Roger Federer can silence the skeptics with a strong performance at the Brisbane International. (Carl Court/Getty Images)
The Watch List returns to spotlight the must-know storylines for the upcoming week in tennis. There are six events spread out across Australia, New Zealand, India, and the Middle East, but the 2014 season officially kicks off on Sunday with the star-studded field at the Brisbane International.
Roger Federer has never played the Brisbane International and his presence this year has added even more buzz to an already buzzworthy event that boasts three of the top five women. After an off-season filled with speculation over the state of his career, Federer can finally set things right if he can win here and show he's truly turned the page and left his confidence and injury woes behind him. One significant change to keep an eye on is Federer's racket. He confirmed in an interview this week that he plans on moving forward with his racket experiment and will use a larger 98 square-inch frame in Australia. He's also playing doubles with Nicolas Mahut.
Federer is the only top 15 player in the draw and if he's as sharp as he expects himself to be he shouldn't face much of a challenge until the the final. The next highest-ranked man in his half of the draw is No. 20 Kevin Anderson, with Dmitry Tursunov and Jeremy Chardy rounding out the other seeds in the top half.
The bottom half of the draw is filled with youngsters, with No. 2 seed Kei Nishikori and last year's finalist, Grigor Dimitrov in the mix. The two could face off in the quarterfinals. And don't overlook Lleyton Hewitt. Could we get a Hewitt-Federer throwback final?
Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka sit atop the women's draw in Brisbane, but the biggest curiosity in the field is Maria Sharapova. Playing in her first tournament in over four months, the Russian is coming off injury and under the tutelage of a new coach in Sven Groeneveld. Much like Federer, there's much speculation over the health of Sharapova's shoulder and whether she can continue the level of consistency that kept her in the WTA's elite three over the last two seasons (her injury opened the door for Li Na to take over the No. 3 ranking this fall).
For Serena and Azarenka, the biggest question is whether the fatigue that set in late in the 2013 season will carry over into 2014. Azarenka in particular struggled both emotionally and physically after the U.S. Open and Serena said she was running on empty before willing herself to win the WTA Championships in October. Is two months enough time to not only recover but also prepare for the first major of the season? Their results in Brisbane might be some indication.
Aside from the big names, the three more women to watch in Brisbane are Wozniacki, Lisicki, and Madison Keys. While Keys is still riding the honeymoon of being one of the brightest teenage WTA prospects (she'll likely hold that distinction alone after Laura Robson and Eugenie Bouchard turn 20 next year) Lisicki, last season's Wimbledon finalist, needs to prove she can win outside of the England. The two could meet in the second round.
As for Wozniacki, this will be our first look at her game under new coach Thomas Hogstedt, formerly Sharapova's coach. I'll say this: I'm really going to miss the entertainment value of her on-court coaching timeouts with her father, Piotr.
Doha boasts three of the top five players in the world, with Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray, and David Ferrer opting to begin their seasons in the Middle East. Nadal is coming off a surprising 6-4, 6-4 loss to Ferrer at an exhibition match in Abu Dhabi, while Murray will be playing his first ATP tournament since he had back surgery in September (he's also in doubles with Nenad Zimonjic). With everyone scrambling to get their Australian Open preparation in, the Doha field is a strong one at the top. No. 7 Tomas Berdych and No. 9 and defending champion Richard Gasquet will begin their seasons here, as will Ernests Gulbis, Gael Monfils, and Fernando Verdasco.
Nadal and Murray, who have not played each other since 2011, have been drawn into opposite sides of the draw and can't meet until the final. The most intriguing first round match-up for pure nostalgia is Nadal vs. Lukas Rosol. Rosol played the match of his career to knock Nadal out of Wimbledon in 2012 and send him into his seven-month injury layoff. Rosol hasn't done much since, but whatever he's done he's clearly fallen out of favor with the tennis gods. He's drawn Nadal in the first round of both singles and doubles.
While everyone else is playing for points, a select few have chosen to use the team event in Perth to get some guaranteed match play before the Australian Open. Come for the singles matches, but stay for the always entertaining mixed doubles. Where else are you going to get to see Sam Stosur and Bernard Tomic share a tennis court?
Here are the teams:
Poland (1): Agnieszka Radwanska & Grezegorz Panfil
Canada (4): Eugenie Bouchard & Milos Raonic
Italy (6): Flavia Pennetta & Andreas Seppi
Australia (7): Sam Stosur & Bernard Tomic
Group A matches to watch: Raonic vs. Tomic, Bouchard vs. Radwanska, Stosur vs. Bouchard, Stosur vs. Radwanska, Canada vs. Australia mixed doubles.
United States (2): Sloane Stephens & John Isner
France (3): Alize Cornet & Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
Czech Republic (5): Petra Kvitova & Radek Stepanek
Spain (8): Anabel Medina Garrigues & Daniel Munoz De La Nava
Group B matches to watch: Kvitova vs. Stephens, Isner vs. Tsonga, USA vs. Czech Republic mixed doubles, USA vs. France mixed doubles, France vs. Czech Republic mixed doubles.
Roberta Vinci and Ana Ivanovic top the field in Auckland, New Zealand, which includes Venus Williams, Jamie Hampton, and Sorana Cirstea. Venus says she's fully fit to begin the season, which is encouraging news given how well she finished the 2013 season, making the semifinals of the Tokyo Open. She has a tough early draw with a potential second round match against Mona Barthel, who never fails to play her best tennis in the first three months of the year.
As for Hampton, she begins the season as the No. 3 American behind Serena and Sloane Stephens but she's playing her first tournament since the U.S. Open, after shutting down her fall season due to injury. She played well in Australia last season, making the semifinals here and losing in the third round of the Australian Open in three tight sets to Azarenka. She opens against Tamira Paszek.
There's a lot of intrigue surrounding how Li Na will respond to what was essentially her best season in 2013, where she finished at a career-high No. 3. Carlos Rodriguez has succeeded in making her a better, more focused competitor while still tinkering with her game. Her serve improved and she's trying to work in more net play, and despite her disappointing three-set loss to Serena at the WTA Championships, she seemed encouraged and, dare I say excited to see where her game could go in 2014.
It all begins in Shenzhen, China, where Li is the top seed and defending champion. Given the weak quality of the field behind her, it would be a shocker if she failed to hoist to the trophy again, which would be a great boost to her confidence heading into the Australian Open, where she was a finalist last season.
But one of the quieter storylines to begin the season is the return of former No. 2 Vera Zvonareva. The Russian has not played in 17 months due to a shoulder injury that required surgery in February. It's great to see her able to get back on tour. Unfortunately, she's drawn Li in the first round.
Stanislas Wawrinka is the top seed in Chennai, India, where he leads a field that includes Mikhail Youzhny, Fabio Fognini, and Benoit Paire. Wawrinka won the title in 2011 and was a finalist in 2012. If his off-season preparation kept him sharp and hungry, he's the heavy favorite here, though he's on a two-match losing streak to Youzhny (they haven't played since 2010).