Indian Wells 2016 preview: Will reunited Williams sisters thwart rare Halep defence?

Marianne Bevis looks ahead to the women's draw at Indian Wells, as Simona Halep prepares to defend her title

Marianne Bevis
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Indian Wells poses one of the toughest challenges in tennis, particularly taken in partnership with its fellow Masters-Premier status tournament in Miami: The two together fill March, like two mini Grand Slams back-to-back.

And while the prizes are big, the route to the biggest of them—the one-million-dollar purse for the singles titlists—is arduous, with 96 men and women and 32 seeds in each of the draws. Which means the unseeded players have to win seven matches to claim the title—just as in a Grand Slam.

The prestige of the event can be measured in the women’s event by the quality of the entry list: the 32 seeds comprise all but two of the top 32 players. One, Flavia Pennetta, retired last year; the other, Maria Sharapova, was already out with injury before her announcement to the world’s press that she had failed a drug’s test at the Australian Open. Injured or not, she is likely to miss the rest of the year.

But despite a plethora of injuries to other top players both before and after Melbourne—Serena Williams, Garbine Muguruza, Agnieszka Radwanska, Victoria Azarenka, and Petra Kvitova among them—the women’s draw in Indian Wells looks reassuringly healthy. This is a hugely popular event, the winner of the WTA Premier Event of the Year award for the last three years—and little wonder with a setting that is the equal of any on the tour.

The draw has been further boosted by the addition of Williams’ elder sister Venus, who like her sister last year, has decided to bury the hatchet with the tournament and play for the first time since 2001.

As luck would have it, though, the two sisters have been drawn in the same quarter—along with defending champion Simona Halep. Who will reach the final four? Who else is in contention? Here are some to watch, followed by the routes of the big names through their quarters

Williams v Williams

Serena Williams won here twice at the start of her career and, on her return last year, made the semis. But she has played just one event since the US Open, reaching the Australian Open final more than a month back. So she will be rested, but will she be match-sharp?

Venus, ranked No12, has picked up a title already this year at the Taiwan Open, and won three titles last year, but how will her emotions play out, coming back to Indian Wells after so long? Indeed how will the emotions affect both should they meet for the 28th time in the quarters? But first Venus may have to beat Halep, who scored her first win over the woman a decade her elder in Rome last year. Theirs should be the fourth-round match to catch.

Defending champ Halep seeks winning ways—and record

With just two wins so far this year, it was perhaps not surprising that last year’s winner put her planned nose surgery on hold as she heads towards the defence of her title. Halep went on to reach the Miami semis last year, too, so has big points to defend, and is looking at a slip in the rankings if she does not come back strong in the desert.

No other woman has won back-to-back titles in Indian Wells except Martina Navratilova in 1990/91, and Halep has her work cut out. Her first seed is No30 Ekaterina Makarova, who beat her in Melbourne last year, then Venus followed by Serena Williams.

Italian veterans find winning form

Even without Pennetta in the draw, Italy has been celebrating wins by a number of its veteran stars. Roberta Vinci, at the age of 33, broke into the top 10 for the first time with victory in St Petersburg in February after reaching her first Grand Slam final against Pennetta last September.

A week later, Sara Errani won her biggest title in Dubai, just as 35-year-old Francesca Schiavone won her first title in three years in Rio. Only Errani and Vinci are in action this week, but keep an eye on both. Compatriot Camila Giorgi, who won her first title last year in ‘s-Hertogenbosch and is ranked 45, is also playing.

Azarenka and Wozniacki converge again

Two former No1s looking for some consistent form, No15 Azarenka and No25 Caroline Wozniacki are scheduled for a third-round meeting after facing off four times last year—when Wozniacki did not win a set.

Azarenka is back from 38 in the rankings this time last year, and has few points to defend in Indian Wells or Miami. She went 9/10 in her Australia, too, winning Brisbane, but she does have an injury worry—a small encouragement for the Dane who, in contrast, was ranked No5 here last year. Both are former champions, but the winner from this significant contest may have to beat No4 seed Muguruza to make the quarters.

