Week in Preview: Kerber leads a loaded field in Doha; three ATP events

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Angelique Kerber can narrow the gap with Serena Williams with a strong showing in Doha. (AP)

So far February has lived up to its new reputation as a hot time for tennis. On the men’s side this weekend, Grigor Dimitrov and Alexander Zverev won significant titles—more on them later on Monday—while the women provided a whirlwind of Fed Cup theater and farce from Hawaii to Geneva.

Can week two top that? The ATP got off to a tough start when Rafael Nadal and Stan Wawrinka both pulled out of Rotterdam. But things look promising for the WTA: Most of the world’s best players, minus Venus and Serena Williams, have gathered for a small but strong draw in Doha. Here’s a look ahead at how this week’s four events might play out.

*****

Qatar Total Open 2017

Doha
$776,000; WTA Premier
Hard court
Draw is here

Once upon a time, I thought of the Doha and Dubai events as appearance-fee specials; lucrative semi-exhibitions that gave the top players a chance to tune up and stay at a seven-star hotel before the season began in earnest in Indian Wells. And that’s still one way of looking at these tournaments. Doha’s prize money haul—$776,000—is low for an event that features five of the Top 10; the money had to go somewhere.

But there’s an upside to tennis that doesn’t mean quite as much: In Doha and Dubai, you can watch and not worry, because you know that whatever happens here, results-wise, won’t be remembered for very long. Also, I’ve always thought the sport would benefit from summer events that are played only in the cooler comfort of the evening. Doha and Dubai, located in the Arabian Desert, come as close as any tournaments to fulfilling that dream.

As far as predictions go, the only thing you can be reasonably sure of in Doha is that there will be upsets. The draw is strong at the top—Angelique Kerber, Karolina Pliskova, Dominika Cibulkova, Agnieszka Radwanska and Garbiñe Muguruza are all here. But so are players who can beat them, namely Daria Kasatkina, Caroline Wozniacki, Monica Puig, Timea Bacsinszky and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova.

Normally, I would say that this is an important week for a player like Kerber, who has gotten off to a slow start and lost the No. 1 ranking. And it is potentially important, in the sense that she has a chance to get back to No. 1 with a strong showing. But even if Kerber loses early—she could play Kasatkina, who beat her in Sydney last month, in her opener—there will still be plenty of time to right her 2017 ship. Better just to watch and not worry.

*****

ABN Amro World Tennis Tournament

Rotterdam, Netherlands
Indoor hard court
$1,965,401; 500 ranking points
Draw is here

As noted above, this week’s only 500-level event has already been hurt by the withdrawal of its two biggest draws, Nadal and Wawrinka. That leaves Rotterdam short of stars but long on quality tennis players. The top seven seeds are Marin Cilic, Dominic Thiem, David Goffin, Tomas Berdych, Dimitrov, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Lucas Pouille. Anyone who follows the ATP week to week should be satisfied with that collection of talent.

First-round matches to watch:

Thiem vs. Alexander Zverev: Losing Rafa and Stan was bad enough. Now Rotterdam has to lose one of these guys in the opening round.

Borna Coric vs. Karen Khachanov: A hot shot of 2017, Khachanov will see a cautionary tale across the net: the hot shot of 2015.

Dimitrov vs. Mischa Zverev: Two of the Aussie Open’s best stories try to keep their momentum going.

*****

Memphis Open

Memphis, Tennessee
$720,410; 250 ranking points
Indoor hard court
Draw is here

The American flag waves its way through this draw: Ten of the 28 players entered are from the States. That includes the No. 2, 3 and 4 seeds, John Isner, Sam Querrey and Steve Johnson. All of them must be pleased that one prominent non-American hasn’t made the trip back to Memphis: Four-time defending champion Kei Nishikori has opted to head south for the Argentina Open this year.

First-round matches to watch:

Taylor Fritz vs. Yen-Hsun Lu: Lu is the eighth seed, but Fritz reached the final here last year. The 19-year-old had a good run to the final in a Challenger in Dallas two weeks ago. Now his sophomore season will begin in earnest.

Reilly Opelka vs. Jared Donaldson: Two talented but so far mostly under-the-radar Americans face off.

*****

Argentina Open

Buenos Aires
$624,000; 250 ranking points
Clay
Draw is here

The Golden Swing steps up a level as it moves from Quito to Buenos Aires. The tournament has lost its marquee name from last season, Nadal, and it couldn’t snag hometown hero Juan Martin del Potro, who will make his 2017 debut in Delray Beach next week. But Buenos Aires does have a new face at the top of its draw: Nishikori, who has left the friendly indoor confines of Memphis for an early-season week of dirtball.

Also here: Pablo Cuevas, David Ferrer, Fabio Fognini and Quito champion Victor Estrella Burgos

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