MADRID, Spain - Twelve months ago, all the talk heading into the Mutua Madrid Open was about the courts - or rather the color of them. This time around, the narrative centers on the action on it, particularly the battle for top spot in the rankings.
Just like last year, Maria Sharapova arrives in the Spanish capital as World No.2 and fresh from victory in Stuttgart. In 2013, however, it is not Victoria Azarenka she is chasing down, but Serena Williams.
Sharapova's victory in Stuttgart narrowed the gap between No.1 and No.2 to just 875 points, and with Williams defending the 1,000 points she gained after winning last year, there is all to play for next week.
Like her Russian rival, Williams opened up her clay court season with a successful title defense, in Charleston, and on the even quicker courts of the Caja Mágica she will be hard to stop.
Victory in Madrid for either woman, both of whom open up against qualifiers, will guarantee top spot, although with the entire Top 20 present, the path to the title is littered with potential banana skins.
While she may not figure in the shake up for No.1, Azarenka arrives in Madrid with a perfect 17-0 record for the season. Now recovered from the ankle injury that forced her out of Indian Wells and Miami, the Belarusian, a runner-up here on her past two visits, has been handed a tricky opener against a resurgent Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova as she looks to build again for the French Open.
"I feel good," Azarenka said in her pre-tournament press conference. "I'm really glad to be back playing, and can't wait to start the tournament and see where my game is at. It's a very good place to start. It's a very competitive field right away, so I'm glad to be a part of it. It's a great preparation for the French Open."
Between them, the remainder of the Top 8 has 10 titles on the surface, including triumphs for Li at Roland Garros and Kvitova in Madrid in 2011.