No. 1 rankings on the line at the Western & Southern Open

MASON, Ohio -- The Western & Southern Open is back, and top professional tennis players are returning to the Lindner Family Tennis Center in Mason to compete for ranking points and $7.8 million in prize winnings.

The tournament opens Saturday with qualifying rounds and culminates in Aug. 20 main draw championships. It’s a major stop on the Women’s Tennis Association and ATP World Tour calendars, as well as the final combined tournament before the US Open in New York.

As players continue their North American summer hard court tours, there are subplots galore heading into the event. Get your popcorn, kick back and watch these storylines unfold.

New No. 1s
There will be a new No. 1 in the ATP World Tour’s singles rankings after this tournament. Top-seeded Rafael Nadal or second-seeded Roger Federer will usurp the perch currently held by World No. 1 Andy Murray. If Federer wins the Rogers Cup in Canada, he only needs to get as far as Nadal in Mason to return to No. 1. There may be a changing of the guard in the WTA singles rankings, too. Defending W&S Open champion Karolina Pliskova enters the tournament at No. 1 but is among five players with the opportunity to reign atop the rankings. Simona Halep, Garbine Muguruza, Caroline Wozniacki or Elina Svitolina could play spoiler.  

Can  Federer do it again?
In addition to the No. 1 ranking, the Swiss player has a chance to win an unprecedented eighth W&S Open title. Federer, who just turned 36, has not competed here since 2015, when he defeated perennial runner-up Novak Djokovic in straight sets for the title and Rookwood Cup. Federer missed the 2016 tournament and everything from late July onward, including the Rio Olympics, to rehab his surgically repaired knee. The 19-time Grand Slam champion has roared back this year with a 31-2 record and five titles. He skipped the French Open to focus on the grass and hard court seasons. With his history in Mason and strong play in 2017, Federer is poised for a deep run.

The waiting is the hardest part
The story of Maria Sharapova’s doping ban is, by now, well known. Her 15-month suspension after testing positive for meldonium ended in April. Because of Sharapova’s absence, her ranking has been too low to gain direct entry into main draws. Some tournaments, like the W&S Open, have extended her wild cards. Not everybody is pleased with those arrangements; the sentiment among some of Sharapova’s peers is that she should have to work her way into main draws through qualifying. But right now a bigger story is the Russian’s comeback within a comeback. A left thigh injury ended her grass-court season and a sore left arm forced her withdrawal at Stanford. Her W&S Open return will be notable, but will it last? She has a wicked first-round-match against defending French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko.

Match we want to watch most
The first-round clash between World No. 14 Tomas Berdych and No. 31 Juan Martin del Potro has the makings of an epic showdown – as in one of the best openers in the tournament. Del Potro has a 4-3 all-time edge against Berdych, and the veteran players have combined for 32 career titles, so there’s a good chance the big hitters will forge a long, gritty contest. The Del Potro/Berdych victor doesn’t exactly get a chance to rest, as Grigor Dimitrov and Federer potentially lurk around the corner, but that might be the right start for an extended stay in Mason.

Youth is served
Keep your eye on World No. 8 Alexander Zverev, a German player with a first-round bye. Zverev, 20, is a contender for the Next Gen ATP Finals – a November end-of-season tournament featuring the tour’s top 21-and-under singles players. Zverev only turned pro in 2013 and last year lost a qualifying match at the W&S Open. He has won four titles this year, including a straight sets defeat of Kevin Anderson for the Citi Open title in Washington, D.C. Zverev will face a qualifier or American wild card Frances Tiafoe in the second round. Tiafoe turned pro in 2015 and is just 19.

Battle of Americans
There are 10 American men and seven American women in the WTA and ATP World Tour draws, with a couple eye-catching pairings to start.  Madison Keys defeated Coco Vandeweghe for the Stanford title two weeks ago, and now the players will square off in a first-round W&S Open match. Will Keys win again, or will Vandeweghe exact revenge in their second career head-to-head meeting? Venus Williams takes on Alison Riske in another match between Americans. Williams is 2-0 all-time against Riske and has shown that, even at 37, she’s a force to be reckoned with.

See you next year
Friday’s news that defending men’s champion Marin Cilic and 2013 women’s champion Victoria Azarenka had withdrawn added to the growing list of elite players out of this year’s tournament. Cilic bowed out with an adductor injury that has sidelined him since Wimbledon. Wild card recipient Azarenka, who missed last year’s tournament while awaiting the birth of her son Leo, withdrew due to a reported custody dispute with her baby’s father. Other noticeable absences include the pregnant Serena Williams. Novak Djokovic is taking off the rest of the season to rest his sore elbow. Stan Wawrinka is out for the rest of 2017, too, to undergo knee surgery. Much like last year’s W&S Open, when Federer was out for the year and Williams withdrew due to a shoulder injury, opportunity abounds within the 56-player fields.

Come one, come all
More than 187,000 fans visited last year’s W&S Open, leading to sellouts in 11 of the 16 sessions including the last seven. That, it should be noted, was despite the 7 inches of rain that flooded the grounds and muddied the parking areas throughout the event. Since then the Par-3 golf course near the tennis center has been closed, parking areas have been leveled, and workers have shored up the space with gravel aisles and more paved arteries to each lane. Barring bad weather, this year’s tournament has a chance to exceed the record numbers established two years ago. In 2015, fans ensured sellouts in 14 of the 16 sessions and the weekly total was 199,217. With food and drink options, live music, shopping, grounds passes, practice courts, match courts and opportunities to meet players, the W&S Open could be poised for its best attendance yet.

Take one last look
As soon as this year’s tournament ends, construction will begin on a $25 million, five-story South Building. The structure will take the place of the current building between Center and Grandstand Courts, and it’s going to be enormous - as in 40,000 square feet. The South Building’s amenities will include a second-floor restaurant, bar and air-conditioned box seats. The third floor is all about outdoor box seats (396 of them) plus indoor space with concessions, a bar and bathrooms. There will be more seating on the fourth floor and a broadcast/production studio on the fifth floor. Check out ExperienceSouthBuilding.com before heading to this year’s tournament, because there will be a special sales center in the retail plaza where fans can get in on the action.

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