After losing last year, Rafael Nadal will look to win his ninth crown at the Monte Carlo Masters. (David Callow/SI)
The Watch List spotlights the must-know storylines for the upcoming week in tennis. This week, the big names on the ATP Tour kick off the European clay season in Monte Carlo, while the women spread out all over the globe for Fed Cup.
Monte Carlo Masters
Rafael Nadal will go for his ninth Monte Carlo title, in a field that includes defending champion Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer, who took a late wild card after skipping the event the last two years. Djokovic snapped Nadal's 46-match winning streak in Monte Carlo last year with a 6-2, 7-6 (1) victory in the final. Djokovic has won the last four ATP Masters 1000 tournaments. After winning both Indian Wells and Miami with Marian Vajda in his box, Djokovic will be rejoined by Boris Becker in Monte Carlo. The Serb, who needs to win the French Open to complete the career Grand Slam, says this year he's focusing on one tournament at a time.
"Roland Garros was more in my mind,” Djokovic said in Monte Carlo. “It was in my thoughts constantly. I'm not saying it's good or bad, and it doesn't mean that this year I don't want to win it. Of course, I will put all my effort into it, but only when the time comes. ... Right now, I want to dedicate my attention to Monte Carlo, Madrid and Rome, three very big tournaments on clay. This is where I want to do well and eventually get myself in a very good position in terms of confidence for the French Open.
"Last year, I put a lot of energy -- mentally, physically and emotionally -- into winning that [French Open] title. It didn't help much for the tournaments prior to that, like Madrid and Rome. I have a different kind of approach this year.”
Djokovic has closed the gap on No. 1 Nadal to 2,050 points. Nadal needs three more clay-court titles to match Guillermo Vilas' Open Era record of 46.
Nadal, the top seed, has been drawn into a half that includes the struggling Stanislas Wawrinka and David Ferrer, as well as Milos Raonic. The bottom half features more in-form players, with Djokovic, Federer, Tomas Berdych and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga as the top seeds. The bottom half also has clay-court specialist Fabio Fognini and the red-hot Alexandr Dolgopolov.
Fed Cup Semifinals
The Fed Cup semifinals features two tough ties: Czech Republic hosts Italy and Australia hosts Germany. The Czechs and defending champion Italians are meeting in the semifinals for the fourth time in the last five years. The home team has won the last three and has gone on to win the title.
Petra Kvitova rejoins the Czech squad and will lead its singles effort with Lucie Safarova. The Italians are going with Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci, though Karin Knapp and Camila Giorgi are available should captain Corrado Barazzutti lack faith in the form of Vinci, who is 2-9 this year. With the tie being played on an indoor hard court, you have like the Czech Republic's chances of returning to the final.
The tougher tie to call is in Australia. The Germans are without Sabine Lisicki, who was left off the team by captain Barbara Rittner because of injury and performance. Instead, Germany will rely on the two women who got it to the semifinals, No. 7 Angelique Kerber and Charleston champion Andrea Petkovic.
The Australians, hosting the tie in Brisbane on an outdoor hard court, will match up with No. 20 Sam Stosur and Casey Dellacqua. If Dellacqua plays as well as she did in her fourth-round run at the Australian Open, the Germans are in trouble. Then again, if Stosur plays as well as she normally plays on home soil, the Aussies will be in trouble, too.
This is a huge opportunity for both squads. The last time either of these teams made the final was in 1993, when Australia accomplished the feat.
Fed Cup Playoffs
There are four interesting playoff ties to keep an eye on over the weekend. In the World Group playoffs, Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys lead the Americans in St. Louis against a French team whose top two players are coming off titles. France's No. 1, Alize Cornet, won the Katowice Open, while its No. 2, Caroline Garcia, won her first title, the Claro Open Colsanitas. Further, both defeated top-10 players for their titles; neither Stephens nor Keys has made a final this season.
The last time Canada was in the World Group, Eugenie Bouchard was four months old. Almost 20 years later, she has a good chance of getting Canada back there, as Slovakia is sending its B-team to Quebec. With Dominika Cibulkova and Daniela Hantuchova skipping the tie, the Slovaks will rely on No. 37 Magdalena Rybarikova and the breakthrough player from Charleston, Jana Cepelova.
The one-woman Polish team known as Agnieszka Radwanska will take on a weak Spanish team in hopes of getting back into the World Group for the first time since 1994. Radwanska played a part in all three points in Poland's opening win over Sweden, and unless her sister, Urszula, can scratch out a singles win over Maria-Teresa Torro-Flor or Estrella Cabeza Candela, Aga will probably have to do it again.
While those teams are fighting for a World Group spot, the World Group II playoffs will feature one of the most stacked ties of the weekend when Romania hosts Serbia. No. 5 Simona Halep, who has not played since making the semifinals in Indian Wells, returns to action, and along with Sorana Cirstea, will take on Ana Ivanovic's Serbian team, which includes recent Monterrey Open finalist Jovana Jaksic. The losing team will be relegated to Zone Groups in 2015.
Yes, there is a WTA tournament this week despite the presence of Fed Cup. In fact, top seed Cibulkova is here instead of participating in the team competition. She's the lone top-45 player in the draw.