournament in Morocoo last year.
Gone early in Bogota, where she held the second seed, Alize Cornet will hope for a more productive week in a draw where she holds the third seed. The Frenchwoman lacks weapons to overpower her opponents but will find few in this section who can overpower her. The most notable name here (probably more notable than Cornet) belongs to the returning Flavia Pennetta, who got through one three-setter in Bogota before fading in a second. Tiny Lourdes Dominguez Lino hopes that this first-round opponent still needs to shake off more rust.
An odd sight it is to see an American, a Croat, and a Swede all playing on clay during a week with a hard-court tournament, and yet all of them occupy the same section in Acapulco. Perhaps more notable than Glatch or Larsson is Ajla Tomljanovic, a heavy hitter from a nation of heavy hitters who once looked like a sure rising star before recent setbacks. Facing this Croatian wildcard in the first round, fourth seed Irina-Camelia Begu knows better how to play on clay, as 2011 finals in Marbella and Budapest showed. Begu won her first career title last fall in Tashkent, which places her a notch above the other seed in this quarter. Spending most of her career at the ITF level, Romina Oprandi recorded a strong result in Beijing last fall.
Handed a wildcard to accompany her sixth seed, Schiavone searches for relevance after a long stretch in which she has struggled to string together victories. The sporadically intriguing Sesil Karatantcheva should pose a test less stern than second seed Suarez Navarro, who shares Schiavone’s affinity for the surface. Humiliated twice in one week at Dubai, where she lost resoundingly in both the singles and the doubles draws, the small Spaniard owns one of the loveliest one-handed backhands in the WTA since Henin’s retirement. Schiavone owns another, which should make their quarterfinal pleasant viewing for tennis purists.
Final: Errani vs. Begu
Florianopolis: In the first year of a new tournament, the presence of a marquee player always helps to establish its legitimacy. The outdoor hard courts at this Brazilian resort will welcome seven-time major champion and former #1 Venus Williams as the top seed, and her draw looks accommodating in its early stages. While young Spaniard Garbine Muguruza showed potential at the Australian Open, the American’s sternest challenge may come from a much older woman. Extending Venus deep into a third set at Wimbledon in 2011, Kimiko Date-Krumm could unsettle her fellow veteran with her clever angles and crisp net play, although her serve should fall prey to her opponent’s returning power.
In the quarter below lies Kirsten Flipkens, who lost early as the top seed in Memphis after reaching the second week of the Australian Open. Also a potential semifinal opponent for Venus, Caroline Garcia possesses much more potential than her current ranking of #165 would suggest. Unlike most of the counterpunchers in Florianopolis, she will not flinch from trading baseline missiles with the top seed should she earn the opportunity. Another young star in the eighth-seeded Annika Beck might produce an intriguing quarterfinal with Garcia.
Counterpunchers dominate the third quarter, bookended by Medina Garrigues and Chanelle Scheepers. When the two met at the Hopman Cup this year, endless rallies and endless service games characterized a match filled with breaks. The heavy serve of Timea Babos might intercept Scheepers in the second round, while Medina Garrigues could encounter some early resistance from the quirky Niculescu or Shahar Peer. With her best years well behind her, the Israeli continues to show her familiar grittiness in attempting to reclaim her relevance.
Midway through 2012, the second-seeded Shvedova climbed back into singles prominence by reaching the second week at both Roland Garros and Wimbledon. Starting with her three-set loss to Serena at the latter major, she has suffered a series of demoralizing setbacks in early rounds since then, often in tightly contested matches that hinged on a handful of points. Shvedova once led the WTA’s rankings for overall pace of shot, though, and her power might overwhelm those around her. Aligned to meet her in the quarterfinals is Kristina Mladenovic, the surprise semifinalist at the Paris Indoors who delivered the first signature win of her career there over Kvitova.
Final: Williams vs. Mladenovic
Kuala Lumpur: With a direct-entry cutoff even lower than Florianopolis, this tournament features only eight players in the top 100. Headlining the list, however, is a former #1 who still occupies the fringes of the top 10. After she produced solid results in the Middle East, reaching a quarterfinal in Doha and a semifinal in Dubai, Wozniacki should feel confident in her ability to secure a first title of 2013. Few of the names in her quarter will strike chords with most fans, although some might remember lefty Misaki Doi as the woman who upset Petra Martic in Melbourne before eating a Sharapova double bagel. Aussie lefty Casey Dellacqua sometimes can challenge higher-ranked foes but has struggled with injury too often to maintain consistency.
Doi’s highest-ranked compatriot, the double-fister Ayumi Morita holds the fourth seed in Kuala Lumpur. Like Wozniacki, she could face an Aussie in the quarterfinals, and, like Wozniacki, she should not find the test too severe. Although she has won the Australian Open wildcard playoff twice, Olivia Rogowska has stagnated over the past few years since winning a set from then -#1 Safina at the US Open. Evergreen veteran Eleni Daniilidou rounds out this section with one of the WTA’s more powerful one-handed backhands—and not much else.
Surely pleased to recruit another player of international familiarity beyond Wozniacki, Kuala Lumpur welcomes Pavlyuchenkova as a third-seeded wildcard entrant. The Russian often has excelled at this time of year, reaching the Indian Wells semifinals before and winning consecutive titles at the Monterrey tournament that has shifted after Miami. This year, Pavlyuchenkova has shown a little of her promising 2011 form by reaching the final in Brisbane to start the season and much more of her dismal 2012 form by dropping three straight matches thereafter. She could end her four-match losing streak here in a section filled with qualifiers. But yet another Aussie in Ashleigh Barty hopes to continue what so far has become an encouraging season for WTA future stars.
