Why we're keeping a close eye on Azarenka, Federer this week
Wimbledon is approaching quickly. The first slew of grass-court tune-ups are now out of the way, leaving us with a slightly sharper picture of who to watch over the next two weeks as the tours head to London.
While some stalwarts (including Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Venus Williams) elected to bypass these events entirely, most top players are working this week. These 10 could be bellwethers for Wimbledon:
Victoria Azarenka: The former No. 1 and two-time Australian Open champion took a tennis timeout 11 months ago after announcing her pregancy. She returns as a wild card at Mallorca this week with a new coach in U.S. former pro Michael Joyce -- and an infant son in tow.
Azarenka is probably best on the hard courts, but until she left on maternity leave, she was one of very few women who feared no one on any surface. With Serena Williams out and awaiting her own baby, who knows?
Roger Federer: Was that second-round (but first match) loss to Tommy Haas last week in Stuttgart a mere glitch or a warning sign? All those break-point opportunities he missed suggest a touch of rust, and he probably needs at least few matches before Wimbledon to be in top shape. That's why it's important for the eight-time champ to go deep in Halle this week.
Johanna Konta: After capturing the Miami Open title, she managed just two wins during the entire clay swing. But her sharp, analytic mind is now centered on the tournament that, for a British player, stands head and shoulders above all others: Wimbledon. To that end, she's developed an aggressive, Centre Court-worthy game. Ranked No. 7 worldwide, Konta was upset in the Nottingham final by Donna Vekic and is playing this week in Birmingham.
Milos Raonic: Last year's Wimbledon finalist suffered a number of injuries that have kept him out of big tournaments this year. As it stands, he's done nothing spectacular when he has played.
Raonic, though, is diligent, and probably tired of spinning his wheels in the bottom half of the ATP's top 10 rankings. He'll be fired up for another chance at the golden ring, starting at Queens Club (London) this week.
Kristina Mladenovic: It would be easy to write off Mladenovic following her outstanding clay-court season, during which she made two finals and went 13-4, jumping all the way to No. 12.
The French Open quarterfinalist is a late bloomer; her bold, aggressive game -- anchored by a menacing serve -- might improve her chances on grass and further confirm that the statuesque 24-year-old is having a breakout year.
Andy Murray: Who would have thought that at this stage of the year Murray would still have just one ATP World Tour title -- yet still hold the No. 1 ranking? You can attribute that to the continuing struggles of Djokovic, who's fallen to No. 6 in the world and who isn't playing a grass event until Wimbledon.
Murray showed signs of recovering from his 2017 swoon when he made the French Open semis. He's a knighted athlete and idol in the United Kingdom, largely because of his stellar Wimbledon record (two singles titles). This week, he's shooting for his third straight title at Queens Club.
Angelique Kerber: Her situation is strikingly similar to that of Murray. She hasn't won a singles title all year, but she's managed to hang on to the top ranking.
A Wimbledon finalist last year, the 29-year-old accepted a wild card into this week's tournament in Eastbourne, signaling she doesn't want to relive the horror of her first-round loss at the French Open.
If she finds her confidence, Kerber's mobility, aggressive counter-punching ability and compact game can shine on Wimbledon's lawns again this year.
Alexander Zverev: Now 20 years old and ranked No. 12, Zverev defeated Federer at Halle last year. Zverev went on to make the second ATP World Tour final of his young career. Since then, he's salted away four tournament wins and beaten Djokovic, Stan Wawrinka, Raonic, Dominic Thiem, Tomas Berdych, Marin Cilic and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, among others.
At 6-foot-6, Zverev possesses a walloping serve and an abundance of powerful groundstrokes. If he has developed an attacking mindset, he's capable of mowing down all comers at Wimbledon. He's fine-tuning his grass game at Halle.
Coco Vandeweghe: There are those who keep a vigil for Vandeweghe, a fearless but inconsistent player who has a game and gambler's mentality that can pay big dividends on grass.
She reached a Wimbledon quarterfinal in 2015, and more recently posted back-to-back wins over Angelique Kerber and Garbine Muguruza as she slashed her way to the 2017 Australian Open semifinals. Standing 6-foot-1 tall and presently ranked No. 30, the 25-year-old can explode at any time and doesn't find the grand occasions or top names intimidating. She stumbled out of 's-Hertogenbosch early but re-upped to play in Birmingham this week.
Jo Wilfried Tsonga: Sure, he exited the French Open early, right after winning a clay-court tournament for the first time in his career a week earlier. But the extra prep time and rest could help him at Wimbledon.
Tsonga and Berdych are on the short list of top-ranked player who have never won Wimbledon. The 32-year-old Frenchman's window to win a major is closing rapidly. He's beaten Roger Federer at Wimbledon, has been stopped in the semifinals twice and made the quarters on two other occasions. He's at Queens Club this week.