David Ferrer is the top-ranked player at the Malaysian Open in Kuala Lumpur. (Cynthia Lum/Icon SMI)
The Watch List spotlights the must-know storylines for the upcoming week in tennis. The Asian swing kicks off in earnest this week, as the top women head to Japan and the men hit Southeast Asia.
Toray Pan Pacific Open
Cursed by distance and timing, the Pan Pacific Open is always hit by big-name withdrawals and this year is no different. Both Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova withdrew from the tournament last week, and understandably so, with Serena citing fatigue and Sharapova still dealing with a shoulder injury. Their withdrawal may affect the star power of the Premier-level field but not the competitiveness. No. 2 Victoria Azarenka is the top seed, followed by Seoul champion Agniezska Radwanska, Sara Errani and Caroline Wozniacki.
Sloane Stephens' quest to break into the top 10 and boost her chances of qualifying for the year-end WTA Championships in Istanbul begins in Tokyo. Currently ranked No. 13, the 20-year old American is just 200 points behind No. 10 Jelena Jankovic and already No. 11 in the Race to Istanbul. The top eight women qualify for the year-end championships, and with Marion Bartoli's retirement (she's still on the rankings at No. 8) and Sharapova questionable due to injury, a strong fall swing could see Stephens squeeze into that final spot. Drawn into Azarenka's quarter, she already opened her Tokyo campaign with a 6-3, 6-2 win over Stefanie Voegele on Sunday and could face the woman she's trying to chase down, Jankovic, in the third round.
Despite her sister's withdrawal, Venus Williams has made the trip to Asia and scored a very good 6-3, 6-1 win over Mona Barthel in the first round on Sunday. That win sets up an intriguing match against Azarenka in the second round. That match is not the only early-round match to watch. Seoul finalist Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova takes on Simona Halep in the first round, Flavia Pennetta faces Daniela Hantuchova in a rematch of the U.S. Open quarterfinals (with the winner to face Wozniacki), and in a battle of youngsters, Eugenie Bouchard takes on Monica Puig with the winner to face Stephens.
Tomas Berdych, Richard Gasquet, Milos Raonic and Gilles Simon lead the field at this ATP 250 event in Bangkok. Gasquet is the defending champion and there's a good amount to play for this fall, as he's in a two-man race with Stanislas Wawrinka (who is playing the Malaysian Open this week) for the No. 8 spot in the Race to London (though with Andy Murray's participation doubtful due to surgery, it's likely the No. 9 man in the race could qualify).
There's a noticeable drop-off in quality after the top six seeds this week, meaning the tournament probably won't get heated until the later rounds. The only first round match that jumps off the page is Bernard Tomic vs. Ivo Karlovic, which sounds more interesting in theory that it may be in actuality (the winner will play Simon). A potential rematch between Raonic and Gasquet is in the cards as well. Given that their last match at the U.S. Open went four hours and 40 minutes over five sets, a rematch (even a much shorter one) would be fun.
With Andy Murray unable to defend any points through the Asian swing, David Ferrer will soon rise to No. 3 in the rankings, matching a career-high from this summer. He's also entering a stretch of the season in which he has nearly 2,000 points to defend, including a win at the Paris Indoor Masters. All this comes at a time when Ferrer seems to be coming back to earth after two of the best years of his career, capped off by his first Slam final at Roland Garros in June. It hasn't been a dramatic tailspin -- he did make the quarterfinals of both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open -- but it's hard not to wonder if we've seen the best from the 31-year old Ferrer.