Watch List: Djokovic eyes history; Federer, Sharapova open on hard-courts
MASON, Ohio -- The Watch List spotlights the must-know storylines for the upcoming week in tennis. This week, the ATP and WTA are in the Cincinnati area for the Western & Southern Open, where Novak Djokovic goes for history and Roger Federer and Maria Sharapova make their summer hard-court debuts.
Novak Djokovic going for history: Djokovic is trying to become the first man to win all nine ATP Masters 1000 tournaments. Cincinnati is the only trophy missing from his collection, though he's come tantalizingly close. Djokovic has reached the finals four of the last five years, where he was beaten twice by both Roger Federer and Andy Murray. This year he'll try to erase the bad taste of Montreal, where he played a surprisingly poor third-set tiebreaker to lose to Rafael Nadal 6-4 3-6 7-6 (2) in the semifinals. Widely recognized as the best hard-court player on tour, Djokovic has failed to capture a title in his last three hard-court events. In addition to his Montreal loss, he lost to Juan Martin del Potro at Indian Wells, where he blew a 3-0 lead in the third set. A week later, he played his worst match of the year and lost to Tommy Haas 6-2, 6-4 in Miami.
Djokovic's draw puts him in good position to win. Murray, Nadal and Federer are all in the other half, meaning the other top seeds in Djokovic's half are David Ferrer, Richard Gasquet and a possibly injured del Potro. If his Montreal form holds, I don't see anyone knocking him out before the semifinals. Del Potro and Jerzy Janowicz are his biggest threats until the final.
Serena Williams and Rafael Nadal on hot streaks: Both won their eighth titles of the year Sunday, with Nadal besting Milos Raonic 6-2, 6-2 in Montreal and Williams rolling over Sorana Cirstea 6-2, 6-0 in Toronto. Both are on notable winning streaks, too. Nadal is 11-0 on hard courts this year, while Williams is on a 10-0 tear dating back to Miami and hasn't dropped a set since a disappointing three-set loss to Sabine Lisicki in the fourth round of Wimbledon. On form, they look like the U.S. Open favorites heading into Cincinnati. Neither has played well in Cincinnati, though, failing to ever make it past the semifinals. If they're fit and motivated, that could change this year.
Nadal has been drawn into Murray's half and Federer's quarter, meaning the 31st meeting between the two rivals could happen in the quarterfinals. The player who emerges from that potential match may have to beat both Murray and Djokovic to win the title.
With Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka in the other half of the draw, Serena has a fairly comfortable path to the final, though her performance will depend on her motivation and focus. Her toughest quarterfinal opponent would be Sam Stosur, who's been in good form the last two weeks, and the semifinals could see a Toronto rematch against Agnieszka Radwanska or defending champion Li Na.
Murray and Federer look to rebound: Murray and Federer have dominated the tournament the last six years, with Federer winning four titles and Murray winning two. Federer, the defending champion, is coming into the tournament with significant questions about his health and form. His last month was a disappointment as he crashed out of clay-court tournaments in Germany and Switzerland to players ranked outside the top 50. After picking up a back injury during that two-week stretch, Federer withdrew from Montreal to give himself more time to recuperate and prepare for his title defense in Cincinnati. A five-time champion here, the quick, warm conditions suit his game, though his path to another title is a tough one. He'll open against Philipp Kohlschreiber or Mardy Fish, then could play Haas, Nadal in the quarterfinals, Murray in the semifinals and Djokovic in the final. It doesn't get more difficult than that.
As for the defending U.S. Open champion, Murray's return to hard courts was cut short when Ernests Gulbis knocked him out of Montreal with a decisive 6-4, 6-3 win in the third round.
"I think that the goal is to try and peak at the U.S. Open," Murray said after the loss. "But to do that you need to make sure you prepare yourself well."
Murray could get a rematch against Gulbis in the second round before eventually facing the winner of a possible Federer/Nadal quarterfinal.
Sharapova and coach Jimmy Connors make their debut: OK, you two, the waiting game is over. After announcing her surprise coaching hire of Connors after Wimbledon, Sharapova withdrew from Stanford and Toronto. That makes Cincinnati her first tournament since Wimbledon, in what is likely her only U.S. Open warm-up tournament. She could open against Sloane Stephens in the second round and meet Wimbledon finalist Sabine Lisicki in the third round.
Injury reports: Two U.S. Open contenders have injury concerns to keep an eye one. Del Potro looked primed for a deep run in Montreal, but a back injury hampered his serve and mobility in his last two matches. Azarenka, last year's U.S. Open finalist, pulled out of Toronto at the last minute, citing a back injury she says she sustained at the Southern California Open.
Two notable younger names have withdrawn from the tournament because of injury: Madison Keys withdrew from qualifying with tendinitis in her shoulder and Laura Robson pulled out with a wrist injury.
Matches to Watch
First round men's matches: Mardy Fish vs. Philipp Kohlschreiber, Tommy Haas vs. Kevin Anderson, Grigor Dimitrov vs. Nicolas Almagro, Brian Baker vs. Denis Istomin, Ernests Gulbis vs. Mikhail Youzhny, Mackenzie McDonald vs. David Goffin, Vasek Pospisil vs. Gilles Simon, Jack Sock vs. Milos Raonic, Sam Querrey vs. Janko Tipsarevic, Ryan Harrison vs. Alexandr Dolgopolov, Kei Nishikori vs. Feliciano Lopez.
Potential men's matches: Milos Raonic vs. Sam Querrey (second round), John Isner vs. Richard Gasquet (second round), David Ferrer vs. Ryan Harrison (second round), Roger Federer vs. Mardy Fish or Philipp Kohlschreiber (second round), Andy Murray vs. Ernests Gulbis (second round), Tomas Berdych vs. Stanislas Wawrinnka (third round), Roger Federer vs. Tommy Haas (third round).
First round women's matches: Venus Williams vs. Jana Cepelova, Samantha Stosur vs. Svetlana Kuznetsova, Jamie Hampton vs. Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Bethanie Mattek-Sands vs. Roberta Vinci, Daniela Hantuchova vs. Andrea Petkovic, Genie Bouchard vs. Monica Puig, Jelena Jankovic vs. Sabine Lisicki, Ana Ivanovic vs. Alize Cornet.
Potential women's matches: Maria Sharapova vs. Sloane Stephens (second round), Caroline Wozniacki (second round), Samantha Stosur vs. Jamie Hampton (second round), Marion Bartoli vs. Simona Halep (second round), Victoria Azarenka vs. Ana Ivanovic (third round), Petra Kvitova vs. Caroline Wozniacki or Sorana Cirstea (third round), Jelena Jankovic or Sabine Lisicki vs. Maria Sharapova (third round).
Men: Novak Djokovic d. Andy Murray Women: Serena Williams d. Maria Sharapova