When not conversing on Twitter with our colleague David Kane, 16-year-old phenom Donna Vekic has compiled some notable results. Seeded at a WTA tournament for the first time, she will look to build upon her final in Tashkent last year, a win over Hlavackova at the Australian Open, and a solid week in Fed Cup zonal play. Vekic does face a challenging first-round test in the powerful serve of American wildcard Bethanie Mattek-Sands, but no match in her section looks unwinnable. While second seed and potential quarterfinal opponent Hsieh Su-wei won her first two titles last year, the late-blossoming star from Chinese Taipei still does not intimidate despite her presence in the top 25.
Final: Wozniacki vs. Pavlyuchenkova
(Actually, can we just combine these last two draws and have Venus play a super-final against Caro?)
Turn on a tennis tournament sometime during the dreary month of February, and more likely than not you will see a blue court under artificial lighting with players who end matches quickly behind cascades of unreturnable serves. But then there’s the odd chance, especially this year with Nadal’s comeback, that you will turn on a tennis tournament and see—red clay. Outdoors. With actual rallies.
The South American clay season often raises eyebrows in its position between marquee hard courts in Australia and North America. An anomaly as a procession of indoor hard tournaments unfold through Europe and the United States this month, these tournaments lack intuitive logic from a fan’s perspective and have caused many to wonder whether they would benefit from shifting to hard courts. If they did, skeptics argue, they would lure a more balanced field of players rather than the usual group of clay specialists who pounce on them so eagerly. Moreover, the results there actually would become relevant to the mega-Masters 1000 tournaments ahead in Indian Wells and Miami, for barometers of hard-court form they are not at the moment. Perhaps less persuasive but still credible is the thought that change itself can inject new life into a tournament, generating publicity that adds energy to it and bringing it to the attention of the sport’s international audience. (Somewhat like what Nadal did this year. Until he announced his comeback schedule, many fans probably did not even remember the order in which these events unfold.)
Of course, Ion Tiriac plunged his tournament into a great blue sea of change last year that illustrated the distinction between good and bad publicity, or perhaps that the latter exists. And there are plenty of other reasons why the South American tournaments should defy the pressures of conformity to remain paradises of dirt devils. Clay specialists they may be, but players like Ferrer, Almagro, and Wawrinka (all in the Buenos Aires 250 this week) showcase excellent talents that can entertain anyone with a true passion for and knowedge of the sport. By contrast, the more prestigious 500 tournament in Memphis this week attracted nobody more scintillating than Cilic and the usual parade of towering servers from North America, unmatched in monotony by any other type of player. Even assuming that a tournament would benefit from their inclusion, it is far from clear that changing to hard courts would convince many of these players to take the long trip south. Appearance fees, local connections, physical condition, and current career goals generally drive scheduling decisions in the sub-Masters 1000 tiers for the marquee names. Nor should one underestimate the appeal of a sunny South American vacation when much of the Northern Hemisphere lies shrouded deep in winter, something irrelevant to the surface.
For fans, meanwhile, that South American sun can come as an invigorating jolt of energy, much like the Australian summer that enlivens our post-Christmas doldrums. The saturated colors and warm light that flickers onto our televisions and desktops in a sense presages the springtime experience of Indian Wells and Miami more than do the sterile arenas of February’s indoor hard-court tournaments. Diversity stands as one of the sport’s great strengths, and playing tournaments on two different surfaces in the same week bolsters it no less than playing tournaments on three different continents in the same week.
Finally, there seems something to be said for adhering to local traditions and preserving ties to each region’s distinctive history. Hard courts have come to dominate the sport and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. The “if you can’t beat them, join them” theory clearly does not apply to tennis, though, for the specialty surfaces that remain in Europe arguably have enhanced their prestige by becoming less common. People are drawn to the unusual and the unfamiliar, which provides an independent reason for the South American tournaments to keep the one key element that distinguishes them from others during the same span.
That said, those eager to import hard courts to South America will look forward to the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, an experiment that may cause some to consider embracing the surface more enthusiastically. Seeing hard courts in this region, though, may look even odder than seeing clay courts in February.
While none of the ATP tournaments this week enjoys a field of the pedigree that the WTA has produced in Dubai, the 250 tournament in Marseille features every member of the top ten’s lower half. We start with that event in our weekly preview, following it with the technically more significant tournament in Memphis and the latest edition of the South American clay swing.
Marseille: Recovered from his Davis Cup marathon earlier this month, world #6 Berdych claims the top seed in this overstuffed draw. At his best on these fast surfaces, he still cannot overlook the second-round challenge of Gulbis, who defeated him at Wimbledon last year. An intriguing collection of unpredictable threats rounds out the quarter from Rotterdam finalist Benneteau, who upset Federer there, to the notorious Rosol and the rising Janowicz. After breaking through on an indoor hard court in Paris last year, the latter has struggled to sustain his momentum in 2013. Like Berdych, Janowicz must start the tournament in crisp form to survive his early challenges.
