Indian Wells WTA preview: Serena Williams ready to close 17-year circle

Marianne Bevis looks ahead to the WTA Tournament at Indian Wells, with Serena Williams set to feature

Marianne Bevis
By Marianne Bevis

It’s big, it’s beautiful, it’s star-studded: Indian Wells also happens to be one of the toughest challenges in tennis.

And yet the best player in the world, Serena Williams, turned her back on the season’s first Premier Mandatory for 14 years—until now.

Williams and sister Venus never returned to the oasis amid the shimmering Santa Rosa mountains after what they believed to be racially-motivated heckling in 2001.

Serena would win the title for the second time that year, so it has to be seen as a huge sacrifice. Not only did Williams lose the chance to become the first woman to win this title three times but also, as Roger Federer pointed out when asked about her return, she gave up huge points and the likelihood of many more months at No1 had she played.

And by any measure, this is a hard tournament to miss. Along with its sister on the east coast, the Sony Open in Miami, Indian Wells fills the whole of March in an arduous climax to the hard-court season.

What makes the prestigious double-header especially gruelling is that the draws are second only in size to the Majors, comprising 96 men and women, each with a full complement of 32 seeds. With a bye to the second round, those seeds at least have only to play six matches if they want to win the ultimate prize. For the unseeded, the task is bigger still: seven matches, just as in a Grand Slam.

The venue and the rewards, though, match the tournament’s stature as the WTA’s ‘favourite’ on no fewer than six occasions. The champion earns $900K and gets to play in the second largest tennis stadium on the tour: Only the US Open’s Arthur Ashe holds more than the 16,600 centre-piece to the Indian Wells Garden.

Little wonder, perhaps, that only two women have ever won both Indian Wells and Miami back-to-back: Kim Clijsters and Steffi Graf. But as it all started for a 17-year-old Serena Williams, exactly 17 years ago when she won her first career titles back-to-back—indoors in Paris and then in the outdoor heat of Indian Wells—she very nearly made it three in a row by reaching the Miami final. She lost to sister Venus.

Now age 33, with the year’s first Grand Slam already in her pocket, enjoying exactly two years unbroken at the top of the rankings, and with a 14-1 record at Indian Wells, she will attempt to make up for it.

Can anyone stop Williams from winning a record three in Indian Wells, a record eight in Miami, and becoming just the third woman to do both in the same year?

Potential seeds missing from main draw: No4 Petra Kvitova; No17 Venus Williams; No19 Peng Shuai; No23 Dominika Cibulkova; No34 Irina-Camelia Begu; No34 Casey Dellacqua

Seeding beneficiaries: Camelia Giorgi; Coco Vandeweghe; Belinda Bencic; Victoria Azarenka (NB ranked 38)

Previous champions: Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova and Daniela Hantuchova have all won twice; one-off champions include Ana Ivanovic, Victoria Azarenka, Caroline Wozniacki, Jelena Jankovic, Vera Zvonareva, and defending champion Flavia Pennetta.

NB All but Williams are in the bottom half of the draw.

Serena Williams quarter

Williams should feel pretty confident about the early stages of the draw—though one has to wonder just what kind of nerves will come into play when she makes what is sure to be a highly-charged and emotional return to this tournament.

Even so, her first match against Monica Niculescu or Aleksandra Krunic should help shake off any tightness. Her third round against No28 seed Zarina Diyas should also be smooth, but the fourth round poses some interesting options: Angelique Kerber, not currently at her best, may find No22 seed Svetlana Kuznetsova a handful, but both have had some success against Williams in the past. And Sloane Stephens is also here, unseeded, after a dismal start to 2015. Can she cause a few upsets?

The other eighth is full of possibilities. Williams’ designated quarter-finalist is Ekaterina Makarova, but the Australian Open semi-finalist must get by one of the form players of the season, Timea Bacsinszky, who has just won back-to-back titles in Acapulco and Monterrey.

