The men are in full clay swing. Rafael Nadal has left Novak Djokovic and his poodle, Pierre, with the winner’s trophy back in Monte Carlo, and is already in Barcelona taking questions from the press. Tomorrow the rest of the ATP players there will be joined, in Stuttgart, by many of the top women, who kick things off on European dirt this week. Think of it as a lively, long-distance opening act, before the dual-gender blockbusters to come in Madrid, Rome, and Paris.
Porsche Tennis Grand Prix
Draw is here
Maria Sharapova returns for the first time since her runner-up performance in Miami and her 26th birthday party in L.A. She’s the top seed and defending champion, as well as a new "Brand Ambassador" for Stuttgart title sponsor Porsche. Presumably the company wouldn’t mind seeing her win the title again, and drive away with another of their cars. Or can she just ask for one, even if she loses?
Winning another is certainly a possibility. Sharapova’s two primary rivals and tormentors, Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka, are absent, and Maria mostly dominated this part of the season last year. But this is still a strong field, with seven of the Top 10. That includes, in descending order of seeds: Li Na, Angelique Kerber, Sara Errani, Petra Kvitova, Sam Stosur, and Caroline Wozniacki. Even Sharapova’s opener—she gets the winner of Mona Barthel vs. Lucie Safarova—could be a test. Maria has said that she's focusing more on fast courts this year, so we'll see if that makes any difference.
Others to watch:
—Kvitova, the fifth seed, will try to recover from a disappointing Fed Cup weekend, in which she lost to Roberta Vinci and watched her team, the two-time defending champs, go out to Italy in the semis. She starts against German wild card Annika Beck and could play Li Na in the quarters.
—Stosur and Li will begin what should be, based on the last few seasons, their best two months of play. Li has won the French Open, while Sam has been to a final and a semi two of the last three years.
—Home favorite Kerber, a quarterfinalist here last year, will try to improve on her so-so season. She could play Wozniacki in the quarters, in a replay of their moon-shot matchup in Indian Wells last month. Will the roof overhead deter them this time?
First-round matches to watch: Stosur vs. Jankovic; Wozniacki vs. Suarez Navarro; Ivanovic vs. Petkovic
Barcelona Open Banc Sabadell
For a tournament with 500 points on offer, which makes it a mid-level ATP event, Barcelona does pony up the dough—more than 2 million bucks for a 56 draw, and that doesn’t include whatever Rafa gets just to show up.
Yet outside of Nadal and fellow Spaniard David Ferrer, the payout isn’t enough to secure a marquee crowd. Tomas Berdych, Nicolas Almagro, and Milos Raonic are the three, four, and five seeds. Even Fernando Verdasco makes it in at No. 12.
That doesn’t mean there’s nothing to watch, even if it’s mostly at a second-tier, are-they-the-future-or-are-they-not-the-future kind of level. Here are a few points of interest:
—Kei Nishikori makes his Euro clay debut. He’s scheduled to play Jerzy Janowicz in the third round. I’m not sure what to predict for that one, but I’d like to see it.
—Grigor Dimitrov will try to make good on Nadal’s words in Monte Carlo—“he’s the present, and the future”—when he starts his own future by facing the winner of Robredo and Marc Lopez. If he gets past that one, he’ll likely play Berdych.
—Bernard Tomic has apparently fallen too far to be seeded here. His name appears, rather quietly and unobtrusively—almost apologetically—in a first-round bracket next to France’s Kenny de Schepper’s. Which reminds me: When did the French start naming people “Kenny”?
—Ernests Gulbis has beaten Radek Stepanek and will play Verdasco, perhaps for the right to face Raonic.
—Finally, Nadal will arrive in Barcelona without the winds of a Monte Carlo title at his back for the first time. Will it affect him negatively? I doubt it. There’s no Djokovic on his horizon here. Still, he’s going to want to win this tournament to silence any whispers of possible doom before they get started. After Sunday's final in MC, I'm curious to see him, possibly, play Carlos Berlocq in his opening match in Barcelona. Berlocq had Rafa on the ropes in Brazil earlier this season.
Second-round match to watch, and perhaps regret that you did: Gulbis vs. Verdasco