Somewhat less dangerous is the second quarter, where Tipsarevic would reach the quarterfinals after facing only a qualifier. The fourth-seeded Serb will have welcomed this good fortune, considering an inconsistent start to the season that included a retirement at the Australian Open and an opening-round loss as the second seed in an indoor 250 this month. Starting 2013 by winning fifteen of his first sixteen matches, by contrast, Gasquet became the first man to claim two titles this year in a surprising development that vindicated his top-ten status. A second-round meeting with compatriot Monfils would intrigue, although the latter continues to rebuild his rhythm in a return from a long absence.
Two of the most notable figures in the third quarter lost their Rotterdam openers last week, one surprisingly and one less so. While few expected Tsonga to stumble against Sijsling, familiar sighs issued from Australia when Tomic reverted to his wayward self. The Aussie eyes a more accommodating draw this time, though, for higher-ranked opponnents Klizan and Paire will not overwhelm him. A potential opener against Davydenko might cause concern among Tsonga’s fans on an indoor hard court, but the Russian has slumped significantly since reaching the Doha final to start the season. In a quarterfinal, Tsonga and Tomic could engage in a battle of seismic serving that would test the focus of both.
Fresh from a strong effort in Rotterdam arrives the second-seeded Del Potro to a more challenging draw. Rebounding from his Australian Open debacle, he held serve relentlessly on indoor hard courts last week and may need to do so again if he opens against home hope Michael Llodra. A former semifinalist at the Paris Indoors, Llodra upset Tipsarevic in Montpellier two weeks ago and always relishes playing on this surface. Less formidable is the Frenchman whom Del Potro could meet in the quarterfinals, for Simon lacks the shot-making ability to thrust the Argentine out of his comfort zone.
Final: Berdych vs. Del Potro
Memphis: The most important tournament of the week only on paper, this sequel to San Jose often features many of the same players. This year departs somewhat from that trend, for top-seeded Cilic and fifth-seeded Nishikori arrive in North America for the first time this year. Between them stand Zagreb finalist and Memphis defending champion Melzer, who could repeat his final there against Cilic, and Tsonga’s Rotterdam nemesis, Igor Sijsling. Hampered by injury during the Australian Open, Nishikori aims to regain his groove before tournaments at Indian Wells and Miami where he could shine. By contrast, Cilic hopes to build upon claiming his home tournament in Zagreb for the third time. When they met at last year’s US Open, the latter prevailed in four sets.
Impressive in Davis Cup but less so in San Jose, Querrey looks to produce a more compelling serving performance as the fourth seed in a section without any giants of his size. Compatriot Steve Johnson, who upset Karlovic last week, may fancy his chances against the mercurial Dolgopolov in the second round. Withdrawing from San Jose with injury, the seventh seed may find the courts too fast for an entertaining style that requires time to improvise. If Dolgopolov should meet Querrey, though, he could disrupt the rhythm on which the American relies.
Somewhat like Querrey, Isner achieved modest success in San Jose before subsiding meekly in the semifinals. Since he missed much of the previous weeks with a knee injury, the matches accumulated there should serve him well in a tournament where he has finished runner-up to Querrey before. The tenacious returning of Hewitt may test Isner’s fortitude, although the former has not left an impact on his recent tournaments. Also in this section is the faltering Ryan Harrison, the victim of some challenging draws but also unable to show much evidence of improvement despite his visible will to win. The home crowd might free Harrison from the passivity that has cost him lately.
The undisputed master of San Jose, Raonic moves from the top of the draw there to the bottom of the draw here. His massive serve-forehand combinations will meet a similar style, albeit more raw, in American wildcard Jack Sock when the tournament begins. Raonic can anticipate a rematch of the San Jose final against Haas in the Memphis quarterfinals, while the lefty serve of Feliciano Lopez should pose an intriguing upset threat. Since Melzer rode similar weapons to last year’s title here, this fellow veteran could surprise the draw as well.
Final: Querrey vs. Raonic
Buenos Aires: After Nadal had dominated the South American headlines during the previous two weeks, another Spaniard attempts to follow in his footsteps. Now the top-ranked man from his country, world #4 Ferrer will face the same task that Rafa did in Sao Paulo when he meets either Berlocq or Nalbandian in the second round. Troubled by Nalbandian before, he will feel more comfortable against the unreliable Fognini in a more traditional battle of clay specialists a round later. In the second quarter continue two surprise stories of the past two weeks, Horacio Zeballos and Martin Alund. While the former won his first career title by toppling Nadal in Vina del Mar, the latter won a set from the Spaniard in a semifinal at Sao Paulo—the first tournament where he had won an ATP match. The highest seed in this quarter, Bellucci, imploded on home soil last week but did defeat Ferrer in Monte Carlo last year.
Framing the lower half are the ATP’s two most notable hard-luck stories of the season. Two days after Wawrinka had lost his epic five-setter to Djokovic, Almagro allowed a two-set lead to slip away against Ferrer in Melbourne after serving for the match three times. That trend continued for both men in February, when Wawrinka lost the longest doubles match in tennis history and Almagro dropped a third-set tiebreak to Nalbandian despite serving 28 aces. The Swiss #2 faces a mildly intriguing test to start the week in Paolo Lorenzi, and fellow Italian Simone Bolelli aims to continue his surge from a semifinal appearance in Sao Paulo. Less imposing is the path ahead of Almagro, although the unseeded Albert Montanes can score the occasional headline victory on clay.
Final: Ferrer vs. Wawrinka
Shifting down the Persian Gulf, eight of the top ten women move from Doha to Dubai for the only Premier tournament this week. In North and South America are two International tournaments on dramatically different surfaces. Here is the weekly look at what to expect in the WTA.
