Miami Premier preview: Serena targets No9, but can Azarenka do the infamous double?

Marianne Bevis previews the WTA event in Miami, where world number one Serena Williams is the top seed

Marianne Bevis
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Even before the super-size, super-lucrative Indian Wells Premier had reached its climax, the majority of the women who had made up the 96-woman draw were already acclimatising to the contrasting heat of Florida.

For its sister, the equally big, equally rich Miami Premier, the second of the WTA’s elite quartet of Mandatory Premiers, follows hot on the heels of the first, with barely time to draw breathe.

Some small consolation for the four seeds who made it to the semi-finals on the USA’s west coast is that the 32 seeds are all treated to bye in the first round when they arrive on the Atlantic coast. But for those with ambitions to win the Miami title, that still means six matches—just as it did in Indian Wells.

The Indian Wells-Miami double: the ultimate test

So demanding is this back-to-back three weeks that very few have managed to win both in the same year: In fact only two. Steffi Graf did so in 1994 and 1996—though at a time when Indian Wells was still a 64-woman draw—and Kim Clijsters did the near-impossible in 2005. After missing much of the previous 12 months with injury, she played both Indian Wells and Miami unseeded, and thus won the full seven matches in both, and beat five of the top six in the world in the process.

Nobody since has pulled off the feat, even the remarkable Serena Williams, though her failure to ‘do the double’ might be attributed in large part to her absence from Indian Wells between winning the title in 2001 and returning last year.

Any hope of breaking that particular barrier last year was thwarted by an injury at the semi-final stage at Indian Wells, though she went on to win a record eighth in Miami.

Azarenka rises

This year, Williams was thwarted by a resurgent Victoria Azarenka, who has come close to the doing the double in the past herself. Her Indian Wells win in 2012 was followed by a quarter-final run in Florida, and her Miami victories in 2009 and 2011 were preceded by the semis and quarters respectively in California.

So it is the woman from Belarus, who has fought her way back from assorted injury problems and a ranking of No 38 a year ago to No8 this week, who has the chance to make her own piece of history next week?

That she arrives with her first win over Williams in two and a half years, and scored her the first of her four victories over Williams in Miami in 2009, will do her confidence no harm at all.

William’s record in Miami

Even so, Williams will start the tournament as top seed, and so far ahead of the competition that she cannot be overtaken even with a first-match loss.

In any case, an early loss for Williams, in a tournament she has dominated so comprehensively that she has a 73-7 record and in the place that she calls home, is a very long shot indeed. She has, indeed, lost before the quarter-finals only once in 15 visits—a fourth-round exit 16 years ago.

Williams has won just one hard-court title since Miami last year, however, winning Cincinnati but falling just short in Toronto, the US Open, Australian Open and last week. Will that affect her confidence? Will it boost the hopes of her rivals?

Only time will tell. However, there are several high-ranked seeds who will want to reassert themselves this week after earlier-than-ranked exits last week, first…

Kerber comeback?

Angelique Kerber remains at the other end of the draw despite dropping to No3 in the rankings in the wake of opening losses in Doha and Indian Wells. She can, though, gain points by reaching Round 4, but then should meet the in-form Karolina Pliskova, who just made a powerful run to the semis in Indian Wells. She also opens against the highest-ranked unseeded woman in the draw, Barbora Strycova, a finalist in Dubai. And further down the line is the still-unseeded Eugenie Bouchard, who may vie for a quarter-final spot with Belinda Bencic.

Luck of the [Venus] Williams draw

Serena is not, of course, the only Williams for whom Florida is home, and the oldest woman in the Miami draw, sister Venus, has won three times—though not since 2001.

Last week, on her return to Indian Wells, she was drawn in sister Serena’s quarter, but despite being the No10 seed, fell in her first match to a qualifier. This week, she is drawn into Azarenka’s quarter—though could face Johanna Konta, who beat her at the Australian Open, in the third round. But Venus will have many supporters urging her on, and is one of the Tour’s title winners this year.

In-form Radwanska on the up

Having ended 2015 on a high with her biggest career title, the WTA Finals, the popular Agnieszka Radwanska has carried on where she left off. A title in Shenzhen followed by semis in Australia, Doha and Indian Wells, have taken her to No2 in the rankings (though not in time for the No2 seeding).

