Watch List: Nadal back on clay, Fed Cup predictions
The Watch List spotlights the must-know storylines for the upcoming week in tennis. This week, Rafael Nadal goes for an unheard of nine-straight titles in Monte Carlo, while Serena Williams is in action for Fed Cup.
Monte Carlo Rolex Masters
In the pantheon of absurd records and statistics that make up Rafael Nadal's "King of Clay" portfolio, none is as viscerally striking as his eight-straight titles in Monte Carlo. His last loss in The Principality was to Guillermo Coria in 2003, when he was just 16 years old. He returned two years later and hasn't lost a match since, coming into this year's tournament on a 42-match win streak. He comes into the tournament as the No. 3 seed for the first time since 2010 and he's been drawn into Andy Murray's half of the draw, with Novak Djokovic and his gimpy ankle firmly on the other side along with Juan Martin del Potro, Tomas Berdych and Richard Gasquet. Not that it really matters, especially given Djokovic's injury concerns. Nadal is the man to beat here and he's the favorite. But that doesn't mean he's the only one we're watching this week.
There was some thought Djokovic would (and should) skip Monte Carlo after suffering an ankle strain in Davis Cup last week. He's still in the draw so I can only assume it was more of a "tweak" than an injury. If it's anything more than that his decision to stick with Monte Carlo could have lasting effects through the season as he looks to capture his first French Open title to complete a career Slam. Luckily the draw has been kind to the top-seeded Serb. Both Nadal and Murray are on the other side of the draw and he'll start with a relatively easy match against either Mkhail Youzhny or Daniel Gimeno-Traver and then could play either John Isner, Ernests Gulbis or Juan Monaco in the third round. Get through that and he could get a rematch with del Potro (who returns to the tour after skipping
Miami and Davis Cup and losing early in Miami), who bested him in the semifinals of Indian Wells in March.
As for Murray, Monte Carlo will be his first tournament as the World No. 2 since the 2009 U.S. Open. While clay has been his weakest surface by far throughout his career, he's shown marked improvement. In 2011, he made the semifinals of three of the four tournaments he played, including the French Open. And last year he made the quarterfinals or better in three of four tournaments as well. That slight dip means Murray should be in a good position to earn some points over the next six weeks, which could take some pressure off the huge amount of points he's defending after the French Open, which include a Wimbledon final, Olympic gold and U.S. Open title. Making the semifinals of Monte Carlo would be a good start, though it won't be easy. He could face Robin Haase in the second round, a guy who's caused him problems in the past, then Stanislas Wawrinka or Gael Monfils. And then Jo-Wilfried Tsonga or Nicolas Almagro in the quarters before likely facing Nadal in the semifinals.
Two names to track this week are Ernests Gulbis and Gael Monfils. Gulbis opted to skip Miami after his 13-match win streak came to an end against Nadal in Indian Wells so let's hope he hasn't lost the momentum he built during Feburary and March. He hasn't lost to a non Top-10 player since the first week of February and he could get a crack at Djokovic in the third round. He'll have to get past a tricky first round draw against John Isner first.
As for Monfils, the Frenchman returned to the tour last week in Houston and beat James Blake in straight sets only to lose to Almagro 2-6, 6-0, 6-3 in his next match. In that second set bagel he only won one point on his own serve. One. So yeah, who knows what we can expect from the Frenchman.
Potential early matches to watch: John Isner vs. Ernests Gulbis (first round), Milos Raonic vs. Julien Benneteau (first round), Bernard Tomic vs. Alexandr Dolgopolov (first round), Jerzy Janowicz vs. Kevin Anderson (first round), Thomaz Bellucci vs. Philip Kohlschreiber (first round), Bernard Tomic vs. Juan Martin del Potro (second round), Rafael Nadal vs. Fernando Verdasco (second round), Jo-Wilfried Tsonga vs. Nikolay Davydenko (second round), Gael Monfils vs. Stanislas Wawrinka (second round), Milos Raonic vs. Juan Martin del Potro (third round), Andy Murray vs. Stanislas Wawrinka (third round).
