The Asian swing continues this week as the tours collide at the National Tennis Center in Beijing. For the last few years, the WTA has staged one of its four biggest non-Slam tournaments there, the China Open. The ATP’s version of that event is technically a warm-up to its own premier tournament, the Shanghai Rolex Masters. But this year the world’s top two men, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, have both made the trip to Beijing—it doesn't get any more premier than that.
Play is well underway on the other side of the world, and one big upset has already been recorded, so I won’t waste any more time. Here’s a look at the draws and what we might see as the week progresses:
China Open (WTA)
$5,185,625; Premier Mandatory
Draw is here
What’s up with Victoria Azarenka? The defending champion finished on a high note in 2012, going 15-3 for the fall. She’s 0-2 after the U.S. Open so far this year. You could understand last week’s opening-round loss in Tokyo—she was rusty, under the weather, and facing a woman she had never beaten in Venus Williams. But this week’s upset defeat, at the hands of Andrea Petkovic, is a shocker. Vika was 2-0 against the German, and last season Azarenka shook off a Tokyo illness with a title run in Beijing. The match was on too early for me here in New York, but Vika double-faulted 15 times, which should give you some idea of her level at the moment. Suddenly, there’s not a whole lot left to the world No. 2’s season—last year, post-Asia, she won in Linz and lost in the semis of the tour finals in Istanbul.
We had anticipated, or at least hoped for, a final between Azarenka and Serena Williams. Who can challenge Serena now? She plays Francesca Schiavone next, and has Caroline Wozniacki and Sloane Stephens in her quarter.
The highest seed in the draw, aside from Serena, is Agnieszka Radwanska. The two could face each other in the semifinals, though Aga will have her hands full in her next match, against Madison Keys. Also in her quarter is Angelique Kerber, who finally came back to life last week in Tokyo, where she made the final.
Fourth-seeded Li Na is on the other side of the draw. The expectations will be high and the scrutiny close for the home-country favorite. She reached the semis here last year, and with Vika’s loss she has a seemingly open road to the final this time. Seemingly: Li will start with a hot opponent in Bojana Jovanovski, who has won two tournaments this fall.
Perhaps the two biggest beneficiaries of Azarenka’s loss are Jelena Jankovic, the second seed in Vika's old quarter, and Svetlana Kuznetsova, who was scheduled to play her next. Both JJ and Kuzzie have shown signs of life recently, and could easily make the semis.
Matches to watch, if you’re in the right time zone:
—Sloane Stephens vs. Eugenie Bouchard: Call it The We're Not, Like, Besties Bowl. These two ex-students of the Saviano Academy in Florida will play for the second time in as many weeks. You would think Sloane would be motivated, after losing to Bouchard in three sets in Tokyo, to re-establish herself at the top of the Next list. (Alas, it looks like this match won’t be televised at all.)
—Radwanska vs. Keys
—Venus Williams vs. Sabine Lisicki
—Laura Robson vs. Kerber
—Li vs. Jovanovski
China Open (ATP)
$3,566,050; 500 ranking points
Draw is here
It comes as a pleasant surprise to me to see Djokovic and Nadal in the same draw so soon after the U.S. Open. I know Djokovic typically goes to Beijing, and he's won the tournament three times, but I hadn’t expected to see Rafa at a non-mandatory event on Deco-Turf. I guess the new King of Hard Courts needs to defend his turf wherever he can, including the arena where he won his Olympic gold medal in 2008. Nadal either must be feeling very confident about his knees in the long run, or he’s just going to play as much as he can until he burns them out again.
News could be made this week. If Rafa reaches the final, or Djokovic fails to defend his title, Nadal will take over the No. 1 ranking for the first time in more than two years. Either way, it’s bound to happen before the season is over. Nadal is ahead in the race by 3,000 points with less than two months of play remaining.
If they do play in the final, though, this is an opportunity for Djokovic to begin to swing their rivalry back in his favor. Hard courts are still his best surface, and he has played Nadal close this year. Djokovic will open against Lukas Rosol—he beat the Aging Upset Artist 1 and 0 last year in Miami. Nole will likely get his first test from Stanislas Wawrinka in the quarters, and he's scheduled to play a (somewhat) slumping David Ferrer in the semis. As for Rafa, he’ll start against Santiago Giraldo. Also in his half are Tomas Berdych and John Isner.
—First-round winner: Bernard Tomic, over China’s Zhang Ze.
—First-round loser: Grigor Dimitrov, to Roberto Bautista Agut. Dimitrov also announced that he’s cutting ties with his coaches in Stockholm to “spend more time in L.A.”
Going to "spend more time in L.A.": Those are always the words you hear when a great player announces he's really going to buckle down...right?
Rakuten Japan Open
$1,437,800; 500 ranking points
Draw is here
Rafa, who played this event in 2010 and 2011, has defected for Beijing. Andy Murray, the tournament's marquee name for this year, had back surgery and pulled out. These days Japan plays second fiddle to China and its colossal sponsorship possibilities; both of the tours chose to put their mandatory Asian events on the mainland. Yet the Rakuten Japan Open, while it doesn't have the payout that Beijing does, is still worth the same 500 ranking points. Big 4 or no Big 4, that was enough to lure a solid field.
Juan Martin del Potro leads the way as the top seed. The last time we saw the Argentine, he was hampered by a bad wrist in a loss to Lleyton Hewitt at the U.S. Open. He had to miss the Davis Cup semifinals because of that; this week he'll make his return against a tough opponent in Marcos Baghdatis.
Also getting back into the swing of things is No. 2 seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. The Frenchman made the final in Metz two weeks ago in his first tournament back since Wimbledon, and he already has a good win under his belt in Tokyo, over countryman Gael Monfils—naturally, the second-set tiebreaker between then went to 10-8; you wouldn't expect anything less from those two.
—No. 3 seed Milos Raonic, who is coming off a title run in Bangkok
—Japan's own Kei Nishikori
—Lone American ranger Ryan Harrison, who qualified and will face Horacio Zeballos first. Give Harrison credit; he travels.