Monday April 16th, 2012

Rafael Nadal Monte Carlo

Rafael Nadal has won seven straight titles at the Monte Carlo Masters. (Julian Finney/Getty Images)

The Watch List spotlights the must-know storylines for the upcoming week in tennis. This week, Rafael Nadal aims for his eighth straight Monte Carlo title, while the Fed Cup features some intriguing ties.

Monte Carlo

Cliche alert: What happens when immovable object meets unstoppable force? Rafael Nadal hasn't lost in Monte Carlo since 2003 (his first year playing the event) and he's going for a jaw-dropping eighth straight title there. Meanwhile, Novak Djokovic, the man who owned him in 2011 and beat him twice on clay last year, has decided to crash the party and kick off his French Open tune-up campaign in Rafa's sandbox. How dominant has Nadal been in Monte Carlo? In the last five years he's lost only two sets. To say he's comfortable in Monte Carlo is an understatement.

So what do we make of his chances this year? Nadal withdrew from the semifinals of Miami because of tendinitis in his left knee, and though he's still in the No. 2 spot, he hasn't won a title since Roland Garros. But Rafa's always been able to get his feet back under him in Monte Carlo. Needless to say, a clash between the top two seeds in the final would clearly set the tone for the rest of the clay season.

Of course, both guys need to get to the final, which is no guarantee. Djokovic has the tougher half of the draw, with last year's finalist, David Ferrer, in his quarter (see the complete draw here). A freshly shorn Andy Murray, who is one of two men in the draw who has taken a set off Nadal in Monte Carlo, has also been drawn into Djokovic's half. But Murray, who defeated Djokovic earlier this year in Dubai, has never beaten the Serb on clay, and he has a tricky path to the semis himself.

Murray has Victor Troicki in the second round, and could face Jurgen Melzer and Tomas Berdych along the way. All winnable matches for Murray, and yet, would it surprise anyone if he lost one? For the first time in his career, Murray comes into the clay season with a good amount of pressure to back up his strong 2011 results (semifinalist in Monte Carlo, Rome and Roland Garros).

Nadal, on the other hand, shouldn't face much resistance until the quarterfinals, where he could face fellow Spaniard Nicolas Almagro (who has never beaten Nadal in seven attempts). From there, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga is the only potential semifinalist who could give Rafa problems, but the fact is we don't call him the Clay G.O.A.T. for nothing. I suspect he'll make it through to the finals with nary a peep (assuming he's healthy, of course).

Potential early-round matches to watch: Stanislas Wawrinka vs. Feliciano Lopez (first round); Bernard Tomic vs. Alexandr Dolgopolov (second round); Tomas Berdych vs. Marin Cilic (second round); Janko Tipsarevic vs. Milos Raonic (second round); Jo-Wilfried Tsonga vs. Fernando Verdasco (third round); David Ferrer vs. Juan Monaco (third round).

Prediction: Djokovic def. Nadal.

Fed Cup

We hit the pause button on the WTA Tour to make way for Fed Cup, where the biggest news is the return of Serena Williams, Andrea Petkovic and Ana Ivanovic. With Serbia, Russia, Italy and the Czech Republic vying for the Fed Cup finals, here are the four ties to keep an eye on this weekend.

Serbia vs. Russia, World Group semis: With a spot in the finals on the line, Serbia brings its full squad to Moscow, while Russia will be without its two highest-ranked players: Maria Sharapova and Vera Zvonareva. Sharapova made it known early that she intended to skip the tie in order to rest and prepare for the clay season, while the slumping and injured Zvonareva was left off the team.

With the tie being played on indoor clay, captain Shamil Tarpischev has opted to go with Maria Kirilenko, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Svetlana Kuznetsova and Elena Vesnina. Given Pavlyuchenkova's ongoing slump and downright horrid form, expect 2010 French Open champion Kuznetsova to get the nod as Russia's No. 2 for singles.

As for the Serbs, this is a fantastic opportunity for them to make a run at the Fed Cup trophy. Ana Ivanovic, who skipped their first-round tie in February, rejoins the team alongside Jelena Jankovic, Bojana Jovanovski and Aleksandra Krunic. But is she ready to fly the flag as Serbia's No. 1? She's never been at her best in Fed Cup and the last time Serbia played Russia in the first round, in 2010, Ivanovic had a disastrous weekend, losing both singles rubbers and doubles for a 3-2 loss in Belgrade. With the tremendous doubles talent on the Russian team (Kuznetsova won the Australian Open doubles title earlier this year and Vesnina and Kirilenko are strong doubles players), the Serbs will need to win this via singles.

Call me crazy, but I think Ivanovic and Jankovic will get it done.

Italy vs. Czech Republic, World Group semis: Could this be the passing of the torch from one Fed Cup powerhouse to another? Dating to 1998, the top-ranked Italians have won four straight ties against the defending champion Czechs, but times have definitely changed.

Francesca Schiavone and Flavia Pennetta have led Italy to three titles in the past decade, but there's a good argument to be made that they're not even the strongest singles players on the team anymore. Sara Errani is the No. 4 Italian, yet she just won a title in Barcelona last week and made the quarterfinals of the Australian Open earlier this year. Roberta Vinci is the new Italian No. 2, having eclipsed Pennetta in the rankings, and Schiavone's 2012 play has rendered her practically invisible. Pennetta and Schiavone may be the heart of the team, but captain Corrado Barazzutti has a tough decision to make.

As for the Czechs, they'll field the same team that has got them to their fourth straight semifinal: Petra Kvitova, Lucie Safarova, Lucie Hradecka and Andrea Hlavackova. Safarova is riding a wave of confidence after making the Charleston final, and Kvitova is probably just happy she doesn't have to play tennis in North America for a few months.

With this tie being played on an indoor hard court in Ostrava, it's hard not to bet on the Czechs to get through, with Kvitova extending her 23-match indoor winning streak to 25.

Australia vs. Germany: Germany was in prime position to make a charge for the Fed Cup title when 2012 began, but was quickly saddled with some bad luck: Petkovic, the team's heart and soul, went down with a back injury, and the Germans got the Czechs in the first round. Result? They're now playing to stay in the World Group and they'll have to get through Sam Stosur to do it.

Petkovic says she's healthy and has made herself available to play, but with the depth of the German squad she may not be needed. Angelique Kerber is on fire and Julia Goerges -- erratic as she is -- has the type of firepower that can give Stosur problems. The Porsche Arena has good memories for Goerges: She won Stuttgart here last year, beating some quality opponents (including Stosur) along the way.

This is a 50-50 matchup that could come down to doubles. If it does, I give Australia the edge. USA vs. Ukraine: Welcome to Kharkiv, Serena Williams. Serena leads the U.S. team of Christina McHale, Sloane Stephens and Liezel Huber against a Ukrainian team that features no one ranked inside the top 100. So, yeah, this one should be a walk in the park for captain Mary Joe Fernandez. But what I want to see is whether Serena's devastating form from Charleston holds up. If it does, the U.S. will be back in the World Group in 2013.

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