The Watch List highlights the must-know storylines for the upcoming week in tennis. In the first week of the 2015 season, the action kicks off with Maria Sharapova, Ana Ivanovic, Roger Federer and Kei Nishikori at the Brisbane International, while Serena Williams, John Isner, Eugenie Bouchard and others opted to start the year at the Hopman Cup.
Brisbane once again serves host to the biggest tournament of the week, with a jam-packed field of men and women. The women lead the way with a Premier-level event headlined by No. 2 Maria Sharapova and No. 5 Ana Ivanovic, while Roger Federer and Kei Nishikori lead the ATP 500 field for the men. First round matches begin on Sunday (Saturday evening U.S. time). Here's how the draws break down:
Two-time defending champion Serena Williams has opted to skip the tournament this year in favor of Hopman Cup, meaning the field is as wide open as ever since the tournament was upgraded to a Premier-level in 2012. Sharapova has never won a lead-up event ahead of the Australian Open and her best result in Brisbane was last year, where she lost to Serena in the semifinals. She has a bye in the second round and will face either big-serving Sabine Lisicki or a qualifier. Angelique Kerber and Jelena Jankovic are also in her half.
The bottom half of the draw, led by Ivanovic, is far more unpredictable. Victoria Azarenka, Dominika Cibulkova, Madison Keys and Sam Stosur are all lurking. Ivanovic opens against either Zhang Shuai or Jarmila Gajdosova, before possibly playing her good friend Andrea Petkovic. But the two to keep an eye on here are Azarenka and Keys, two players we highlighted in this post. Both have tricky early round matches. Keys carries a 2-0 record into her match against last year's Australian Open finalist Cibulkova, while Azarenka goes into her opener against Pliskova as the underdog on paper, with the young Czech standout at No. 21. Currently ranked No. 31, an early loss for the two-time Australian Open champion could mean she'll go into her favorite Slam unseeded. The same is at stake for Keys, who could lose her top 32 seed with an early loss.
Potential matches to watch: Azarenka vs. Karolina Pliskova (first round), Keys vs. Cibulkova (first round), Stosur vs. Varvara Lepchenko (first round), Kerber vs. Caroline Garcia (first round), Garbine Muguruza vs. Bethanie Mattek-Sands (first round), Sharapova vs. Lisicki (second round), Muguruza vs. Azarenka/Pliskova (second round), Stosur vs. Keys/Cibulkova (second round).
A finalist last year, Federer hopes to continue his fantastic run of form over the last 12 months and build towards a chance to take over the No. 1 ranking at some point this season. Federer thrived on the lightning quick courts last year and won't mind his draw again this year. He gets a first round bye and will open against either a qualifier or Aussie wildcard John Millman. If the draw holds he would face Gilles Simon in the third round and Grigor Dimitrov in the semifinals.
Nishikori's bottom half of the draw is far trickier. Milos Raonic, Julien Benneteau, Kevin Anderson, defending champion Lleyton Hewitt, Sam Querrey, Bernard Tomic and Steve Johnson all ended up in his half. Nishikori will open his tournament against either Johnson or Marinko Matosevic, and could face some big servers in Raonic or Anderson en route to a final.
Potential matches to watch: Tomic vs. Sam Querrey (first round), Julien Benneteau vs. Thanasi Kokkinakis (first round), Dimitrov vs. Jeremy Chardy (second round), Anderson vs. Hewitt (second round), Benneteau vs. Tomic/Querrey (second round), Dimitrov vs. Alexandr Dolgopolov (third round), Federer vs. Simon (third round).
Who doesn't love Hopman Cup? The ITF team-based competition pits co-ed teams representing their home nation against each other, with each tie consisting of a women's singles match, a men's singles match and a mixed doubles match. This year's competition, which begins on Sunday in Australia, delivers a field of intriguing teams. The U.S. will have its two, big-serving No. 1s paired up in Serena and John Isner. The field also includes Andy Murray, Eugenie Bouchard and Agnieszka Radwanska. Two Groups of four teams will compete in a round-robin format with the winner of each group advancing to the final.
Canada: Bouchard & Vasek Pospisil
Czech Republic: Lucie Safarova & Adam Pavlasek
Italy: Flavia Pennetta & Fabio Fognini
United States: Serena & Isner
Australia: Casey Dellacqua & Matt Ebden
France: Alize Cornet & Benoit Paire
Great Britain: Heather Watson & Andy Murray
Poland: Radwanska & Jerzy Janowicz.
The U.S. will play Canada on Tuesday, in what may be the most anticipated tie of the week. Serena routed Bouchard at the WTA Finals in October, while Isner and Pospisil have had some memorable showdowns. Pospisil leads thier head-to-head 2-1 and all the matches have gone three sets. Then comes the mixed doubles which should undoubtedly be entertaining. Also worth watching are Great Britain vs. Poland, Poland vs. France and the United States vs. Italy.
Caroline Wozniacki and Sara Errani are the top two seeds in Auckland, New Zealand, with a field that includes last year's finalist Venus Williams. This is a very beatable field for Wozniacki, who is looking to get back to her title-winning ways. Despite her fantastic second half of the season, the Dane won just one small title. Wozniacki is already on the short-list of Australian Open favorites and she needs the trophy to prove she belongs there.
There are a number of Americans to keep an eye on as well. Venus' run to the final here last year foreshadowed a solid year that saw her back in the top 20. She opens against Jana Cepelova, the young Slovakian who upset her sister last year in Charleston. Sloane Stephens and CoCo Vandeweghe are also starting their seasons in Auckland, as is Taylor Townsend. Townsend opens up against Yanina Wickmayer and a few wins could see her finally break into the Top 100.
Novak Djokovic and defending champion Rafael Nadal are the top two seeds in Doha, with both men playing their only scheduled tune-up tournament before the Australian Open. Djokovic was forced to withdraw from an exhibition in Abu Dhabi over the weekend due to a fever, while Nadal won just two games against Murray at the same exhibition before beating Stan Wawrinka in straight sets. Tomas Berdych and David Ferrer round out the top four seeds.
Stan Wawrinka begins his season with a return to Chennai to defend his title. It's the only tournament he's won more than once, having also won the title in 2011. Wawrinka, Feliciano Lopez, Roberto Bautista Agut, and David Goffin are the top four seeds.