Miami 2015: Can Sharapova find key to 7-time champion Williams in Florida Keys?

The WTA heads to Miami Premier Mandatory where Serena Williams will look to win her eighth title in Florida

World No1 Serena Williams Photo: Dubai Duty Free

One of the four elite WTA events of the year follows hot on the heels of the first as the Miami Premier Mandatory takes off where Indian Wells left off.

And just as in the California desert, it is the world No1 who stands at the top of the seedings, so many points clear of her rivals that even an opening-round loss in this, one of her favourite tournaments, will not dislodge her.

And the chances of a quick loss—unless the knee problem that forced her to withdraw from the Indian Wells semi is still a problem—seem unlikely if past records and present form are anything to go by.

Seven times Williams has won at her ‘home’ event—Florida has been her base for years—more than at any other (and sister Venus has won three more). And she is on a tour-leading streak this season of 15 match-wins, including the Australian Open title.

But just as in Indian Wells, all eyes followed where the two-time former champion Victoria Azarenka would fall in the draw. The former world No1 is making her way back from repeated injuries last season and was fortunate to pick up a seeding in Indian Wells thanks to the number of higher-ranked women who did not play.

In Miami, though, she has missed out by a whisker and could meet the Indian Wells finalist Jelena Jankovic in the second round. She met, and lost to, the No2 seed Maria Sharapova in the third-round in the desert last week: She will hope that the sultry Key Biscayne brings better luck, not least a weary Jankovic, who played no fewer than five three-setters in Indian Wells.

For this prestigious Premier double-header makes a gruelling schedule for all the players: the draws comprise 96 women, each with 32 seeds. Those seeds have to play six matches to reach the final—the rest, like Azarenka, have to play seven, and without the customary day off between every match afforded by the Slams.

In fact, Jankovic can count herself unfortunate on another front. Had the results—and consequent rankings—from Indian Wells applied to the Miami draw, she would be seeded in the top 16 and have avoided a higher ranked player before the fourth round.

But there are several top seeds who will want to reassert themselves this week after earlier-than-ranked exits last week. Williams and No3 Simona Halep, the eventual champion, were the only top-16 women to reach the semis in Indian Wells. Andrea Petkovic lost in her first match, Agnieszka Radwanska, Ana Ivanovic, Caroline Wozniacki and Ekaterina Makarova lost in their second, Sharapova and Eugenie Bouchard in their third.

And then there is the rivalry between Williams and Sharapova. The Russian has never won this title but has reached the final five times. She has lost to Williams in all four meetings here, and for the last two years. Can she finally find the key in Miami?

Seeds missing with injury: No4 Petra Kvitova, No23 Timea Bacsinszky, No30 Dominika Cibulkova.

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

Rankings and seedings: Carla Suarez Navarro at career-high 12, seeded 12; Garbine Muguruza at career-high 19, seeded 21; Pennetta seeded 15 though ranked 28; Camila Giorgi seeded 30 though ranked 37; Casey Dellacqua seeded 32 though ranked 42; Azarenka missed seeding by one place, ranked 36.

Williams quarter

In a bizarre throw of the dice, Williams has drawn the same four seeds in her eighth, and in the same order, as in Indian Wells: Zarina Diyas in Round 3 and either Kuznetsova or Angelique Kerber in Round 4. And to top the coincidence, it could be Monica Niculescu’s fate to be beaten by her again in Round 2.

Not that Williams faced Kuznetsova or Kerber but unseeded Sloane Stephens, who she cannot this time meet before the semis.

The quarters should be the survivor between the fast-improving power-game of Garbine Muguruzu—who beat Williams in the French open last year—or an intriguing face-off between Ivanovic and Sabine Lisicki—and again each has beaten Williams, each in Grand Slams.

Also here is Briton Heather Watson, who made a great showing in Indian Wells with wins over Giorgi and Radwanska, and took Suarez Navarro to three sets in the fourth round. She faces a qualifier and then Kerber, who she took to three sets at Wimbledon last year.

Quarter-final: Williams beats Muguruza

Third seed Simona Halep Photo: Dubai Duty Free

Halep quarter

Halep is arguably the form player of the year so far, with a tour-leading three titles, including two Premiers in Dubai and Indian Wells and quarter-final run in Australia. That’s 20 match-wins already, so while she has never been past the third round in Miami, she will expect to do so this time even if ‘doing the double’ would be a huge ask after such a season.

She faces first either a qualifier or the former world No7 Nicole Vaidisova making her return this spring after five years away following illness and injury.

Halep’s first seed is Giorgi before either Pennetta or the survivor between Azarenka and Jankovic in the fourth round. Azarenka may have been disappointed in Indian Wells, but she has beaten Halep in both previous matches—though that was three years ago. And bearing in mind that she has faced tough draws because of her low rankings, she reached the final in Dubai and has wins over Wozniacki, Kerber, Venus Williams and other top-30 players.

Bouchard is seeded to reach the quarters with Halep, but her second and third rounds hold dangerous non-seeds Belinda Bencic and Daniela Hantuchova, who face one another in a high-profile first round. In the fourth round, Halep may encounter Safarova or the winner between a lively all-American showdown between Madison Keys or Stephens.

Quarter-final: Azarenka beats Bouchard

US Open runner-up Caroline Wozniacki Photo: Dubai Duty Free

Wozniacki quarter

The withdrawal of Kvitova for the second tournament in a row boosts Wozniacki into her own quarter again, where her quarter-final opponent is seeded to be Radwanska. Before that, Wozniacki could face former champion Venus Williams, who beat her in the Auckland final—and in all five previous matches. Williams has also beaten Radwanska twice this year, has a 15-3 record this year, and will be fresh after bypassing Indian Wells. Women who may get in the way of a Wozniacki-Williams Round 4 could be seeds Varvara Lepchenko or Sam Stosur, with Kaia Kanepi and Coco Vandeweghe unseeded challengers.

Radwanska could face the in-form Suarez Navarro, who is at a career-high in the rankings, in the fourth round. They have not met for several years, but the petite Spaniard has not fallen short of the quarters in any tournament this year except the Australian Open.

Quarter-final: Williams beats Radwanska

World No2 Maria Sharapova Photo: Dubai Duty Free

Sharapova quarter

Sharapova may have come unstuck in Indian Wells, but she has been in good form—the Brisbane title, final of the Australian Open, semis in Acapulco. Nevertheless, she can feel Halep breathing down her neck in the rankings, especially as Halep did not play Miami last year.

Sharapova will therefore look to perform well before she has to defend big points on clay, and has the incentive of five previous finals winning the Miami title. But her first seed rings alarm bells, the talented Caroline Garcia, who made back-to-back finals before her fourth-round Indian Wells—where she beat Ivanovic.

The fourth round promises the fast-improving Dubai finalist Karoline Pliskova, and in the quarter-final either Elina Svitolina, Petkovic or Makarova. But this is an unpredictable quarter, with only one qualifier and several non-seeds capable of upsets.

Quarter-final: Makarova beats Pliskova

Final: Azarenka beats Venus Williams

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