World No. 1 Victoria Azarenka returns to action in Stuttgart for the first time since losing in Miami. (Getty Images)
The Watch List spotlights the must-know storylines for the upcoming week in tennis. This week, the top eight women are in Stuttgart, Germany, and Rafael Nadal heads to Barcelona fresh off a title run in Monte Carlo.
The ladies take center stage this week as Stuttgart sees a draw filled with the entire top eight, the first clay court appearances of the year for Victoria Azarenka, Maria Sharapova, Petra Kvitova and Agnieszka Radwanska, and a welcome homecoming for the German women, all of whom have excelled in the last year. This is a big tournament for the top five women, all of whom will be jockeying for position over the next month to see who are the real contenders and pretenders for the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen.
In a head-shaking twist of fate for Radwanska, she's been drawn once again in Azarenka's half and they could meet in the semifinals. Radwanska has to be hoping that their matchup turns with the change of surface: all four of her losses in 2012 have been to Azarenka on hard court. As for Vika, this will be her first tournament since her streak-snapping loss to Marion Bartoli in Miami. She's been working with Amelie Mauresmo in Monaco to get ready for the clay season. I'll be curious to see how it all comes together. She's shown that she can be good on clay but she hasn't been great (perhaps the patience required on the surface works against her).
The bottom half of the draw holds all the power: Barring a bad performance, Sharapova, Kvitova and Sam Stosur are the favorites to come out of this half, with Caroline Wozniacki and Angelique Kerber as the dark horses. A Stosur-Sharapova quarterfinal could be a doozy.
Potential early round matches to watch: Wozniacki vs. Jankovic (first round), Petkovic vs. Barrois, Ivanovic vs. Barthel, Hantuchova vs. Cibulkova, Safarova vs. Li, Goerges vs. Pavlyuchenkova, Azarenka vs. Petkovic (second round), Ivanovic vs. Bartoli, Wozniacki vs. Kerber.
My pick: Kvitova def. Azarenka.
Fresh off cleaning house in Monte Carlo, Rafael Nadal goes for title number seven in Barcelona, where he's won the event the last six times he's entered. Want some Rafa stats? In his six title runs in Barcelona, Rafa has dropped a mere four sets, he's currently on a 29-match win streak there, and he's beaten David Ferrer in the last three finals he's been a part of (2011, '09, '08). This year he's joined by Andy Murray, who hasn't played the event since 2008.
You can understand Murray's reluctance to go back: In the three years he did play the event, he won a total of one match. Murray has a clean draw up until the quarterfinals, where he could get Nicolas Almagro and then Ferrer in the semifinals. A win over Ferrer on this surface would be huge for Murray.
Potential early round matches to watch: Tomic vs. Gulbis (first round), Nadal vs. Andujar (third round), Nishikori vs. Ramos (third round), Raonic vs. Almagro (third round).
My pick: Nadal def. Murray.
How's this for a tournament name that just rolls off your tongue: Grand Prix de SAR La Princesse Lalla Meryem. Yeah, so we're going to go with "Fez". The WTA's lone stop in Africa is headlined by Anabel Medina Garrigues, the WTA's active leader in clay titles with ten. She's joined by a flurry of WTA journeywomen and one name that made me do a double-take: Svetlana Kuznetsova. The Russian, now ranked No. 27, couldn't get direct entry into Stuttgart, which may be a blessing in disguise. A title -- any title -- would be a huge boost to her confidence. She hasn't won one since San Diego in 2010.
Fresh off his semifinal appearance in Monte Carlo, Gilles Simon is going for his third title in Bucharest. I like what I've seen from Simon over the last month and, now ranked No. 12, he'll be back into the top 10 if he can keep this level. Defending champ Florian Mayer anchors the other side of the draw, with Marcos Baghdatis and Viktor Troicki also floating.
At this time last year, Andrea Petkovic danced her way through an impressive first quarter of 2011, and who knew that would be only the first of many milestones for the German women. Following Petkovic's strong spring on hardcourts, Julia Goerges made a splash by beating Stosur and Wozniacki to win Stuttgart, Sabine Lisicki dominated on grass to win Birmingham and make the semifinals of Wimbledon, and then Angelique Kerber book-ended the German dream season with her semifinal run at the U.S. Open.
So far, 2012 hasn't panned out as great. Petkovic injured her back and sat out three months, Lisicki has been felled by injury and illness and will have to skip Stuttgart and Goerges has struggled with her consistency. Angelique Kerber and the rise of Mona Barthel have been the bright spots so far, and it's only a matter of time before Kerber supplants Petkovic as the top-ranked German and Barthel joins the rest of the crew in the top 30. Why is it important to have German tennis firmly part of the WTA tennis landscape? Expansion into Germany was one of Stacy Allaster's main talking points during her 2011 year-end address and the quick answer is "money". Germany has a tremendous tennis tradition and if the WTA can crack through there, we're talking a huge potential for new sponsorships, partners and tournaments. Stuttgart is now the only WTA Tour stop in Germany, a far cry from the days of Berlin, Hamburg, and even Munich. Surely the country that gave us Steffi Graf can do better than that.