Week in Preview: Doha, Dubai, Acapulco, Sao Paulo

by: Steve Tignor February 22, 2016

Novak Djokovic, a four-time winner in Dubai, returns to the tour for the first time since the Australian Open. (AP)

This is the dry season for sports in the United States. The Super Bowl is behind us, the baseball season is two months ahead of us, the NBA and NHL are mired in the middle of their interminable regular seasons, and college basketball games are essentially meaningless until the NCAA Tournament begins in March. All the more reason for that elusive figure, the “casual sports fan,” to watch a little tennis. It may be in the middle of its slowest month, but "slow" is a relative term in the sport that never stops: Last week alone saw the rise of Nick Kyrgios in Marseille, the struggles of Rafael Nadal in Brazil, the return of Juan Martin del Potro in Delray Beach, and unprecedented decimation among the women in Dubai.

This week promises just as many storylines, as the top women move onto Doha together, and the men continue their itinerant ways at three events. Here’s a look ahead at all of them.

*****

Qatar Total Open (WTA)

Doha, Qatar
$2,818,000; Premier 5
Plexicushion
Draw is here

In theory, the WTA’s 26-player event in Dubai is a warm-up for its 56-player draw in Doha. Last week, though, the top women didn’t get in much of a workout: All eight seeds were gone after their opening match. Will some sense of order be restored in Doha? One early sign is not pointing in that direction: No. 10 seed Karolina Pliskova is already out, 6-1, 6-1, to Margarita Gasparyan.

Serena Williams won’t be the one to lay down the law; the world No. 1 pulled out of Dubai and Doha, citing a bout with the flu. That leaves an interesting test for the woman who beat her in the Australian Open final, Angelique Kerber. This will be the German’s first tournament since that breakthrough win, and her first as the world No. 2; it’s also, most likely, the biggest tournament in which she’ll come in as the first seed. Was the 28-year-old Kerber’s win in Melbourne a one-off, or is she going to back it up on a regular basis? We’ll get an idea here. 

Returning: Agnieszka Radwanska. The Aussie Open semifinalist didn’t play in Dubai.

In Need of a Win, Again: No. 2 seed Simona Halep and No. 3 seed Garbiñe Muguruza. As in Dubai, where they lost their openers, it may not be easy for either of them to start to build momentum here. Muguruza could play Yaroslva Shvedova to begin, while Halep might get Caroline Garcia.

Hopefully Recovered: After reaching the final in St. Petersburg last Sunday, Roberta Vinci and Belinda Bencic couldn’t survive the two-day turnaround in Dubai. Now they’ve had a week of rest. Bencic starts against CoCo Vandeweghe or Kirsten Flipkens, and is slated to play Muguruza in the quarters.

First-round matches to watch: 

Timea Bacsinszky vs. Bethanie Mattek-Sands

Daria Gavrilova vs. Misaki Doi

Potential second-round match to watch:

Elina Svitolina vs. Eugenie Bouchard

*****

Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships (ATP)

Dubai, U.A.E.
$2,249,215; 500 ranking points
DecoTurf II
Draw is here

The story in Dubai starts at the top: Novak Djokovic, a four-time winner at this event, returns to the tour for the first time since the Australian Open. The second-biggest story is who won't be joining him: Seven-time winner Roger Federer, who underwent knee surgery at the start of the month. That news should make Djokovic breathe a little more easily; Federer used these quick hard courts to pin rare losses on the world No. 1 in 2014 and 2015.

Taking Federer’s place this year is his countryman, Stan Wawrinka. He could also, theoretically, pin a loss on Djokovic, but he has to get to him first. It hasn’t been a banner opening two months of 2016 for Wawrinka, who lost to Milos Raonic in Melbourne and Benoit Paire last week in Marseille.

Also here: 2013 and 2014 Dubai finalist Tomas Berdych

First-round match to watch: Rotterdam champion Martin Klizan vs. Marseille champion Kyrgios

*****

Abierto Mexicano Telcel (ATP)

Acapulco, Mexico
$1,413,600; 500 ranking points
Hard court
Draw is here

I’m used to the hard courts, which have been around since 2013. Now I have to get used to the fact that Acapulco is a 500; it still comes as a surprise. With two members of the Top 5, Djokovic and Wawrinka, in Dubai, this is an opportunity for the next tier. 

It’s a familiar field. Last year David Ferrer beat Kei Nishikori in the final here, and they’re the top two seeds again this time around. Two years ago Grigor Dimitrov won this tournament; this time he’s the seventh seed.

Also here: Dominic Thiem, who has been on a roll lately, and Bernard Tomic, who hasn’t.

First-round matches to watch: 

Jeremy Chardy vs. Taylor Fritz

Rajeev Ram vs. Tomic. The American upset the Aussie to begin his run to the final in Delray last week.

Best name: Mexican wild card Tigre Hank. But shouldn't the first and last names be reversed?

*****

Brasil Open (ATP)

Sao Paulo, Brasil
$436,220; 250 ranking points
Clay
Draw is here

The Golden Swing through the clay courts of South America reaches its conclusion in Sao Paulo. Unfortunately for the tournament, Nadal won’t be concluding his own swing there; he heads north after losing in the semis in Rio. Instead, Paire, of all people, is the man at the top of this draw. The Frenchman is coming off a semifinal run on indoor hard courts in Marseille. We’ll see how ready he is for clay.

Also here: Pablo Cuevas, the champion at the Rio Open last week

First-round match to watch: Nicolas Almagro vs. Thiago Monteiro, the Brazilian wild card who upset Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in Rio

*****

Abierto Mexicano Telcel (WTA)

Acapulco, Mexico
$250,000; WTA International 
Hard courts
Draw is here

As in Rio last week, Acapulco is a dual-gender tournament with a significantly less lucrative women’s event. Unlike Rio, though, it has managed to snag a star: Victoria Azarenka, from just up the road in Southern California, is the top seed. She’ll play her first event since the Australian Open and go for her second title of 2016.

Also here: Sloane Stephens, Johanna Konta, Naomi Osaka

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