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Beyond Brisbane: Nadal, Murray, Ivanovic, Li Headline First-Week Draws

Dec 28th 2013

Most eyeballs may focus on events in Brisbane and Perth (the Hopman Cup) during the first week of 2014.  Nevertheless, several events outside Australia intrigue in the crescendo toward the season’s first major.  The ATP hosts a pair of 250 tournaments in Doha and Chennai, while the WTA opens its slate of International Tournaments with events in Auckland and Shenzhen.

Rafael Nadal

ATP Doha:

Top half:  Perhaps not all eyeballs should focus on Brisbane after all.  Half of the top 10 men will spend New Year’s Day in the Persian Gulf, including world No. 1 Rafael Nadal.  The 13-time major champion played a pair of exhibition matches in Abu Dhabi after Christmas, so he will arrive in Doha with some rust already shaken off.  Nadal finally will have the chance to exact revenge on Lukas Rosol for his second-round loss to him at Wimbledon in 2012.  If any rust still clings to him, though, the explosive firepower of Ernests Gulbis could challenge the world No. 1, who twice dropped sets to Gulbis last year.  Less likely to leave his mark is Wimbledon quarterfinalist Lukasz Kubot, a doubles specialist who has done little to bolster that bizarre achievement.

Often vulnerable in his first match at a tournament, Tomas Berdych starts 2014 with an unenviable task:  defusing Ivo Karlovic.  The Czech fourth seed should cruise through his section once he solves that test, for three qualifiers, a clay specialist, and the undersized Philipp Kohlschreiber should not withstand Berdych’s weight of shot throughout the course of a match.

Bottom half:  Similar to fellow world No. 4 Maria Sharapova, Andy Murray poses one of the season’s most intriguing questions.  The two-time major champion has reached three finals at the Australian Open, but his hopes of advancing one round further this year hinge on how soon he can recover from back surgery.  Murray joined Nadal in Abu Dhabi over Christmas, where he looked healthy but not always in rhythm.  The Scot has landed in the softest section of his draw, also like Sharapova, so he should settle into a groove against journeymen like Florian Mayer.  Nearly able to halt Murray’s Wimbledon title run, Fernando Verdasco defeated him on Australian soil in 2009 but has no other wins in their 10 meetings.

In Abu Dhabi victories over Stanislas Wawrinka and Nadal, world No. 3 David Ferrer extended the crisp form that he found last fall.  Still chipping away doggedly at opponents, Ferrer eyes a second-round test against a man who has enjoyed outstanding success in Doha.  This tournament has witnessed victories over Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal for Nikolay Davydenko, a former champion and the runner-up in 2013.  A rematch of last year’s Doha final could await if he repeats an upset of Ferrer in last year’s semifinal, Davydenko’s third win over the Spaniard in three attempts on an outdoor hard court.  Defending champion Richard Gasquet faces a smoother route to that stage despite the prospect of facing unpredictable compatriot Gael Monfils.

Roberta Vinci

WTA Auckland:

Top half:  Like the leading Australian men in Brisbane, New Zealand home hope Marina Erakovic finds herself rather too close for comfort to the top seed.  Roberta Vinci strikes less fear into opponents than Roger Federer does, however, and her meeting with Erakovic should create a quirky smorgasbord of slices and spins.  Seeking to regain relevance after a catastrophic 2013, Tamira Paszek received a wildcard ticket into a clash with Jamie Hampton.  A semifinalist at Auckland last year, the small but relentlessly aggressive Hampton will look to pounce on the mental frailties of opponents such as Paszek and former champion Yanina Wickmayer.

Several women join Hampton and Lauren Davis in carrying the stars and stripes to Auckland.  The most notable American of all, Venus Williams, can expect a second-round shootout with fellow heavy server Mona Barthel.  Among the most intriguing early matches in Auckland is a clash between two women sidelined by long stretches of illness or injury.  Contrary to national stereotypes, American counterpuncher Christina McHale will look to blunt the power of Spanish sensation Garbine Muguruza as both women try to set their careers back on track.  Fourth seed Sorana Cirstea looms above them, looking to build on a breakthrough second half of 2013.   

Bottom half:  She lacks the illness and injury alibis of McHale or Muguruza, but glamorous German slugger Julia Goerges has been absent for most of the last two years.  Despite her obvious talent, Goerges has watched her ranking slide outside the top 70 with a sub-.500 record during that period.  She enters 2014 on a four-match losing streak and has landed amid several women who distinguished themselves at last year’s wacky Wimbledon.  Not only Puerto Rican youngster Monica Puig but Italian veteran Karin Knapp reached the second week there, while Kirsten Flipkens launched a stunning semifinal run.  None of those three women have built on their strong fortnights, however.