Dubai: Still the top seed despite her dethroning last week, Azarenka can collect valuable rankings points at a tournament from which she withdrew in 2012. She looked far sharper in Doha than she did for most of her title run in Melbourne, and once again she eyes a potential quarterfinal with Sara Errani. Although the Italian has rebounded well from a disastrous start to the season, she lacks any weapons with which to threaten Azarenka. Between them stands last year’s runner-up Julia Goerges, an enigma who seems destined to remain so despite her first-strike potential. If Sloane Stephens can upset Errani in the second round, meanwhile, a rematch of the Australian Open semifinal could loom in the quarterfinals. The top seed might expect a test from Cibulkova in the second round, since she lost to her at Roland Garros last year and needed a miraculous comeback to escape her in Miami. But Cibulkova injured her leg in Fed Cup a week ago and has faltered since reaching the Sydney final.
Having won just one match until Doha, Stosur bounced back somewhat by recording consecutive wins in that Premier Five field. The Aussie may face three straight lefties in Makarova, Lepchenko, and Kerber, the last of whom has the greatest reputation but the least momentum. While Makarova reached the quarterfinals at the Australian Open, Lepchenko displayed her newfound confidence in upsetting both Errani and Vinci on clay in Fed Cup—a rare feat for an American. Vinci herself also stands in this section, from which someone unexpected could emerge. Azarenka need fear little from either Kerber or Stosur, both of whom she has defeated routinely in most of their previous meetings, so a semifinal anticlimax might beckon. Not that Doha didn’t produce a semifinal anticlimax from much more prestigious names.
Atop the third quarter stands the greatest enigma of all in Petra Kvitova, who won four straight matches between Fed Cup and Doha before nearly halting Serena’s bid for the #1 ranking. Considering how far she had sunk over the previous several months, unable to string together consecutive victories, that accomplishment marked an immense step forward. Kvitova can capitalize immediately on a similar surface in the section occupied by defending champion Radwanska. In contrast to last week, the Czech can outhit anyone whom she could face before the semifinals, so she will determine her own fate. If she implodes, however, Ivanovic could repeat her upset when they met in last year’s Fed Cup final before colliding with Radwanska for the third time this year. Also of note in this section is the all-wildcard meeting between rising stars Putintseva and Robson.
Breaking with her usual routine, Serena has committed to the Middle East hard courts without reserve by entering both Doha and Dubai. Whether she plays the latter event in a physical condition that looks less than promising may remain open to question until she takes the court. So strong is the draw that Serena could open against world #11 Bartoli, who owns a Wimbledon victory against her from 2011 but has not sustained that success. The eighth-seeded Wozniacki proved a small thorn in her side last year by defeating her in Miami and threatening her in Rome, so a quarterfinal could intrigue if the Dane can survive Safarova to get there and if Serena arrives at less than full strength.
Final: Azarenka vs. Kvitova
Memphis: Overshadowed a little by the accompanying ATP 500 tournament, this event has lacked star power for the last few years. Rather than Venus, Sharapova, or Davenport, the top seed in 2013 goes to Kirsten Flipkens, a player largely unknown in the United States. This disciple of Clijsters may deserve more attention than she has received, however, rallying to reach the second week of the Australian Open in January after surviving blood clots last spring. Former finalist Shahar Peer and 2011 champion Magdalena Rybarikova attempt to resurrect their careers by returning to the scene of past triumphs, but lefty Ksenia Pervak may offer the most credible challenge to Flipkens in this quarter.
Of greater note is the hard-serving German who holds the third seed and should thrive on a fast indoor court. Although Lisicki has struggled to find her form away from grass, she showed flickers of life by charging within a tiebreak of the Pattaya City title earlier this month. Kristina Mladenovic, a potential quarterfinal opponent, delivered a key statement in the same week at the Paris Indoors, where she upset Kvitova en route to the semifinals. Before then, though, this French teenager had displayed little hint of such promise, so one feels inclined to attribute that result more to the Czech’s frailty for now.
Part of an elite doubles team with compatriot Andrea Hlavackova, Lucie Hradecka has excelled on surfaces where her powerful serve can shine. Like Lisicki, she should enjoy her week in Memphis amid a section of opponents who cannot outhit her from the baseline. Among them is the largely irrelevant Melanie Oudin, who surfaced last year to win her first career title before receding into anonymity again. Neither Oudin nor the fourth-seeded Heather Watson possesses significant first-strike power, so their counterpunching will leave them at a disadvantage on the indoor hard court. But Watson has improved her offense (together with her ranking) over the last few months and should relish the chance to take advantage of a friendly draw. Interestingly, Hradecka’s doubles partner Hlavackova could meet her in the quarterfinals if she can upset Watson.
Finishing runner-up to Sharapova here in 2010, Sofia Arvidsson holds the second seed in this yaer’s tournament as she eyes a potential quarterfinal against one of two Americans. While Chanelle Scheepers anchors the other side of the section, Jamie Hampton could build upon her impressive effort against Azarenka at the Australian Open to shine on home soil. Nor should one discount the massive serve of Coco Vandeweghe, which could compensate for her one-dimensionality here.
