Monday February 13th, 2012

Victoria Azarenka

Victoria Azarenka begins defense of her No. 1 ranking at the Qatar Open. (David Callow/SI)

The Watch List spotlights the must-know storylines for the upcoming week in tennis. This week the top women are in Qatar for Victoria Azarenka’s first tournament as No. 1, Roger Federer looks to rebound  from a disappointing Davis Cup weekend and Andy Roddick returns from injury.

Qatar Open: The first Premier event since the Australian Open marks a return to action for a number of seeds, including Azarenka, Caroline Wozniacki, Ana Ivanovic and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. Here are the players we’ll be particularly keen to track as the week progresses:

Victoria Azarenka: She hasn’t played a match since winning the Australian Open after withdrawing from Belarus’ Fed Cup series against the United States early this month with a lower-back injury. How focused is she right now, and how will she wear the bull’s-eye that has served as a 100-pound weight for the recent No. 1s and major winners? Azarenka will be tested immediately, as her road to the Doha final could include a surging Mona Barthel, who lost to Azarenka in the third round in Melbourne after winning the Hobart title as a qualifier; Pattaya champion Daniela Hantuchova or the giant-killing Iveta Benesova; Pavlyuchenkova or Francesca Schiavone; and Jelena Jankovic or Agnieszka Radwanska.

Caroline Wozniacki: The former No. 1, now ranked fourth, is set for her first tournament since firing coach Ricardo Sanchez after a two-month partnership. The No. 2 seed has a difficult half of the draw with potential matchups against Lucie Safarova (second round), Svetlana Kuznetsova (third round), Marion Bartoli, Sabine Lisicki or Paris winner Angelique Kerber (quarterfinals) and Samantha Stosur or Vera Zvonareva (semifinals). The question is whether the Dane is going to show signs of committing to a more aggressive game or whether she’ll revert to her defensive shell. Given that she’s back under the tutelage of her father, Piotr, and given Sanchez’s statements that she needs to be more aggressive, the latter approach is more likely. Does defense win championships? Team Woz seems hellbent on saying “yes.”

Samantha Stosur: Did the two Fed Cup wins over relatively easy competition help settle the Aussie? She could have some déjà vu with a potential second-round match against her Melbourne vanquisher, Sorana Cirstea. From there, she must be praying that Zvonareva would be her quarterfinal opponent: Stosur is 8-2 against the Russian and hasn’t lost to her in nearly eight years.

My Pick: Azarenka d. Stosur.

ABN Amro World Tennis Tournament: To say that Federer didn’t have a good weekend would be an understatement. The Swiss great lost to John Isner in singles and teamed with Stanislas Wawrinka to lose the clinching doubles point as the United States swept host Switzerland in a first-round Davis Cup match. Federer, according to at least one report, criticized Wawrinka for his play.

So enough with this “team” stuff, Roger, let’s get you back to where you excel. Federer is the top seed in Rotterdam, Netherlands, leading a field that includes Tomas Berdych, Juan Martin del Potro and Alexandr Dolgopolov. It’s hard to bet against Federer on an indoor hardcourt, and he doesn’t have anyone in his half who should cause too many problems, though a possible third-round match against Dolgopolov would be a must-watch.

In the other half, Berdych is coming off a title at the Open Sud de France and two victories in Davis Cup. With Berdych in form, a semifinal match against Del Potro, with the winner facing Federer in the final, is enough for me to dust off my popcorn machine. Extra butter, extra salt, extra big-hitting, please.

My Pick: Berdych d. Federer.

SAP Open: Roddick, a three-time champion in San Jose, Calif., is the second seed as he tries to come back from a hamstring injury suffered in the Australian Open. Milos Raonic sustained a knee injury during Davis Cup, making his chances of defending his title questionable. Add the fact that top-seeded Gael Monfils has spent the last week complaining about his knees and then saying everything is fine, and this draw gets tougher to call.

Roddick could have a second-round match with 19-year-old Jack Sock, who acquitted himself well when they played at the U.S. Open last year, and another American, Donald Young or Sam Querrey, looms in the third round for Roddick. In the top half, assuming Ryan Harrison can get over the jet lag from Switzerland, he could get a crack at Monfils in the third round, while a potential Raonic/Grigor Dimitrov third-rounder also looks intriguing. If the seeds hold this tournament could get very interesting late in the week, with Monfils/Raonic in one semifinal and Roddick/Radek Stepanek in the other.

My Pick: Roddick d. Monfils. UPDATE: This post has been updated to correct information about Tomas Berdych's participation in Davis Cup over the weekend. He did in fact play for the Czech Republic, winning a singles match and a doubles match against Italy.

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