While no significant tournaments will develop this week, we share seven plotlines to ponder for Stockholm, Vienna, Moscow, and Luxembourg. Four for the men precede three for the women.
Can Tsonga recapture his fall magic? After impressive efforts at the middle two majors of 2012, his results have faded sharply in the second half. A finalist in both Paris and London last fall, Tsonga must defend large quantities of points over the coming weeks and thus would benefit from rediscovering form at a minor tournament before then. The top seed in Stockholm will face no rival more intimidating than Berdych, who just defeated him on the slower surface of Shanghai.
How rusty is Del Potro? Again hampered by a wrist injury, this time to his left wrist, the Olympic bronze medalist lost twice in straight sets to Djokovic at Cincinnati and the US Open as he continues to search for that elusive statement win. Against sub-elite opponents, however, Del Potro has enjoyed nearly flawless success this season. After an injury hiatus, he returns to action as the top seed in a very weak Vienna draw, where Tipsarevic and Haas might pose the most credible challenges. Del Potro returned too soon from his previous, more severe injury, aborting his comeback after a few tournaments, so one hopes that he has learned from that experience. If he does reassert himself, a finals appearance in his year-end championships debut three years ago suggests that he could become an intriguing dark horse in London.
Will Haas thrive in familiar territory again? Amidst a year filled with astonishing successes, the 34-year-old former #2 won a title in his home nation at Halle and has defeated three different top-10 opponents there and at Munich: Tsonga, Berdych, and Federer. Virtually everyone had written off Haas as a viable threat against competition of that quality, but has defied the march of time by rising from outside the top 200 in January to his current ranking just inside the top 20. In the wake of a Masters 1000 quarterfinal at Shanghai, more heroics in his native region could lie ahead. The only higher-ranked opponent in his half of the Vienna draw, Tipsarevic, mustered scant resistance to Haas last week.
Can Russian men’s tennis revive for a week? Generally overshadowed by their female colleagues, men’s tennis players from Russia have faded into anonymity after the retirement of Safin and the precipitous decline of Davydenko. Yet six of them populate the Moscow draw, stirring some home hopes for a tournament where they typically have fared well, including when least expected. (See K for Kunitsyn, Igor, a doubles specialist who toppled Safin for this title four years ago.) In fact, Russians won six consecutive Kremlin Cups from 2004-09 until Tipsarevic and Troicki established a two-year Serbian lease on the tournament. Troicki has returned, but so has Davydenko, while Gabashvili and Kuznetsov might embrace the moment with a surprising charge. Also note the presence of Muscovite Istomin and the Moscow-born Korolev, even though neither of them still holds a Russian passport. In a draw headlined by Dolgopolov and Seppi, anything can happen.
Which former #1 ends on a higher note, Wozniacki or Ivanovic? Each of these fan favorites reached the WTA penthouse, never quite convinced while there, and has fallen well out of contention, most likely for good. Absent from the year-end championships the following week, Wozniacki and Ivanovic depart from their usual schedules by entering the Kremlin Cup, where they have claimed the third and fourth seeds. They achieved arguably their best results of the year during the North American spring, which featured a semifinal for the brunette at Indian Wells and a semifinal for the blonde at Miami. Otherwise inconsistent for most of 2012, despite an occasional highlight, they face the sternest resistance from Stosur (Ivanovic) and Bartoli (Wozniacki). But Petrova, who relishes playing at home, might threaten the Serb in her second match, while the Dane has struggled against second-match opponent Cibulkova, the defending champion in Moscow. Which of them, if either, can record a meaningful, uplifting victory to end their season in an uplifting way? (Although the Fed Cup final and Sofia await, one cannot envision Ivanovic accomplishing anything notable at the former or Wozniacki at the starless latter event.)
How far can Venus go? The most familiar name in the Luxembourg draw, the elder Williams should relish the indoor surface. Although her appearance at such a minor tournament seems odd, for she scarcely needs the financial inducements, the tournament should gain a layer of intrigue should she reprise her rivalry with Jankovic in a semifinal. The most talented player in the field, Venus could win the first title of her comeback should she stay fit, one of the principal challenges that she has faced all year. Perhaps the charismatic Petkovic can produce a bit of comeback magic as well at a tournament just outside German borders. Speaking of which…
Which German will last longest in Luxembourg: Lisicki, Barthel, or Goerges? Since Petkovic continues to languish in a rusty condition after her annus horribilis of injuries, one of these three represents the most plausible contender from a nation that has slumped in the second half. Even world #6 Kerber (inactive this week) has faded lately, while Lisicki and Barthel essentially have disappeared since the grass season. More encouraging was the finals appearance in Linz of Julia Goerges, who still has not managed to string together penetrating surges into draws. If she can weather the quirks of Niculescu and the booming serve of Hradecka, an all-German semifinal against Lisicki might loom, and the winner would create a final against Venus more fascinating than those of most International events. Often playing to the level of the competition this year, Barthel could force Venus to find her best tennis sooner rather than later in the second round.