Again solid in the fall last year, former world No. 1 Ana Ivanovic hopes to translate that momentum across the offseason better than she has in the past.  Visits to tournaments in Brisbane and Sydney had not ended well for Ivanovic, so starting her season as the second seed in New Zealand seems wise.  Still, she has drawn a worthy opening foe in Alison Riske, yet another in the legion of rising American women.  Falling a set short of a US Open quarterfinal, Riske has the serve and swagger to test Ivanovic.  So does streaky lefty Lucie Safarova, who has won all four of their meetings since 2009.  This Czech finished last season on a high note too. 

Stanislas Wawrinka

ATP Chennai:

Top half:  The only top-10 man to enter Chennai, 2011 champion Stanislas Wawrinka hopes to avoid the quarterfinal stumbles that he suffered in each of his last two appearances there.  Federer’s understudy could become the top-ranked Swiss man this season if he extends the dazzling tennis that carried him to a US Open semifinal and nine victories over top-10 opponents.  The same man who upset Wawrinka in Chennai last year, Aljaz Bedene, will aim to repeat the feat this year. 

Two of last summer’s most compelling narratives came from men with completely different personalities and backgrounds.  Nonchalant Italian Fabio Fognini captured the first two titles of his career on European clay, while fiery Canadian Vasek Pospisil hammered a path to a Masters 1000 semifinal on home soil.  Each man holds a seed in Chennai and the inside track to a semifinal meeting with Wawrinka.  Although Fognini holds the experience edge, Pospisil probably holds the surface edge.  But the fast-rising Pablo Carreno-Busta might bear a second glance, despite his preference for clay.

Bottom half:  Perhaps the future of French men’s tennis, Benoit Paire showed flashes of his potential in 2013.  Before penciling him into the top 10 of 2016 or so, however, fans must wait for Paire to prove that he contain his emotions to become a more mature competitor.  A small tournament like Chennai offers him a chance to start the season with a strong statement and build confidence with comfortable wins.  Two Spaniards pose Paire’s biggest obstacles, and he should be more comfortable on this surface than either the fading Guillermo Garcia-Lopez or doubles specialist Marcel Granollers

Back in the top 15 after an arid period is US Open quarterfinalist Mikhail Youzhny.  When he plays with more polish than passion, Youzhny can produce versatile, aesthetically pleasing tennis.  On the other hand, he always will remain vulnerable to upsets because of his meager serve and baseline power.  Fortunately for Youzhny, the other men in his quarter struggle with the same shortcomings.  Expect a turbulent series of twists and turns if he meets the equally mercurial Paire in a semifinal.

Li Na

WTA Shenzhen:

Top half:  The only women in the draw who have reached major finals on this surface will meet in the first round.  Former US Open finalist Vera Zvonareva might have wished for a more promising start to her comeback than a date with two-time Australian Open finalist (and 2011 Roland Garros champion) Li Na.  Still, all of the pressure will rest on Li in this rematch of the bronze-medal match at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, won by Zvonareva.  Li’s other obstacles en route to defending the Shenzhen title include several compatriots, sometimes a difficult task for her to master.  Among them is Zhang Shuai, who burst out of nowhere to win her maiden title in Guangzhou last fall. 

Almost downed by Klara Zakopalova in last year’s final, Li might need to solve her again in this year’s semifinal.  But Zakopalova faces challenging tests of her own with two talented teenagers in her section.  While Annika Beck reached the first final of her career last fall in Luxembourg, the 16-year-old Donna Vekic achieved the same feat last summer in Birmingham.  The soft draw of Shenzhen gives both young stars breathing room to shine.

Bottom half:  Her greatest triumphs may have come in doubles, but Peng Shuai can impress in singles as well.  The double-fister once upset Maria Sharapova on Chinese soil, and she probably wields more power than most of the women near her in Shenzhen.  Bojana Jovanovski caught fire at the start of last season by reaching a quarterfinal at this event and the second week of the Australian Open.  She stagnated for most of the ensuing months, outside a final in Tashkent, so Jovanovski needs a fast start again in 2014 to maintain a ranking close to her current spot in the top 40.

Another young albeit fragile talent in Petra Martic finds herself on a collision course with the flagging Sara Errani.  A heavy schedule in both singles and doubles had sapped Errani’s energies toward the end of 2013, together with the pressure created by her top-10 ranking.  The second seed in Shenzhen, she has little to defend in January and might be able to catch her breath this week.  During her ascendancy, Errani rarely lost a match against an opponent several notches below her.  Those near the Italian in Shenzhen fall into that category with the possible exception of Zheng Jie, always a strong competitor and likely to gain inspiration from playing in China.