Final: Lisicki vs. Hradecka
Bogota: Like the ATP South American tournaments in February, this event offers clay specialists an opportunity to compile ranking points in a relatively unintimidating setting. Top seed and former #1 Jankovic fits that category, having reached multiple semifinals at Roland Garros during her peak years. She has not won a title in nearly three years, but a breakthrough could happen here. In her section stand Pauline Parmentier and Mariana Duque Marino, the latter of whom stunned Bogota audiences by winning the 2010 title here over Kerber. As her wildcard hints, she never quite vaulted from that triumph to anything more significant. Serious opposition to Jankovic might not arise until the semifinals, when she faces the aging Pennetta. Once a key part of her nation’s Fed Cup achievements, the Italian veteran won their most recent clay meeting and looks likely to ensure a rematch with nobody more notable than the tiny Dominguez Lino blocking her.
The lower half of the draw features a former Roland Garros champion in Schiavone and a French prodigy who nearly broke through several years ago before stagnating in Cornet. Testing the latter in a potential quarterfinal is Timea Babos, who won her first career title around this time last year with a promising serve. For Schiavone, the greatest resistance could come from lanky Dutch lefty Arantxa Rus. Known most for her success on clay, Rus won a match there from Clijsters and a set from Sharapova, exploiting the extra time that the surface allows for her sluggish footwork. Also of note in this half is Paula Ormaechea, a rising Argentine who probably ranks as the most notable women’s star expected from South America in the next generation. Can she step into Dulko’s shoes?
Final: Jankovic vs. Schiavone
Check back shortly for the companion preview on the three ATP tournaments this week in Marseille, Memphis, and Buenos Aires!
After a tenure of nearly a century and a quarter, the ATP event in San Jose will end this weekend. The second-oldest tennis tournament in the United States, the SAP Open lately represented the only outpost of the men’s game in the Bay Area, which has hosted a successful WTA event early in the US Open Series for the last four decades.
As historic as it is, the end of men’s tennis in the Bay Area—for now—comes as scant surprise to someone like me who once attended the SAP Open. Unlike the WTA Stanford tournament, which regularly attracted champions from around the world, San Jose had declined steadily over the last several years as it languished in the lowest tier of the ATP’s 250/500/1000 system. With each year, fewer and fewer of Silicon Valley’s citizens trickled through the turnstiles of the HP Arena. Less committed to tennis than their predecessors was the tournament’s new management, meanwhile, which grew increasingly frustrated with scheduling long road trips for the San Jose Sharks, the hockey team that makes its home there. The venue also has only a single court, a logistical handicap unique or nearly so among ATP tournaments outside the year-end championships, which requires only one court for its eight-player field. But the most significant obstacle confronted by the SAP Open was the task of luring European players across an ocean and a continent to a tournament diminished in status.
Attempting to bolster San Jose by signing multi-year participation agreements several years ago, Roddick and the Bryan Brothers had signaled their support for an event that had given them precious opportunities earlier in their careers. (It now seems fitting that Roddick will appear in an exhibition on the SAP Open’s final weekend.) Nevertheless, the tournament’s inability to consistently draw prestigious foreign players combined with the recent stagnation of American men’s tennis to thrust this event in a converted hockey arena onto very thin ice. Exhibitions between Sampras and a top seed provided some mild entertainment, to be sure, as did the rise of two-time defending champion Milos Raonic. Offered a wealth of professional sports options in their vicinity, however, Bay Area fans who lack a strong attachment to tennis found little reason to prevent them from drifting elsewhere.
As for tennis fans like myself, the prospect of attending a Raonic-Harrison or Istomin-Benneteau semifinal in San Jose (the 2012 lineup) seemed a poor alternative to watching tournaments with elite contenders on television or the internet. In February, the most compelling action in men’s tennis occurs thousands of miles away at tournaments in Rotterdam and Dubai, while the women’s Premier Five tournament in Doha grasps the attention of those who follow both Tours. Looming just a month ahead, meanwhile, the marquee tournament at Indian Wells offered a reminder that the world’s best would return soon to California. With Djokovic, Nadal, Federer, and the rest scheduled to compete in a beautifully situated, meticulously maintained “tennis garden,” who can blame the region’s fans for ignoring the journeymen on display in a drafty hockey rink near the San Jose Airport?
Blighted by a disinterested management and dwindling commitment from both players and fans, therefore, the tournament tottered towards its inevitable fate: a transfer to a region where it will earn more success in all three areas. Planned to coincide with the 2016 Olympics there, the new joint ATP/WTA tournament in Rio de Janeiro should gain an early boost in publicity from which it will profit. To achieve the stability that San Jose once enjoyed, though, Rio will want to avoid the flaws that doomed its predecessor. As the most important tennis tournament on the South American continent, it stands well poised to do so.
Where one tradition ends, perhaps another will begin.
Like last week, the upcoming ATP slate features two European tournaments on indoor hard courts and a South American tournament on outdoor red clay. Only one of the Big Four participated in last week’s action, but this week his archrival returns to the spotlight as well.
Rotterdam: Back in action for the first time since those consecutive five-setters in Melbourne, Federer prepares for a title defense closer to home soil. He often has produced his crispest tennis on indoor hard courts late in his career, and he finds himself near familiar victim Youzhny. Tested by rising star Raonic last year, Federer could meet another rising star in Jerzy Janowicz at the quarterfinal stage. Massive servers trouble him more than they once did, although Janowicz has looked less intimidating in the early events of 2013 than he did while reaching the Paris Indoors final last fall. Of further interest in this section is the first-round clash between doubles partners Benneteau and Llodra, both of whom should shine on this surface.