Prediction: Nadal d. Djokovic.
Fed Cup World Group Semifinals
Czech Republic vs. Italy: With a team led by two Top-15 clay specialists, the Italians are the favorites in this home tie to be held on outdoor red clay. With Errani and Vinci's consistency on the surface, the question is whether Petra Kvitova can win both her singles matches and whether Lucie Safarova, who should get the nod over Zakopalova given her records against Errani and Vinci, can earn a point. Kvitova has never lost to either Errani or Vinci but she's never played them on clay either. Safarova beat Errani in their only career meeting in Barcelona in 2009 on clay, but she's 2-2 against Vinci, losing their only clay meeting in Acapulco in 2009. The key for the Czechs is not to let this tie come down to doubles. They won't have a chance against the No. 1 doubles team on their favorite surface.
Prediction: Italy 3-2.
Slovak Republic vs. Russia: Russian captain Shamil Tarpischev is fielding a strong team of Maria Kirilenko, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina on indoor clay against a struggling Slovak team led by Dominika Cibulkova, Magdalena Rybarikova, Daniela Hantuchova and Jana Cepalova. With Kirilenko in fine form to start the season and Pavluchenkova coming off a confidence boosting title run in Monterrey, this looks like an easy win for the Russians.
Prediction: Russia 3-1.
Fed Cup World Group Playoffs
In addition to the semifinals, eight promotion/relegation ties are on the board over the weekend. Here are the ones to watch:
Sweden vs. United States: Poor Sweden. They just happened to draw the Americans during one of the few ties Serena and Venus Williams actually decide to play. Credit to the USTA for designating Delray Beach to host the tie. It's no coincidence that the venue is just down the road from Serena and Venus' house in West Palm Beach. You know what they say: geography, geography, geography. It's an embarassment of riches for Captain Mary Jo Fernandez, who will send the Top 4 Americans -- Serena, Venus, Varvara Lepchenko, and Sloane Stephens -- against a Swedish team that lacks a Top 50 player.
Germany vs. Serbia: Can Ana Ivanovic lead Serbia to an upset win? Without Jelena Jankovic by her side for Serbia, Ivanovic will have to beat both Angelique Kerber and Julia Goerges to give the Serbs a chance, and hope that Bojana Jovanovski or Vesna Dolonc can snag an upset win. Yeah, I don't think it will happen either.
World Group II Playoffs: Look for Poland, France, and Great Britain to win and earn promotion to World Group I, where they all belong. Meanwhile Canada flies to Ukraine for a tough tie to try and replicate their Davis Cup success and earn promotion as well.
USTA Pro Circuit Challengers
The USTA's wildcard playoff begins this week with a series of three Pro Circuit tournaments for both the men (Sarasota, Savannah, and Tallahassee) and the women (Dothan, Charlottesville, and Indian Harbour Beach) that will decide who gets a main draw wildcard into the French Open. Each tournament takes place on green clay with the player posting the best aggregate results over the three tournaments earning the wildcard. Last year, Brian Baker and Melanie Oudin won the respective wildcards, which kickstarted Baker's Cinderella run through the clay and grass season.
The men begin in Sarasota for a $100k Challenger that includes some familiar names in the draw. Most notably, Ryan Harrison, now on the cusp of falling out of the Top 100, is the No. 2 seed behind Michael Russell, with Jack Sock, Houston semifinalist Rhyne Williams, Steve Johnson, and Ivo Karlovic also in the draw. It's good to see Harrison having to duke it out on the Challenger level. Compiling a series of wins would be good for his confidence and allow him to work his ranking back up in a positive way, rather than having to fight through qualies on the ATP level. The women are in Dothan, Alabama for a $50k, where Coco Vandeweghe is the top seed, with USC standout Maria Sanchez, Michelle Larcher de Brito, Jessica Pegula, Grace Min, and Madison Brengle also in the draw.