The winner between those two fast-improving seeds could then face either Lucie Safarova, who just won in Doha to reach a career-high No11 ranking, or Elina Svitolina, the 20-year-old who won the first set off Williams in the third round of the Australian Open.

Quarter-final: Williams beats Safarova

Simona Halep quarter

Halep, semi-finalist last year, has already had an intense and successful couple of months: First the Shenzhen title, then the quarters at the Australian Open, and a win and a loss in Fed Cup—the loss to possible fourth-round opponent, Garbine Muguruza—and the big Dubai title.

However, she pulled out of Doha with injury, so will she keep up that form? She has some strong competition to test it. Big-hitting Varavara Lepchenko is scheduled for Round 3, and either Muguruza or Karolina Pliskova—in one of the best third-round face-offs in the draw—in Round 4. Pliskova it was who Halep beat in the Dubai final.

The other section, topped by Agnieszka Radwanska, also boasts plenty of form. Carla Suárez Navarro was a finalist in Antwerp and a semi-finalist in Doha, while the equally petite Barbora Zahlavova Strycova has made two semis already. Down at No8, Radwanska is on a 6-6 run thus far this year, and with final points to defend, she will need to regain some form in a hurry, though she now has the great Martina Navratilova in her corner to help.

NB Heather Watson, who won Hobart at the start of the year but has not won a main-tour match since, takes on Julia Goerges, who has regained some of her former form this season, at 6pm GMT.

Quarter-final: Muguruza beats Suárez Navarro

Caroline Wozniacki quarter

The withdrawal of Petra Kvitova boosts Caroline Wozniacki into her own quarter, while her first seed, Belinda Bencic, is also seeded thanks to injuries further up the ranks.

Wozniacki has come hot-foot from winning in Kuala Lumpur—a tough transition—but she is one of the fittest women on the tour. And there is no doubting she has recovered much of her form in recent months, launched by her final run at the US Open and consolidated this year by the final in Auckland and semis in Dubai.

But though this is a quarter without obvious problems for the former champion and two-time finalist, it has a number of in-form players who could be surprise trip-wires. Aside from one of the stand-out risers of last year in Bencic—plus a dangerous Kaia Kanepi possible in her first match—Wozniacki has two other former champions in her eighth, though neither Jelena Jankovic nor Daniela Hantuchova is currently at the their best. So Madison Keys, in her first tournament since reaching the Australian Open semis, is a more likely fourth-round opponent.

The quarters are scheduled to hold Eugenie Bouchard, though she has had some injury problems, and could come unstuck by a resurgent Andrea Petkovic, winner in Antwerp, in the fourth round.

Quarter-final: Wozniacki beats Petkovic

Maria Sharapova quarter

Two-time champion Maria Sharapova is in great form—the Brisbane title and the final of the Australian Open—and still on the campaign trail to reclaim the No1 ranking from arch-rival Williams, but she will need to perform at her best here before she has to defend big points on clay.

However, the draw has done her no favours. She was already forced to pull out of her semi in Acapulco with a stomach bug, and now has a tough quarter to contend with, including former champions Ana Ivanovic—the highest seed outside the leading four—as well as Flavia Pennetta.

But the biggest challenge comes in Sharapova’s first seed, the third round, in the shape of 2012 champion and former No1 Victoria Azarenka, who just made a final run in Doha. It’s been a tough haul back from injury absences for Azarenka, but she beat Sharapova with ease in that 2012 final.

Even the unseeded women are tricky: Yanina Wickmayer and Kirsten Flipkens are no easy rides. The fourth round should bring Sam Stosur or Pennetta for the winner between Azarenka and Sharapova, with No5 seed Ivanovic, who almost got the better of Sharapova in the Brisbane final, in the quarters.

However, Ivanovic has Caroline Garcia in the third round, who beat her in the Monterrey semis last week to reach back-to-back finals. And the fourth round beings either Sara Errani, fresh from the Rio title and Monterrey semis, or Sabine Lisicki.

Quarter-final: Sharapova beats Garcia

Final: Williams beats Wozniacki

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