Watch List: Venus looks to continue form in Dubai; Nadal returns to clay
The Watch List spotlights the must-know storylines for the upcoming week in tennis. This week, Venus Williams defends her title in Dubai while Rafael Nadal and other top men's players are in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
The Premier 5 tournament originally boasted nine of the top ten women but with No. 1 Serena Williams (illness) and No. 7 Eugenie Bouchard's withdrawal over the weekend, the tournament took a slight hit (No. 2 Maria Sharapova has skipped as well). Simona Halep is the top seed, with Petra Kvitova, Caroline Wozniacki, and Ana Ivanovic rounding out the top four seeds.
Venus Williams, the defending champion, is the No. 8 seed. She comes into the tournament as the most in-form seed, having compiled an 11-1 record this year with a title in Auckland, New Zealand, two Fed Cup wins, and a quarterfinal appearance at the Australian Open. She's in the bottom half of the draw along with Kvitova, Ana Ivanovic, and Agnieszka Radwanska. Venus opens against Belinda Bencic.
Aside from Venus, this is a particularly important tournament for the top three seeds, Halep, Kvitova, and Wozniacki. Halep, who drops to No. 4 on Monday, has looked shaky since winning the Shenzhen Open to start the year. She has faced just two players ranked inside the Top 40 and lost to both. She was a virtual no-show in her 6-4, 6-0 loss to Ekaterina Makarova in the Australian Open quarterfinals and lost to No. 24 Garbine Muguruza at Fed Cup. Given her meteoric rise over the last two years, the word "pressure" is never far from Halep. Either she's being asked about it or she talks about being wary of it. She's coming off an outstanding 2014, which included a title in the Middle East at the Qatar Open.
For Kvitova and Wozniacki, their strong starts to the season have been hampered by tough draws and players on hot streaks. Kvitova won the title at the Sydney International and then ran into a searing-hot Madison Keys in the third round of the Australian Open. For all the pre-season hype around the potentially great season Wozniacki had in store, she fell short in the Auckland final to Venus and lost to Victoria Azarenka in the second round of the Australian Open. Wozniacki has a tricky opener against Sam Stosur, while Kvitova plays either Elina Svitolina or CoCo Vandeweghe.
No. 3 Rafael Nadal makes his return to clay as the top seed and defending champion at the Rio Open in Rio de Janiero. This offers the first real opportunity for Nadal to build his confidence on the surface he loves. A loss to a Top 10 player on the Australian Open's hard courts can be shrugged off for a variety of reasons. But I suspect even Nadal would say his expectations are higher on clay. This is a tournament he should dominate.
David Ferrer is the No. 2 seed, with Tommy Robredo and Fabio Fognini rounding out the top seeds. Nadal opens against Brazil's top player, Thomaz Bellucci, in the first round. Should it come down to a Nadal-Ferrer final, all bets are off. Aside from a gassed loss to Kei Nishikori in Melbourne, Ferrer has looked very good.
As for the women, No. 13 Sara Errani and No. 34 Irina-Camelia Begu are the top two seeds. Australian Open quarterfinalist Madison Brengle is also in action. I'm curious to see if she can maintain the great level of play that took her to a 14-3 record in January.
Open 13 (Marseille, France)
Will Stan Wawrinka go back-to-back in Marseille? Wawrinka won't have much time to celebrate winning his first ATP 500 title in Rotterdam, as he's off to France for the ATP 250 in Marseille. Wawrinka is the No. 2 seed behind Milos Raonic. Also in the field are Ernests Gulbis, Gael Monfils, David Goffin, and Gilles Simon.
Aside from no Kei Nishikori, the field at the ATP 250 in Delray Beach is virtually identical to last week's Memphis Open. Kevin Anderson, a finalist in Memphis on Sunday, leads the field as the top seed, with John Isner, Alexander Dolgopolov, and Ivo Karlovic behind him. Anderson won the title in 2012 and was a finalist last year, where he lost to Gulbis. The Latvian opted not to return to defend his title this year, choosing instead to stay in Europe to play Marseille.