Continuing the French theme from Benneteau-Llodra, the second quarter lies in the shadow of two top-20 Frenchmen: the third-seeded Tsonga and the fifth-seeded Simon. No player of note would bar their routes to a quarterfinal, which their recently solid form suggests that they should reach. Both Frenchmen charted a course to the second week at the Australian Open, and Tsonga in particular excelled by extending Federer to a final set in their quarterfinal. His meeting with Simon should present a compelling contrast of styles, in which one would fancy the third seed’s chances on a surface that favors aggression.
Although both men enter the tournament unseeded, Tomic and Dimitrov offer the most notable storyline of the third quarter with the looming first-round clash between these two phenoms. Greatly celebrated for reaching the Brisbane final in January, the latter has not built upon that breakthrough but instead slipped back into the inconsistency that has slowed his progress. A hero on home soil again, Tomic recaptured much of the reputation that he lost with his 2012 antics by showing a more professional attitude to start 2013. Meanwhile, a strong week in Montpellier continued Gasquet’s strong start to the season and leaves him the favorite to reach the semifinal here. The fourth seed could repeat the Montpellier final against compatriot Benoit Paire in the second round.
Leaping from the lowest part of the draw is the first-round match between wildcard Gael Monfils and second seed Del Potro. While the former left Melbourne in mildly promising fashion, the latter fell well short of expectations in suffering a third-round exit to Jeremy Chardy. Del Potro can waste little time in recapturing his rhythm at a tournament where he finished runner-up to Federer last year, for Monfils’ two finals at the Paris Indoors prove his ability to succeed on this surface. Less likely to shine is the sixth-seeded Seppi, a player who prefers slow courts and lacks the firepower of either projected quarterfinal opponent.
Final: Tsonga vs. Del Potro
San Jose: In the last edition of this tournament, long a mainstay of Bay Area sports, Milos Raonic attempts to complete a title three-peat on the scene of his first trophy. Among the faster indoor hard courts on the calendar, San Jose will showcase a serve nearly unanswerable at its best. In the last two years, opponents struggled even to earn a break point against Raonic. Fresh from his Davis Cup heroics, last year’s top seed could repeat the 2012 final against Denis Istomin in the quarterfinals, or he might meet home hope Ryan Harrison in a rematch of a 2012 semifinal. Both of those men struggled to match Raonic hold for hold last year with their modest serves, and neither has taken a significant step forward since then.
Someone who can match the Canadian hold for hold, the third-seeded Sam Querrey seeks to continue building on his recent upward trend in the rankings. Returning to relevance midway through last year, Querrey plays his best on American soil and mirrored Raonic’s contributions last weekend by lifting Team USA past Brazil with two singles victories. He faces the possibility of consecutive matches against Australians, first the fading Lleyton Hewitt and then the surging Marinko Matosevic. Near his career-high ranking, the latter man will meet the teenage sensation Jack Sock, still in the process of refining his explosive serve and forehand.
If North Americans dominate the top half of the San Jose draw, a more European flavor emerges from the third quarter. Following his best season since his prime in the mid-2000s, Tommy Haas lurks near the edge of the top 20 after starting 2012 outside the top 200. Injuries and recurrences of his volatile temper hampered him in January, but expect his forecourt skills to flourish on a court where he can shorten points. Female fans would enjoy a quarterfinal between Haas and Fernando Verdasco, two slots below him in the rankings. Unfortunately for them, former finalist Ivo Karlovic might topple the Spanish lefty in the second round, although he lost to him here two years ago. Can wildcard Steve Johnson, who took Almagro to a fifth set at the Australian Open, build on that momentum to upset Dr. Ivo?
The only man in the ATP shorter than Karlovic, the second-seeded Isner needs to build momentum much more urgently than Johnson, for he defends finalist points at Indian Wells. Still the top-ranked American man by a small margin over Querrey, Isner withdrew from the Australian Open with a knee injury and looked unimpressive in Davis Cup last weekend. No player in his vicinity looks like a convincing dark horse, however, with the most notable resistance coming from Xavier Malisse. Otherwise, this section features a handful of promising-but-not-quite-there-yet figures like Vasek Pospisil and Evgeny Donskoy, the latter of whom defeated Youzhny in Melbourne.
Final: Querrey vs. Verdasco
Sao Paulo: In a draw that greatly resembles Vina del Mar last week, Nadal again shares a half with Jeremy Chardy amid a collection of players from South America and southern Europe. Few Spaniards have shown the determination to challenge Rafa on his favored red clay, and Ruben Ramirez Hidalgo should prove no exception. One of the few Spanish journeymen to defeat him on any surface, Guillermo Garcia-Lopez could meet the man whom he defeated in Bangkok at the quarterfinal stage, although Vina del Mar semifinalist Carlos Berlocq seems more plausible. Yet another Spaniard, the eighth-seeded Albert Ramos, opens against Garcia-Lopez.
Splitting his two Davis Cup rubbers in the United States, Thomaz Bellucci transitions back to his homeland and a friendlier surface for his traditional lefty game. The fifth-seeded Brazilian would meet Chardy in the quarterfinals with no legitimate threat between them. Fellow Brazilian Ricardo Mello, known better for his doubles success, received not only a wildcard but a winnable opening match as a reward for his victory over the Bryans in Davis Cup. Facing aging Federer-killer Volandri is Vina del Mar quarterfinalist Daniel Gimeno-Traver, who mustered some decent resistance to Rafa last week.
