But the players’ favourite tournament is now a week old, and the final 16 of the women’s draw were ready to begin their charge into a seventh day and, they hoped, the quarter-finals of this points-rich event.
The most familiar, most expected—but until now very rare—presence on this Tuesday in the desert was the woman who has topped the rankings for an unbroken two years: Serena Williams.
Also there were the two women chasing Williams in the rankings, No2 Maria Sharapova and No3 Simona Halep.
Last year’s champion, No15 seed Flavia Pennetta, may not have been everyone’s tip for this year’s title, but she too was present and correct. After all, she was a quarter-finalist at last year’s US Open, reached the final in Sofia, and finished in the quarters in Dubai last month. Another woman proving, like Williams, that the age of 33 is no barrier.
There were also, unusually in the women’s draw, two Swiss names. The youngest, 18-year-old Belinda Bencic, took on another 30-year-old in Jelena Jankovic, while Timea Bacsinszky, at a career-high No26 after winning Acapulco and Monterrey back to back, stood at 20-2 for the season. Bacsinszky took on No23 seed, the 20-year-old Elina Svitolina.
And despite some high-profile casualties—Nos 4 and 5 Caroline Wozniacki and Ana Ivanovic among them—the seedings had played out pretty well. Among the final 16 there remained only three unseeded women, three who had played and won all three rounds.
The most surprising was the No85-ranked Lesia Tsurenko, a 25-year-old qualifier who scored her first top-10 win over No9 seed Andrea Petkovic and then beat No20 Alize Cornet, both in three long sets. Her unenviable task was to take on the ‘Genie Army’ and one of the fasted rising young women in tennis, the popular Eugenie Bouchard.
The highest profile match was undoubtedly the meeting between Williams and fellow American, the 21-year-old Sloane Stephens. They had met only three times, all in 2013, and Stephens had scored a shock win over Williams in the quarter-finals of the Australian Open. Since then, Stephens’ star had faded, hence her dip from a career-high No11 to her current 42.
But here Stephens had beaten two seeds, and there was a real buzz about this fourth meeting—especially against a former champion making her return to this venue for the first time in 14 years.
Williams dropped the first set but battled back to seal a 6-7 6-2 6-2 victory over her compatriot.
At the other end of the draw’s top half, though, was Briton Heather Watson, ranked 43 and riding a wave of confidence from beating her first top-10 opponent, No7 seed Agnieszka Radwanska.
Having dealt with glandular fever and injury over the last couple of years, the young Briton won a second career title in Hobart to open the year, and looked more confident and fit than in many a month, and rightly so. Her opener against Julia Goerges was no easy match, and now she had two seeds under her belt. She also had every reason to be upbeat about her chances against the hard-working No12 seed, Carla Suarez Navarro.
The petite Spaniard had already survived a gruelling battle against Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, and had played as much tennis this year as anyone on the tour: 21 singles matches, 16-5, and nine in doubles, 6-3.
Watson looked eager to take the game to Suarez Navarro in the early games of the first set, and deployed some lovely drop-shot winners, while Suarez Navarro plied the backhand with her elegant single-hander.
Watson made a breakthrough in the seventh game, and then saw the Spaniard take treatment to her right ankle and have it heavily taped. Suarez Navarro was clearly in some pain as Watson held for 5-3, but kept in touch with some fine swinging serves. Watson had only to serve out the set, but whether distracted by her opponent’s problems or gripped by nerves, the errors crept in and a forehand put long handed back the break.
After an hour, they headed into a tie-break and Suarez Navarro now began to move more easily, taking a couple of good smashes at the net to open up a 5-2 lead. Watson persisted with targeting the Spaniard’s backhand, but Suarez Navarro was up to the pressure and served out the set, 7-6(5) after 70 minutes.
Watson bounced back, surely expecting that Suarez Navarro would begin to tire in the midday heat. She broke with a forehand winner for a 2-0 lead, but then lost a 40-15 lead to be broken back. However, she continued to work her opponent hard in some long cat-and-mouse exchanges to break again, shrugged off an awful net-cord to survive break point, and made a love hold for the set, 6-3.
They had now played for almost two hours, but both opened the decider as though it was the start with a couple of impressive holds. It seemed to going well for Watson when all at once, her game fell apart. From 40-0 up in the fourth, she lost five points and the break, and was then broken to love on her next serve. That buoyed up Suarez Navarro to her best tennis of the match—almost flawless—and she raced to victory with a love hold, 6-1.
So Suarez Navarro’s best ever start to a season continues as she builds on her career-high ranking of 13 with her first Indian Wells quarter-final. No wonder she sounded confident about her chances against either Halep or Karolina Pliskova. Not only did she beat the former in their last meeting in Rome but she beat the latter twice in the last month.
The motto: Don’t count out the 5ft4in, all-court grafter from Gran Canaria.
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