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Beyond the Baseline

Watch List: Rafael Nadal could retake No. 1, Serena Williams the one to beat

Serena Williams is once again the woman to beat at the China Open this week. (ChinaFotoPress via Getty Images) Serena Williams is once again the woman to beat at the China Open this week. (ChinaFotoPress via Getty Images)

The Watch List spotlights the must-know storylines for the upcoming week in tennis. This week the focus is on the China Open, where Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal could meet for the 38th time, while a nearly full WTA field tries, once again, to stop Serena Williams.

China Open

[Men's Draw] [Women's Draw]

Less than a month ago, Rafael Nadal topped Novak Djokovic for the U.S. Open title. This week, the two could meet again at the ATP 500 event in Beijing, where the draw is packed with six of the top 10 men, including all four U.S. Open semifinalists.

In addition to potential bragging rights, Djokovic's No. 1 ranking is on the line. The Serb has to defend his title to have a chance to keep the top spot. Anything less, and Nadal will take over the No. 1 ranking for the first time since July 2011. Nadal can also supplant Djokovic by making the final, regardless of what his rival does.

Djokovic has been handed the tougher draw -- he could face Stanislas Wawrinka in the quarterfinals in a rematch of their highly entertaining, five-set U.S. Open semifinal, and then either David Ferrer or Richard Gasquet in the semis before a potential showdown against Nadal in the final.

In contrast, the highest seed in Nadal's quarter was No. 13 Tommy Haas, who lost to Lleyton Hewitt on Monday. Nadal is projected to face either No. 4 seed Tomas Berdych or John Isner in the semifinals. Is this the week we finally see Rafa lose a hard-court match this year? It's hard to see that happening to anyone except Djokovic in a final.

While the big names have yet to take the court for the men, the women's tournament has been well underway since Saturday. The China Open is a mandatory event for the women, meaning 18 of the top 20 are in attendance. The lone exceptions are Maria Sharapova, who is out with a shoulder injury, and Marion Bartoli, who is out with, well, retirement.

Serena Williams has returned to the tour after withdrawing from last week's Pan Pacific Open with fatigue. She's already into the second round after a 6-4, 6-2 win over Elena Vesnina (though her doubles campaign ended abruptly and frustratingly). Serena's half of the draw includes a potential quarterfinal against Sloane Stephens, Caroline Wozniacki or Eugenie Bouchard. Stephens and Bouchard will meet in the second round for the second week in a row; Bouchard won a three-setter last week in Tokyo. Angelique Kerber, who played her best tennis of the year last week to make the Pan Pacific Open final, is also in Serena's half, along with third-seeded Agnieszka Radwanska, who will play Madison Keys in the second round.

Andrea Petkovic dashed any hopes of a U.S. Open final rematch on Monday when she upset No. 2 Victoria Azarenka 6-4, 2-6, 6-4 in the first round. That result opens up the bottom half of the draw, which includes Tokyo champion Petra Kvitova; a resurgent Venus Williams; Li Na, who is defending finalist points from last year; and 11th-ranked Jelena Jankovic.

Rakuten Japan Open

[Complete draw]

Juan Martin del Potro took a late wild card into the ATP 500 event in Tokyo, meaning his bothersome left wrist must be feeling much better. He tops the field along with Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who returned to the tour two weeks ago at the Moselle Open after withdrawing in the second round at Wimbledon and skipping the summer hard-court season to mend a knee injury.

Del Potro looks to be in good position to make the ATP World Tour Finals; he's No. 6 in the race, more than 300 points ahead of No. 7 Roger Federer. A title run this week by No. 10 Tsonga could put him back into the running for London, despite skipping two ATP Masters 1000s and the U.S. Open this summer.

Aside from the top two seeds, keep an eye on Milos Raonic and Kei Nishikori. Raonic is coming off a fantastic run in Bangkok, beating Richard Gasquet and Tomas Berdych to win the Thailand Open over the weekend. The potentially wet weather in Tokyo this week could work in his favor. Four of his five career titles have come on indoor hard courts, and with Ariake Coliseum equipped with a retractable roof, this could turn into an indoor tournament.

As for the 13th-ranked Nishikori, his title run last year, in which he beat Berdych and Raonic to win his home tournament, was a stunner. Nishikori hasn't done much this season, so there's a lot of pressure on him to defend his points to keep his ranking from taking a hit.

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