World #15 Monaco looked nearly certain to meet Nadal in the Vina del Mar final until the unheralded Guillaume Rufin upset him, only to issue a walkover a round later. At least the Argentine enjoyed accompanying Nadal through the doubles draw, which gave him plenty of opportunities to refine his clay skills before this second opportunity. A former top-10 player, Spanish veteran Tommy Robredo could become Monaco’s first opponent in a grinding match of counterpunchers who rarely miss. Cast from a similar mold is Robredo’s compatriot Albert Montanes, situated near the seventh-seeded Pablo Andujar. The latter must start the tournament on a high note to escape Santiago Giraldo, a Colombian who has upset much more notable players on clay before.
The key difference between the draws in Vina del Mar and Sao Paulo, Nicolas Almagro hopes to rebound from a memorable fortnight in Melbourne. While he reached an Australian Open quarterfinal, he may need time to forget his repeated inability to finish off Ferrer there and perhaps also to recover from a leg injury. Like Nadal, though, Almagro will find the clay accommodating to his ailing body, and he has won a set from Rafa on the surface before. Opening against surprise Vina del Mar champion Horacio Zeballos, he finds himself near the most dangerous unseeded player in the draw, David Nalbandian. The grouchy gaucho languishes in a semi-retirement from which he emerges just often enough to remain relevant, and a player lacking in fitness, confidence, or both would seem plausible prey. Nalbandian has tested Nadal severely before, even during his decline, but can he string together the solid efforts necessary to produce that tantalizing final?
Final: Nadal vs. Almagro
Check out the companion preview of the WTA Premier Five tournament in Doha, and return on Friday for the next entry in my column.
Formerly riddled with upsets and surprise semifinalists, WTA draws grew relatively predictable in 2012 as a small group of women won virtually every marquee tournament. That trend continued when Azarenka defended her Australian Open crown after several young stars rose and fell. In Doha, more of the familiar suspects look likely to shine. Read a preview of the draw, quarter by quarter.
First quarter: Just as she did in Melbourne, Azarenka may need to defend her title to retain her #1 ranking with the second-ranked Serena Williams anchoring the opposite half of the draw. Also like the Australian Open, the medium-speed hard courts in Doha suit the top seed’s style more than any other surface, and one must feel sanguine about her semifinal hopes in this weak section. Several of the women surrounding her played Fed Cup over the past weekend, when most looked pedestrian at best against modest competition. Although she upset Azarenka once and nearly twice in 2012, Cibulkova extended a discouraging span that started with her double bagel in the Sydney final by retiring on the verge of victory in Fed Cup. Bojana Jovanovski and Daniela Hantuchova collaborated on a hideous comedy of errors this Saturday, while the sixth-seeded Errani faces the challenge of transitioning from the clay of the Italy-USA tie. This section could implode quickly, which might open a door for the rising Laura Robson to build on her Australian upset of Kvitova.
Second quarter: Two women of Polish descent bookend a section that contains two former #1s who have sunk outside the top 10. Having withdrawn from Fed Cup with a shoulder injury, Ivanovic remained in the Doha draw as she hopes to erase the memories of a first-round upset in Pattaya City, where she held the top seed. The Serb likely would collide with Australian Open nemesis Radwanska as early as the third round, however, so she may gain little more from Doha than she did last year. An all-German encounter beckons at the base of the quarter between the last two Paris Indoors champions: the fifth-seeded Kerber and Mona Barthel. Meeting the winner in the same round as the projected Ivanovic-Radwanska clash is world #11 Wozniacki, who fell just short of an Australian Open quarterfinal in a promising end to an otherwise miserable January. Kerber stifled her on multiple surfaces last year, though, while struggling to solve Radwanska’s consistency.
Third quarter: A 2008 champion at this tournament, the third-seeded Sharapova eyes a comfortable start to the tournament against a qualifier or wildcard. Rolling through Melbourne until her competition stiffened suddenly, she may find an opponent worthy of her steel in Sloane Stephens, although her fellow Australian Open semifinalist withdrew from Fed Cup this weekend. Looming on the opposite side is an encore of the 2011 Melbourne marathon between Kuznetsova and Schiavone, separated just by a qualifier and the dormant Bartoli (also a Fed Cup absentee). The Russian returned to relevance with an outstanding January considering the sub-50 ranking with which she started it before reaching quarterfinals at Sydney and the Australian Open. Her athleticism and rising confidence should serve her well against the Schiavone-Bartoli winner and against the eighth-seeded Stosur in the following round. Still struggling to regain her rhythm after ankle surgery during the offseason, the Aussie probably cannot defend her runner-up points in the vicinity of two multiple-major champions from Russia.
Fourth quarter: Among the questions looming over this tournament is the health of Serena Williams, the prohibitive favorite in Melbourne until multiple injuries overtook her. Serena probably would not participate in an event like Doha unless she felt confident in her condition, however, so one should take her entry at face value for now. As she has reminded rivals over the last several months, few can break her serve on a non-clay surface when she is healthy, and she should overpower clay specialists in the early rounds like Medina Garrigues and Vinci. Of greater suspense is the identity of the woman who will emerge from the section occupied by Kvitova, who clings to the seventh seed in a manner far from convincing. Although playing a Fed Cup tie on home soil may have boosted her spirits, she has not strung together victories at a WTA tournament since last August. Often troubled by the task of defeating a compatriot, she could meet Fed Cup teammate Safarova in the third round. Before then, Beijing nemesis Suarez Navarro lurks in a challenge for her consistency. And Russian veteran Nadia Petrova adds an entertaining mixture of power and petulance to a section full of fiery personalities.
