Watch List: Final tune-ups for Australian Open
The Watch List spotlights the must-know storylines for the upcoming week in tennis. This week's focus is on the final tune-ups for the Australian Open, which begins on Jan. 16.
Petra Kvitova could take the No. 1 ranking at the Sydney International. (EPA)
Pre-Slam Sydney: We don't usually put too much stock into tournaments that take place the week before a Grand Slam event. Those tournaments typically suffer from withdrawals and early upsets, when the top players are more focused on staying healthy and getting to the Slam city to prepare than on grinding it out for a title.
But when nine of the top 10 women in the world are all playing, it might be time to start paying attention. How insanely packed is the Sydney draw? Maria Kirilenko had to play qualies and the first round featured a rematch of the 2010 French Open final between Samantha Stosur and Francesca Schiavone, which Schiavone won in straight sets.
Add the fact that Petra Kvitova can take over the No. 1 ranking from Caroline Wozniacki if she wins the title, and we have ourselves an interesting set of storylines heading into Melbourne. Kvitova looked sharp last week in Perth, whereas Wozniacki looked rusty, so we could see a new name atop the rankings soon.
Final tune-ups: While most of the top men head to Melbourne to set up shop for the Australian Open, some notable names continue to flex their competitive muscles elsewhere. Juan Martin del Potro leads the field in Sydney for his first tournament since his heartbreaking Davis Cup weekend in December, and Davis Cup hero and defending champ David Ferrer takes the court in Auckland.
If you didn't know any better, you could easily mistake Auckland for a clay-court tournament, with Nicolas Almagro, Fernando Verdasco and Juan Ignacio Chela rounding out the top seeds. Donald Young, Ryan Harrison and Sam Querrey headline for the Americans.
And a few other Americans will get some last-minute court time before heading to Melbourne. Mardy Fish and Andy Roddick are set for a four-day exhibition in Kooyong, joining the likes of Gael Monfils, Tomas Berdych, Bernard Tomic and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the field of confirmed participants.
Injury watch: With four tournaments and two exhibition events, the big question is whether the list of injured players will get longer or shorter this week. Here's a bit of good news: Serena Williams was back on the court in Melbourne Park on Monday, working out on her sprained ankle. But keep an eye on Roger Federer, Kim Clijsters and Maria Sharapova, all of whom are trying to manage injuries that could cut their Melbourne campaigns short. And Venus Williams is still confirmed for the Australian Open, though she hasn't made the flight to Melbourne quite yet. If I were a betting woman, I'd expect her to announce her withdrawal this week.
Update, Jan. 9, 3:35 p.m. ET: Venus Williams announced her withdrawal from the Australian Open.
https://twitter.com/#!/Venuseswilliams/status/156468953659609088 Australian Open qualies: The qualification tournament begins on Wednesday, when, not so coincidentally, I'll be on the grounds at Melbourne Park. Nothing gets the mouth watering for the start of a Slam like seeing youngsters and journeymen battling for a spot in the main draw.