If she reaches the same stage again, it could be a third semi meeting against Williams, a woman she has failed to beat in 10 attempts. First, though, she is slated to meet No5 Simona Halep, who has beaten her in four of their last six meetings.

Muguruza searches for comeback

The 22-year-old Spaniard is one of the few women in the draw to have tasted victory at Premier Mandatory level, but since winning in Beijing last year, she has searched for her 2015 form with just four Tour and two Fed Cup match-wins this year. She lost her opener in Indian Wells, and has a tough draw to negotiate in Miami too, including a possible opener against Dominika Cibulkova, still ranked outside the seedings after her long injury absence. The fourth round could bring Azarenka—but don’t write off Muguruza. When the form kicks in, she will make her presence felt.

Can Wozniacki and Ivanovic turn it around?

Two former No1, one story: the search for form. Wozniacki had her third opening-match loss of the year in Indian Wells, her best win against a 35-ranked player, and is, at No25, at her lowest ranking in almost eight years. She is not helped by the Miami draw, either: Petra Kvitova’s eighth, Serena Williams’ quarter.

Ivanovic beat a below-par Halep in Dubai but has not beaten a top-30 player this year as her form blows hot and cold; 7-6 for the year so far. Since reaching the quarters in her Miami debut in 2005, she has never won three matches in the draw: It is hard to see her getting beyond the same stage this year, with Radwanska a likely fourth-round opponent.

British interest

Konta, seeded 24, is at a career-high ranking of 23—the highest British woman since 1987—after reaching the fourth round in Indian Wells. In her first Miami main draw, she could face Denisa Allertova, who she beat last week, and line up a replay of her Australian Open meet with Venus Williams in the third round. But this is a winnable eighth, with the prospect of a quarter-final run.

Heather Watson and Laura Robson both have wild cards, the former opening against Petra Cetkovska, with No20 seed Sloane Stephens next, and the latter opening against Kirsten Flipkens, with Madison Keys the first seed.

Former champions: Serena Williams (eight time and defending); Venus Williams (three times); Azarenka (twice); Svetlana Kuznetsova (once); Radwanska (once)

Additional former runners-up: Jelena Jankovic, Carla Suarez Navarro (last year),

Current or former No1s: Serena Williams, Venus Williams, Azarenka, Ivanovic, Jankovic, Wozniacki

Missing seeds: 48 of the top 50 are scheduled to play in Miami with the only absentees being No11 Maria Sharapova (suspended) and No12 Flavia Pennetta (retired)

Missing injured: Mona Barthel (illness), Varvara Lepchenko (knee injury)

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

Top half

No1 seed Williams quarter
R2, Misaki Doi or Christina McHale
R3, first seed, No31 Daria Gavrilova
R4, No21 seed Andrea Petkovic or No15 seed Kuznetsova
QF, No12 seed, Elina Svitolina, No23 Wozniacki, No30 Ekaterina Makarova, or No8 Petra Kvitova
SF, No3 Radwanska or No5 Halep are top seeds

No3 seed Radwanska quarter
R2, Alize Cornet or Galina Voskoboeva
R3, first seed, No28 Anna Schmiedlova
R4, No19 seed Timea Bacsinszky or No16 seed Ivanovic
QF, No11 Lucie Safarova, No20 Stephens, No26 Sam Stosur, or No5 Halep
SF, No1 Serena Williams or No8 Kvitova are top seeds

Bottom half

No4 seed Muguruza quarter
R2, Cibulkova or Johanna Larsson
R3, first seed, No27 Kristina Mladenovic
R4, No18 seed Jankovic or No13 seed Azarenka
QF, No10 Venus Williams, No24 Konta, No32 Monica Niculescu or No6 Suarez Navarro
SF, No7 Bencic or No2 Kerber are top seeds

No2 seed Kerber quarter
R2, Strycova or Anna-Lena Friedsam
R3, first seed, No25 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova
R4, No14 Sara Errani or No17 Pliskova
QF, No7 Bencic, No29 Sabine Lisicki, No22 Madison Keys, or No9 Roberta Vinci
SF, No4 Muguruza or No6 Suarez Navarro are top seeds

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