Watch List: Maria Sharapova begins French Open prep; Rafa in Barcelona
The Watch List spotlights the must-know storylines for the upcoming week in tennis. This week, Rafael Nadal goes for his eighth title in Barcelona, while Maria Sharapova returns to the red clay to begin her quest for a second French Open title.
Porsche Tennis Grand Prix
Seven of the top 10 women are in Stuttgart for the first WTA Premier event of the season held on red clay. While Serena Williams, Victoria Azarenka, and Agnieszka Radwanska are not in the field, defending champion Maria Sharapova returns to the tournament that kicked off her triumphant clay season last year and culminated in her title at Roland Garros. She'll receive a first-round bye, along with Li Na, Angelique Kerber, and Sara Errani, who round out the top-four seeds.
Sharapova and Li will play their first clay matches of the year here, so it will be our first look as to their form. That especially holds true for Li, who I like as a top-five favorite for the French. She wasn't able to get much traction after making the Australian Open final due to injuries, but I expect that to change as we transition to clay. A semifinal here would put her on the right track.
With just a 32-player field, the draw is packed with blockbuster matches from the first round on, including Ana Ivanovic against good friend Andrea Petkovic, Sam Stosur vs. Jelena Jankovic and a tricky opener for Caroline Wozniacki against clay stalwart Carla Suarez Navarro. Look for a few players to suffer (or benefit) from a Fed Cup hangover, with tough duties over the weekend either leaving them drained or buoyed with confidence.
Kerber suffered a tough loss to Ivanovic during the Fed Cup, while Ivanovic played exceptionally well in winning both her matches for Serbia. On the flip side, the waterlogged tie between Australia and Switzerland meant the entire day was pushed to Monday, so Stosur will probably have to play two matches in one day (weather permitting) before flying to Stuttgart for her first-round match against Jankovic. In short, the week's results are going to be very tough to predict. That said ...
Prediction: Sharapova d. Errani.
Notable potential early-round matches: Ana Ivanovic vs. Andrea Petkovic (first round), Samantha Stosur vs. Jelena Jankovic (first round), Caroline Wozniacki vs. Carla Suarez Navarro (first round), Julia Goerges vs. Kirsten Flipkens (first round), Ana Ivanovic vs. Nadia Petrova (second round), Angelique Kerber vs. Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (second round), Samantha Stosor or Jelena Jankovic vs. Sabine Lisicki (second round), Maria Sharapova vs. Nadia Petrova (third round), Angelique Kerber vs. Caroline Wozniacki (third round), Li Na vs. Petra Kvitova (third round).
I'm not sure I'll ever get used to seeing Rafael Nadal's name not on the top line of a clay-court tournament, but he'll try to put the disappointment of losing to Novak Djokovic in Monte Carlo behind him in Barcelona, where he's won the the title seven of the last eight years. The reason he's not the No. 1 seed is the return of David Ferrer, who skipped Monte Carlo after a grueling Miami final, where he was a point away from beating Andy Murray. Despite his loss in Monte Carlo, Nadal's obviously the heavy favorite to win his eighth title here. His toughest road to the final would be Carlos Berlocq, Benoit Paire, Jerzy Janowicz, Tomas Berdych and Ferrer. Unless Janowicz or Berdych has one of those days where he serves 20 aces and crushes winners on the lines, there's little stopping Nadal.
Prediction: Nadal d. Ferrer.
Notable potential early-round matches: Ernests Gulbis vs. Radek Stepanek (first round), Tomas Berdych vs. Nikolay Davydenko (second round), Grigor Dimitrov vs. Tommy Robredo (second round), Fernando Verdasco vs. Ernests Gulbis (second round), Alejandro Falla vs. Marcel Granollers, Bernard Tomic vs. Juan Monaco (second round), Milos Raonic vs. Ernests Gulbis (third round), Grigor Dimitrov vs. Tomas Berdych (third round), Benoit Paire vs. Rafael Nadal.
It's not often that you see a former top-10 player in a $50,000 Challenger field, but that's precisely the situation in Savannah, Ga., as Mardy Fish has taken a wild card. Fish returned to the tour in March at Indian Wells after shutting down his 2012 season at the U.S. Open due to complications stemming from a heart arrhythmia. Fish played well upon his return, forcing two tiebreakers against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, and has passed on the early European clay season to play Challenger events in Savannah and Tallahassee, Fla., next week. It's a smart move for Fish, who is still trying to cope with his nerves and trust his body in the heat of competition. That comfort level can only increase if he gets matches under his belt.
BRD Nastase Tiriac Trophy
Can Janko Tipsarevic finally get back on track? After winning Chennai in January, the No. 2 Serb endured a five-match losing streak through Indian Wells and was a mess in his second-round loss to Dimitrov in Monte Carlo. He's the top seed in Bucharest, followed by Gilles Simon, Andreas Seppi and Mikhail Youzhny. Perhaps dropping down to play the smaller events will help him build momentum.