Come back on Friday to read a semifinal preview!
One week after the 2013 Davis Cup began, Fed Cup starts with four ties hosted by European nations. We look ahead to what viewers can expect from the women’s national team competition. Having gone 7-1 in Davis Cup predictions, will our hot streak continue?
Czech Republic vs. Australia: The first of the ties features the only two members of the top ten playing a Fed Cup World Group tie this weekend. But they also are the two most abjectly slumping women in that elite group, having slumped to equally deflating second-round exits at the Australian Open after imploding at tournaments earlier in January. The defending champions hold a key trump card if the match reaches a decisive fifth rubber, where their experienced doubles duo of Lucie Hradecka and Andrea Hlavackova should stifle whatever pair the Australians can compile. An ideally balanced team with two top-20 singles threats and a top-5 doubles team, the Czechs thus need earn only a split in singles, while the Aussies must get a victory from Dellacqua, Gajdosova, or Barty. Even in that scenario, they would need Stosur to sweep her singles rubbers, not as plausible a feat as it sounds considering her habit of embarrassing herself with national pride on the line. The boisterous Czech crowd might lift Kvitova’s spirits, similar to last year’s final when she eked out a victory as Safarova donned the heroine’s garb. But she too has struggled early this year, leaving the stage set for a rollercoaster weekend.
Pick: Czech Republic
Italy vs. USA: To paraphrase the producers who initially turned down the musical Oklahoma: no Williams, no Stephens, no chance. Like that show, which became a smash hit on Broadway, this American Fed Cup team has exceeded expectations in recent years when understaffed. Singles #1 Varvara Lepchenko enjoyed her breakthrough season in 2012, edging within range of the top 20, and Jamie Hampton announced herself with a three-set tussle against eventual champion Azarenka at the Australian Open. Hampered by a back injury in Melbourne, Hampton likely will trump the inconsistent Melanie Oudin after she showed how much her groundstrokes and point construction skills had improved. That said, Oudin has compiled plenty of Fed Cup experience, and her feisty attitude that so often thrives in this setting. Doubles specialist Liezel Huber, although past her prime, should provide a plausible counterweight to the top-ranked doubles squad of Errani and Vinci. The bad news for an American team, however, is the clay surface and the fact that their opposition also has proved themselves greater than the sum of their parts. Both inside the top 20 in singles as well, Errani and Vinci look set to take over from Schiavone and Pennetta as women who rise to the occasion in Fed Cup. Home-court advantage (and the choice of surface that accompanies it) should prove decisive.
Russia vs. Japan: Surprised at home by Serbia in last year’s semifinals, the Russians had become accustomed to playing final after final in Fed Cup during their decade of dominance. Even without the nuclear weapon of Maria Sharapova, the ageless Shamil Tarpischev has assembled troops much superior in quality to the female samurai invading from Japan. All of the Russians rank higher than any of the visitors, while Maria Kirilenko, Ekaterina Makarova, and Elena Vesnina all reached the second week at the Australian Open (Makarova reaching the quarterfinals). And world #31 Pavlyuchenkova reached the final in Brisbane when the new season started, although her production has plummeted since then. At any rate, Tarpischev has many more options for both singles and doubles than does his counterpart Takeshi Murakami, who may lean heavily on the 42-year-old legend Kimiko Date-Krumm. Older fans may recall Date-Krumm’s victory over Steffi Graf in Fed Cup, which came in the friendly confines of Ariake Colosseum rather than Moscow’s sterile Olympic Stadium. Kimiko likely will need a contribution of Ayumi Morita, who just defeated her in Pattaya City last week and has claimed the position of Japanese #1. One could see Date-Krumm or Morita swiping a rubber from Kirilenko or Makarova, neither of whom overpowers opponents. But it’s hard to see them accomplishing more.
Serbia vs. Slovakia: This tie in Nis looked nice a few days ago, slated to feature two gorgeous women—and only slightly less gorgeous games—in Ana Ivanovic and Daniela Hantuchova. Adding a bit of zest was another former #1 Jelena Jankovic, who always has represented Serbia with pride and determination. When both of the Serbian stars withdrew from the weekend, then, the visitors suddenly shifted from slight underdogs to overwhelming favorites. Granted, the hosts still can rely on the services of Bojana Jovanovski, who fell just short of the quarterfinals at the Australian Open in a breakthrough fortnight. Beyond the 15th-ranked Cibulkova, Slovakia brings no woman in the top 50 to Nis. A more dangerous talent than her current position of #58 suggests, though, Hantuchova should fancy her chances on an indoor hard court against whomever Serbian captain Dejan Vranes nominates for singles between Vesna Dolonc and Alessandra Krunic. She has shone in Fed Cup while compiling a 27-12 singles record there, whereas even Jovanovski has played just seven singles rubbers. Hand a slight edge to Slovakia in the doubles rubber as well because of Hantuchova’s experience in that format, where she has partnered with Magdalena Rybarikova (also here) to defeat the Serbs before.
Come back on Monday for previews of the ATP and WTA tournaments next week, following the format of last week’s ATP preview.