Don't miss any stories Follow Tennis View

Previewing the Indian Wells Women's Draw

Mar 4th 2014

With the exception of Serena Williams, all of the top 10 women convene at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, the first WTA Premier Mandatory tournament of the season.  The relatively slow hard courts at Indian Wells have rewarded a variety of playing styles and witnessed many thrilling battles during the long history of the event.  Most contenders will arrive more rested than usual, having played sparsely during a quiet month of February. 

Li Na

First quarter:  At the age of 32, Australian Open champion Li Na holds the top seed at an event of this magnitude for the first time.  The desert has not often been kind to the world No. 2, never an Indian Wells finalist and absent with injury last year.  Still, Li eyes a relatively smooth route to the quarterfinals past no opponent more dangerous than Sabine Lisicki.  While that massive server has upset her at Wimbledon, Lisicki has not yet translated her grass success to other surfaces and fell prey to a shoulder injury last month.  Perhaps more dangerous for Li is a woman who won her most significant title to date at the Paris Indoors in February.  Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova has taken sets in two of her last three hard-court meetings with Li and has reached the semifinals at Indian Wells before.  Home fans may hope for Bethanie Mattek-Sands to win a match or two, since she has landed in a relatively soft section.

While the draw theoretically projects a quarterfinal pitting Li against Petra Kvitova, the Wimbledon champion has not built on her excellent fall campaign in 2013.  Just 4-4 to start 2014, Kvitova lost in the first round at the Australian Open.  More heads may turn in the direction of Australian Open finalist Dominika Cibulkova, who showed her readiness to consolidate her breakthrough by winning the Acapulco title a few days ago.  Cibulkova can look forward to a third-round meeting with another February champion in Ekaterina Makarova, a classic lefty with a history of tight battles against her.  For her part, the enigmatic Kvitova could square off in the same round with the equally enigmatic Svetlana Kuznetsova.  Twice an Indian Wells finalist, this two-time major champion has played only three matches in 2014 as she has struggled with injury.

Maria Sharapova

Second quarter:  No woman benefited more from Serena’s absence than defending champion Maria Sharapova, a top-four seed despite her ranking of No. 5.  Sharapova produced uneven tennis at the Australian Open but has been more consistent than any woman outside Serena at non-majors over the last two years.  A trip to Sochi for the Winter Olympics, irresistible for this proud Russian, may have left her rusty ahead of a draw filled with dangerous young shot-makers.  While Julia Goerges and Andrea Petkovic have faded since their initial breakthroughs, either of those Germans or Sorana Cirstea could ambush a vulnerable Sharapova on a day when their erratic weapons find the lines.  So could Italian veteran Flavia Pennetta, who has defeated the Russian twice on North American hard courts.  By contrast, the declining Samantha Stosur usually plays into the hands of Sharapova’s strengths.   

Fifth seed Angelique Kerber usually finds Sharapova as difficult to solve as Stosur has.  A semifinalist at Indian Wells in each of the last two years, she faces a perilous road back to that stage.  Even before meeting Sharapova, Kerber might encounter a resurgent Ana Ivanovic, who defeated her in Dubai a few weeks ago.  The former No. 1 and 2008 champion enjoyed an outstanding January with a title and an Australian Open quarterfinal, while Indian Wells ranks among her favorite tournaments.  American fans will want to see whether Sloane Stephens can improve her consistency at non-majors.  Unimpressive in February, Stephens has lost two matches to Ivanovic on home soil before.  Also intriguing to those looking for the next women’s star is Garbine Muguruza, just within the seeding cut-off.  Muguruza has played much of her best tennis in March, so she will feel confident of adding to her impressive 17 wins this year. 

Simona Halep

Third quarter:  Stopping Simona Halep at non-majors has been much easier said than done since last May.  The Romanian has reeled off a staggering seven titles on four surfaces during that span, including her greatest triumph to date last month.  Capturing the Premier Five title in Dubai, Halep will hope to become the latest underdog to shine at a tournament known for surprise twists.  She tends to grow more dangerous as her tournament progresses, and her early matches look benign.  The only woman who won a set from Li at the Australian Open, Lucie Safarova, will hope to keep Halep at bay with her left-handed weapons.  One of the most notable second-round matches could pit 2009 champion Vera Zvonareva against Melbourne semifinalist Eugenie Bouchard in a clash of two baseliners at opposite ends of their careers.  A quarterfinalist at both Indian Wells and Miami last year, Sara Errani may struggle to repeat those results in her current state of burnout. 

If Errani’s results have dwindled, those of her compatriot Roberta Vinci have fallen off a cliff.  Vinci still has not won a match in 2014, yet she remains in the top 15 and positioned near a pair of young Americans.  After reaching her first WTA final in Acapulco last week, Christina McHale may fancy her chances of a strong run.  Less impressive this year, Madison Keys will look to pound her explosive serve past the reeling Vinci if she can survive the patient counterpunching of Tsvetana Pironkova.  Plenty of question marks enshroud this quarter, in short, not the least of which concerns world No. 4 Victoria Azarenka.  The former No. 1 and two-time major champion won this title two years ago as part of her characteristically torrid start to the season.  But injury and inconsistent form have denied Azarenka that torrid start in 2014, so she will look to turn a new leaf in the desert.

Caroline Wozniacki

Fourth quarter:  She may not be the highest-ranked player in her section, but Caroline Wozniacki has enjoyed the most success at Indian Wells.  The Dane has reached the final there in three of the last four years, collecting the 2011 trophy.  Few surfaces suit her steady albeit vanilla style more than these slow hard courts, and Wozniacki’s high-percentage playing style adapts better to the desert’s unpredictable conditions than riskier rivals.  Unfortunately for her, the draw has placed her near 2013 nemesis Bojana Jovanovski, who won two of their three 2013 meetings.  Hard-hitting Estonian Kaia Kanepi also has been a thorn in Wozniacki’s side at times.  If she survives those threats, she still must solve fellow No. 1 Jelena Jankovic, often compared to Wozniacki in playing style.  Back in the top eight, Jankovic defeated Wozniacki to win Indian Wells four years ago.  Lurking in this section also is Petra Cetkovska, who handed Li Na her only loss of the year so far.

The 2014 season has been filled with more peaks and volleys than we have grown to expect from Agnieszka Radwanska.  A stirring victory over Azarenka at the Australian Open preceded a limp loss to Cibulkova a round later, while a solid week in Doha preceded a quick exit in Dubai.  Near Radwanska stands 16-year-old phenom Belinda Bencic, the sort of raw novice whom the Pole usually handles with ease.  On a February hot streak, 22nd seed Alize Cornet has reached the semifinals or better at two of her last three tournaments, including a victory over world No. 1 Serena Williams in Doha.  That event also saw Cornet defeat Carla Suarez Navarro, whom she could face again in the desert.  Neither woman would seem to wield the firepower needed to hit through Radwanska.

Return tomorrow for a look at the Indian Wells men’s draw.