Watching the young risers

Top in the youth stakes is Belinda Bencic, who turns 19 this week, and broke into the top 10 last month with a final run in St Petersburg.

Elina Svitolina, age 21, arrives in Indian Wells with the Kuala Lumpur title, having made a breakthrough into the top 20 on the North American hard courts last August. She is currently No14.

Sloane Stephens, who turns 23 next month, has risen to No22 after adding the Acapulco title last week to the Auckland title at the start of the year.

Eugenie Bouchard, just turned 22, seems to have put her accident at the US Open last year behind her with final runs in Kuala Lumpur last week and in Hobart in January.

Daria Gavrilova, 22 last weekend, made a big impression in Australia, first at the Hopman cup then in Melbourne, to rise to No33, though has won just one match since her fourth-round Australian Open finish.

Teenager Daria Kazatkina, ranked 48, has made progress this season already, up from No75 in Auckland via the third-round at the Australian Open, and the semis in St Petersburg. She opens against a woman 14 years her senior, two-time champion, Daniela Hantuchova.

Britons on the march

Heather Watson, 23 last week, won her first title in over a year in Monterrey to rise back to No53, though she already had a wild card into the main draw. She does have points to defend after reaching the fourth-round last year before something of a slump through illness and injury, so this will be an important test of her return to form.

Fellow Briton Johanna Konta, who broke the top 30 with a semi run at the Australian Open, is scheduled to meet the woman who beat her there, eventual champion Angelique Kerber, in her second match.

Laura Robson is making her first appearance in a WTA main draw since losing in the first round of Monterrey last September. She only began 2015 on home grass in June, but did not win a main-draw match all year, and pulled out of Monterrey a fortnight ago. The 22-year-old’s many fans will watch her opening match against No97 Magdalena Rybarikova with fingers crossed.

Seeds missing from main draw: No7 Maria Sharapova; No11 Flavia Pennetta

Previous champions in draw: Serena Williams and [wild card] Hantuchova have both won twice; one-off champions include Halep, Ana Ivanovic, Azarenka, Wozniacki, and Jelena Jankovic.

[NB all seeds have a bye in Round 1, so first match is Round 2]

Top half

No1 seed Williams quarter
R2, LauraSiegemud (qualifier) or Irina-Camelia Begu
R3, first seed, No27 Kristina Mladenovic
R4, No24 seed Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova or No15 seed Errani
QF, No5 Halep, No 30 Makarova, No10 Venus Williams, or No22 Andrea Petkovic
SF, No3 Radwanska or No8 Petra Kvitova are top seeds

No3 seed Radwanska quarter
R2, Katerina Siniakova (qualifier) or Dominika Cibulkova
R3, first seed, No 32 Monica Niculescu
R4, No19 seed Jankovic or No16 seed Svetlana Kuznetsova
QF, No11 Lucie Safarova, No23 Madison Keys, No29 Sabine Lisicki or No8 Kvitova
SF, No1 Serena Williams or No5 Halep are top seeds

Bottom half

No4 seed Muguruza quarter
R2, Christina McHale or Caroline Garcia
R3, first seed, No26 Sam Stosur
R4, No20 Wozniacki or No13 Azarenka
QF, No9 Vinci, No17 Svitolina, No31 Gavrilova, or No7 Bencic
SF, No2 Kerber or No6 Carla Suarez Navarro are top seeds

No2 seed Kerber quarter
R2, Denisa Allertova or Petra Cetkovska
R3, first seed, No25 Konta
R4, No18 Karolina Pliskova or No14, Ivanovic
QF, No12 Timea Bacsinszky, No21 Stephens, No28 Anna Schmiedlova, or No6 Carla Suarez Navarro
SF, No7 Bencic or No4 Muguruza are top seeds

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