Andy Murray is one of the top men who will be playing in Brisbane leading up to the start of the Australian Open. (Kamran Jebreili/AP)
The Watch List spotlights the must-know storylines for the upcoming week in tennis. This week, the primary focus is on Australia, where both No. 1s are in action as the 2013 season begins.
Brisbane International -- Brisbane, Australia
Top seeds: Andy Murray, Victoria Azarenka. While the top men are spread out around the globe, the top women -- Azarenka, Maria Sharapova, and Serena Williams -- will all begin their season in Brisbane. The WTA field is packed with eight of the top 10 women -- only Agnieszka Radwanksa (Auckland) and Li Na (Shenzhen) are missing -- which means this will probably be the most complete look at the contenders and pretenders before the Australian Open, which is a mere 12 days away.
Here's what to look for in Brisbane, which begins on Dec. 30.
The Big Three battle it out: The best case scenario in Brisbane is if the seeds hold, we'll see Azarenka, Sharapova, and Serena in the semifinals. That's no sure thing, as both Sharapova and Serena have had some minor health issues during the off-season, though both say they'll be ready for Brisbane. How those matches play out, particularly if Serena gets drawn in to Vika's half, will set the tone for the early hard court swing. Has Vika come closer to solving Serena? Has Sharapova figured out how to beat Azarenka on outdoor hard courts? Will Serena start 2013 as dominant as she ended 2012? Brisbane should give us some answers.
Checking in on Petra: Brisbane is where it all started for Kvitova in 2011. She won the tournament and went on to have a career year, winning Wimbledon and finishing the year ranked No. 2. She took a few steps back in 2012, struggling with her health and fitness throughout the year, but she's still the most promising talent among her peers, which include Azarenka, Caroline Wozniacki, and Agnieszka Radwanska. Her 2012 season ended in disappointment turned triumph, with an illness forcing a tearful withdrawal from the WTA Championships before she helped the Czech Fed Cup team win their second straight title. More than anything, Kvitova needed the extended off-season break to work on her fitness and establish a strong base for the season. If she's slow-footed in Brisbane, that's a bad sign.
The inevitable Kerber/Errani letdown: Angelique Kerber and Sara Errani effectively shared the 2012 Breakthrough award; Kerber went from No. 32 to No. 5 in the span of a year, and Errani made her first Slam final at Roland Garros to finish at No. 6. But as most players will tell you, it's tough to get to the top but it's even tougher to stay there. While I have more confidence in Kerber's abilities to stay in the Top 10 than Errani's, I also can't help but think Kerber needed a longer off-season. Her body was absolutely wiped by the end of the season due to a heavy schedule, so I wouldn't be surprised to see her start the season slow.
New year, new Woz: With Azarenka, Sharapova and Serena atop the rankings, it's weird to think that Wozniacki held that No. 1 ranking just a year ago. Now ranked at No. 10, we'll see if Caroline has finally put the ghosts of what was a miserable 2012 season behind her and get back to the business of making deep runs week in and week out. She showed signs of life towards the end of 2012, with titles in Seoul and Moscow, her first titles in over a year.
Stosur's home-court disadvantage: Sam Stosur's struggles on her home soil are well-documented. So much so that she's asked about her Aussie futility all the time, which I'm sure feels pretty great. Last season, in her first appearance in Australia after winning the 2011 U.S. Open, Stosur won one match in three tournaments, culminating in a first round loss at the Australian Open to Sorana Cirstea. She keeps saying she's confident she can turn it around. We'll see.
Murray and Raonic lead the men: On the men's side, Murray returns to Brisbane as the defending champion after dropping an exhibition match to Janko Tipsarevic in Abu Dhabi earlier this week. He's the only Top 10 player in the draw, though he should face some stiff competition from No. 2 seed Milos Raonic. This will be a good litmus test for both men, as Murray seeks to prove himself reliable at the smaller tournaments, and Raonic attempts to lay down the gauntlet in 2013. Murray is the only member of Top 4 that Raonic has beaten, both on clay and hard court, so should the seeds hold, that final will be a doozy.
Hopman Cup -- Perth, Australia
Top seeds: Serbia. It's no secret that I have a soft spot for the country-based ITF-sanctioned exhibition, which fields co-ed teams from eight different countries to duke it out in singles and mixed doubles. Here's a quick rundown of the teams:
Group A: Serbia (Novak Djokovic/Ana Ivanovic), Italy (Andreas Seppi/Francesca Schiavone), Germany (Tommy Haas/Andrea Petkovic), and Australia (Bernard Tomic/Ashleigh Barty).
Group B: USA (John Isner/Venus Williams), Spain (Fernando Verdasco/Anabel Medina Garrigues), South Africa (Kevin Anderson/Chanelle Scheepers), France (Jo-Wilfried Tsonga/Mathilde Johansson).
Djokovic and Ivanovic are the Hopman Cup veterans, having played together twice before and making the finals in 2011 before an Ivanovic injury forced them to withdraw. They're the heavy favorites to make it out of Group A and into the finals, while Group B is more wide open. Venus should roll in her singles matches, while Isner will have tough matchups against Tsonga, Verdasco, and Anderson. Isner hasn't played Verdasco since 2009, and he holds a slight edge in the head-to-heads against Tsonga and Anderson. I'll give Team USA the nod out of Group B given their doubles prowess. A Serbia-USA final would be very intriguing.
Qatar ExxonMobil Open -- Doha, Qatar
Rafael Nadal David Ferrer. By now you've heard the news that Rafael Nadal pulled out of Doha and the Australian Open and hopes to return in February. With that news the interest in Doha, an ATP 250, plummets accordingly. Ferrer assumes the role as the top seed, with Richard Gasquet, Philip Kohlschreiber, and Mikhail Youzhny rounding out the top four seeds.
Shenzhen Longgan Gemdem Open -- Shenzhen, China
Top seed: Li Na. This is the WTA's first tournament in Shenzhen and they've put together a solid field considering its International-level status. Li leads the field, along with Marion Bartoli, Jelena Jankovic and Hsieh Su-Wei. If Li can settle her nerves from playing on home soil, I like her chances of finally winning a title in Asia. She's 1-1 against Bartoli, though the two haven't played each other since 2010, and she leads the head-to-head against Jankovic, 4-3. This tournament will give us a good look at her extended partnership with Carlos Rodriguez, as well. Another notable name on the entry list here: Laura Robson. The 18-year old will begin her 2013 season here.
Aircel Chennai Open -- Chennai, India
Top seed: Janko Tipsarevic. Tipsarevic was a finalist here last year, losing to Milos Raonic, and he always plays well in Chennai. He's joined by Marin Cilic, Stanislas Wawrinka, and Benoit Paire. Given his success here in the last few years, Tipsarevic is the heavy favorite to finally hoist the title. But keep an eye on Paire. The highly-combustible Frenchman made a strong move up the rankings in 2012, going from No. 95 to No. 47. I'm curious to see if he can continue that momentum into next season.
ASB Classic -- Auckland, New Zealand
Top seed: Agnieszka Radwanska. Look for Radwanska to run away with the title here, as the No. 4 shouldn't face much resistance against a weak field with only five other top 30 players in the draw (the No. 2 seed is No. 18 Julia Goerges). That said, keep an eye on Christina McHale, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Yaroslava Shvedova, and Heather Watson. McHale was knocked out of the fall season with mono, Kuznetsova, now ranked No. 71, is coming off a knee injury, and both Shvedova and Watson ended the 2012 season strong.