This is Indian Wells, an indigo and green oasis set far from the madding crowds in the California desert. Here, against the background of the pale purple peaks of the Santa Rosa mountains, beneath the deep blue, cloudless skies, is the glorious tennis garden that will host the biggest tournament outside the Grand Slams.
The winners will each receive $1m from the biggest WTA Premier and biggest ATP Masters purses on the tour.
The centre court will bulge with more than 16,000 fans, the second largest of any tennis-only stadium on either Tour: Only the US Open’s Arthur Ashe is bigger.
The singles draws comprise 96 men and 96 women, each with a full complement of 32 seeds who must win six matches to take the biggest prize. For those outside the seeds, the task is bigger still: seven matches, just like the Majors.
For all of them, the BNP Paribas Open and its sister across the North American continent, the Sony Open in Miami, fill the whole of March, posing one of the toughest challenges in the calendar, the climax of the hard-court season before the clay and grass swings have their day.
The challenges may be great but the rewards and the kudos are high. Little wonder that the flower-filled, palm-tree fringed Indian Wells Tennis Garden boasts the best line-ups since the Australian Open.
It is the women who get the 25th edition of this tournament under way—a day before the men join the fray—with a field boasting eight of the top 10 players in the world. Na Li, who injured her ankle in the closing stages of the Australian Open, is not yet fit, while the new No1 in the world, Serena Williams, has a back problem—though she and her sister Venus have not played at Indian Wells since 2001.
With Williams missing, Azarenka—who conceded the top ranking to the American in Doha—is the top seed, and rightly so. The defending champion has begun 2013 just as she began 2012, with an unbroken run coming into Indian Wells of 12 matches and the titles at the Australian Open and Doha.
Azarenka withdrew ahead of Dubai, citing a foot injury, but played Williams—who also pulled out of Dubai with her back—in an exhibition match at Madison Square Gardens this week, apparently with no residual problem.
The Belarusian cannot overtake Williams in the rankings here, but the defence of her title would give her a chance to reclaim the No1 spot in Miami.
Azarenka will open against either two-time former champion Daniela Hantuchova—the only active player to have won this title twice and with a 2-1 record against the Belarusian—or a qualifier.
Her first seed is scheduled to be Kirsten Flipkins, who began the year strongly on the Australian hard courts, though she is likely to meet Monica Niculescu first, who won her first WTA title last weekend. It’s a match-up with the potential for an upset.
The highest seed barring Azarenka’s route to the quarters is the fast-rising 19-year-old Sloane Stephens, who beat Williams in the quarterfinals in Melbourne before falling to Azarenka, in controversial circumstances, in the semifinals.
The other half of the top quarter looks stronger, with 2011 champion Caroline Wozniacki leading it, but the Dane, who also finished runner-up at Indian Wells in 2010, has some strong opposition at the fourth-round stage. She is scheduled to meet either No10 seed Nadia Petrova or No21 Julia Goerges, both of whom have big powerful games suited to this hot venue.
The veteran Russian took Petra Kvitova to three sets in Doha and should just about beat Goerges in their first meeting. Wozniacki lost to Petrova in their last meeting at the end of 2012 but has a 4-2 winning record, including Indian Wells in 2010.
The Dane also beat Azarenka in their last meeting, again in Indian Wells in 2011, and holds a 4-2 advantage. It could be an intense contest between them for the semifinal place, though Wozniacki has played a lot of matches in the last few weeks—Doha, Dubai and Kuala Lumpur—plus an exhibition in Hong Kong this week. That, after three matches, may be telling.
Laura Robson, who lost in the first round in both Doha and Dubai, plays in the Wozniacki eighth, and would have a tough run to the quarters: Sofia Arvidsson is ranked just a few places below her at 49, then comes Goerges, followed by Petrova.
With Williams and Li missing, Kerber heads a quarter of her own and, with a relatively benign draw, should make the quarters. Her first match, however, may be against Briton Heather Watson, newly broken into the top 40 and with some matches behind her on the American hard courts in Memphis.
It’s a big ask for Watson to get through the powerful German—assuming the Brit gets past the big Romanian Irina-Camelia Begu in her opener—though Kerber has not had outstanding results so far this season, hampered by some back problems.
She could face No16 seed Lucie Safarova in the fourth round, with Yanina Wickmayer in third. But it’s in the bottom section of the quarter that more danger lies.
Eleventh seed and 2008 champion Ana Ivanovic is on course for a fourth-round meeting with seventh-seeded Samantha Stosur in what could be one of the matches of the tournament.
The Australian has won three of their five matches, including their last in Moscow at the end of 2012, but there is a sense that Ivanovic is again on the verge of big things, and she has produced good results in Indian Wells—she was a finalist in 2009, too. A potential pitfall for her is Mona Barthel in the third round—a woman who beat her in their only meeting, though on clay, last year. The tall German has begun to fulfil her considerable potential this season, on a 14-4 win-loss run with a title in Paris.
The third quarter is topped by No3 seed, Agnieszka Radwanska fresh from that exho in Hong Kong with Wozniacki. The Pole, whose best Indian Wells result was a semifinal showing in 2010, started the year strongly, winning Sydney, and she beat Wozniacki before falling to Azarenka in the semis in Doha. She also fell to Kvitova in Dubai, and these two are lined up for a rematch in the quarters here.
Radwanska’s highest seed in her eighth is No8 Maria Kirilenko, who she has beaten in their last five matches—including Indian Wells in 2011. However, their recent matches have been close.
Kvitova, seeding No5, is scheduled to meet 12th seed Dominika Cibulkova in the last 16, but the Czech woman has been showing a real return to form in the last couple of months, not least in taking out three top-10 players to win the Dubai title. Her run to the quarters, therefore, looks straightforward and, with a 4-1 advantage over Radwanska, she could make a great run here.
Second seed and 2012 runner-up Maria Sharapova is attempting to reclaim the Indian Wells trophy she lifted in 2006 and win her first title of the year. Her road to the quarters should cause few problems. Her opener against either Francesca Schiavone or Flavia Pennetta looks the most interesting until faced with another Italian, Roberta Vinci, in the fourth round.
The top eighth looks far more competitive, topped by another Italian, Sarah Errani, the No6 seed fresh from the defence of her Acapulco title. Last year witnessed a real breakthrough for the petite Italian who, equipped with a new racket, reached her first Grand Slam final in Paris. She already has a tour-leading 18 wins this season—and has played a massive 25 matches—and reached the final on Dubai’s hard courts, losing to Kvitova in three sets.
But she has been wearing increasing amounts of strapping to her legs that suggest she may run out of steam, especially faced with Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in the third round, 2010 champion Jelena Jankovic—winner in Bogota a fortnight back—or No9 seed Marion Bartoli in the fourth round, before Sharapova in the quarters.
One intriguing early match is Jankovic against former world No2 and Grand Slam champion, Svetlana Kuznetsova in the second round: They stand at 6-5 apiece, and the Russian has had some useful wins against top-10 players on the outdoor courts this season.
Final: Kvitova beats Azarenka