Indian Wells preview: Serena Williams exits, Kerber tops draw and rankings, Pliskova leads chase

With Serena Williams missing Indian Wells, Angelique Kerber will now finish the tournament as number one

Angelique Kerber tops the Indian Wells draw Photo: Marianne Bevis

There can be no doubting that Indian Wells marks a special phase of the tennis calendar. For the men, this is the first and biggest Masters of the year, for the women it is the first and biggest Premier Mandatory.

For both, it poses one of the toughest challenges in tennis, particularly taken in partnership with the Masters-Premier tournament in Miami: The two together fill March, like two mini Grand Slams back-to-back.

Certainly, the prizes for the winners are eye-watering: $1,175,505 plus 1,000 ranking for the last man and woman standing after almost two weeks and seven rounds of competition. And it is all set against perhaps the most beautiful backdrop in tennis.

The Indian Wells Tennis Garden, located just outside Palm Springs on the edge of Santa Rosa mountains, is a painting of deepest blues and greens, from the lush lawns to the vibrant courts to the vivid cloudless sky.

No wonder this oasis in the desert—and the Coachella Valley sees rain on just 10 days of the year—draws the best players and the biggest crowds. More than 16,000 will pack the magnificent centre court come finals weekend—that’s the same capacity as Wimbledon’s famed centrepiece—and the protagonists will have earned their place from a packed draw of 96.

But even before the women’s tournament got under way, there were twists and turns aplenty as one draw topped by world No1 Serena Williams was swiftly replaced by another after she announced her withdrawal.

Williams, Kerber, and the No1 ranking

Williams won her 23rd Grand Slam title not two months ago in Australia having not played between the US Open and the end of 2016. During that span between Majors, Williams lost the No1 ranking to Angelique Kerber after an unbroken three and half years at the top, but the American regained the top spot with her Australian victory.

As she and Kerber began their campaigns in Indian Wells, where Williams was runner up last year, one of the key storylines was that same No1 ranking. Williams needed to reach the semis to hold on to the top spot, but could be overtaken by Kerber if the German reached the semis.

Now, the pressure is off Kerber: She will be world No1 at the end of the tournament no matter how she plays. Meanwhile, Williams’ knee problems will also keep her out of her home tournament of Miami, where she is an eight-time champion. And that means, by the time the tour hits the clay, another handful of players will be snapping at Williams’ heels.

The 35-year-old, who won in Indian Wells in 1999 and 2001, has played in the main draw at this tournament only five times in an 18-year span—she famously bypassed Indian Wells for a decade after she and her sister suffered racial taunts in 2001. After two years back in California, will she ever return?

Who will step into the missing champions’ shoes?

Williams joins a strong trio of former champions that is missing from the draw this year. Also absent is the defending and 2012 champion Victoria Azarenka, who has recently become a mother, as well as the 2013 and 2006 champion, Maria Sharapova, who continues a doping suspension.

However, the 2015 champion, Simona Halep, and 2010 winner Jelena Jankovic are here, along with perhaps the most likely former champion to step up again, Caroline Wozniacki.

The Dane has shown encouraging signs of a return to good form after an injury absence last season. Her improvement began back at the US Open, where she made the semis before winning titles in Tokyo and Hong Kong.

Then back-to-back finals in Doha and Dubai brought up 15 wins this year and a rise to No15 in the rankings, and the rejigging of the draw has taken her out of Karolina Pliskova’s eighth and Williams’ half and into a perhaps more conducive segment containing first Madison Keys then Halep. And with few points to defend until September, Wozniacki has plenty of motivation to maintain her upward trend.

The new No1 Kerber, on the other hand, hot foots it to Indian Wells from a first-round loss in Doha and a semi loss in Dubai, and has a heavy quarter, including fellow German, the unseeded Andrea Petkovic, as a possible first opponent.

Also lurking in Kerber’s quarter are Venus Williams and Agnieszka Radwanska, plus unseeded Lucie Safarova and Jankovic.

Incidentally, No5 seed Dominika Cibulkova moves from the bottom half of the draw into Pliskova’s former quarter, along with the biggest beneficiary of Williams’ withdrawal, the new bottom seed Daria Kasatkina.

Form in the desert: Pliskova and Svitolina

The 22-year-old Svitolina made a big impression with her aggressive tennis on the way to picking up the Dubai trophy, her second victory this year and part of an 18-2 run this season. It marked, among other things, her entry into the top 10 and her third straight win over Kerber, though in Indian Wells they are in different halves.

It was perhaps a mistake for the Ukrainian to shoot across to Kuala Lumpur last week—she withdrew from her second match—and the draw does her no favours this week. For while Svitolina’s segment is unchanged by the reshuffling of seeds—except that if she makes the quarters, she could meet Pliskova instead of Williams—she shares an eighth with Daria Gavrilova and Garbine Muguruza.

In contrast, Pliskova, at a career-high after two title runs—Doha and Brisbane—and a 15-2 season, has had time to build her reserves after losing in the first round of Dubai.

She now boasts the top spot in the draw, too, but while her big-hitting game should thrive in the heat of Indian Wells, she has inherited some early trip-wires. First could be Olympic champion Monica Puig, then qualifier Francesca Schiavone, and in the fourth round some Swiss opposition in No 15 seed Timea Bacsinszky or unseeded Belinda Bencic.

What of Halep, Muguruza and Radwanska?

The tournament’s 2015 champion, Simona Halep, is seeded No 4, but not for the first time, she has faced injury problems this season. Indeed, she has won only two matches, pulling out of St Petersburg and then missing Doha and Dubai to rest her knee. But the North American hard courts suit her—she won Montreal last year, made the semis in Cincinnati, and took Serena Williams to three sets in the quarters of the US Open—so much will depend on her fitness.

Halep has a tough section: unseeded Alison Riske and Eugenie Bouchard to start, and St Petersburg champion Kristina Mladenovic in the third round. Thrown into the quarter-final mix is also Wozniacki.

Garbine Muguruza will hope to draw confidence in this points-rich month, too, for since winning the French Open last June, deep runs have been hard to come by. Although she seemed back to form at the start of this year, she picked up an injury in Brisbane, and followed a quarter-final finish in Australia with three losses from five matches played after picking up another injury.

The Spaniard made a big impression in the desert on her debut in 2013 while still a teenager, coming through qualifying to reach the fourth round. Since then, she has won only one match in three appearances, and she could not have drawn a worse quarter to make her comeback, a quarter now topped by Pliskova and with Svitolina lurking in the fourth round. Before that is teenage talent Cici Bellis or veteran Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, who has already made the semis in Australia and Acapulco this year.

Radwanska has also struggled to string wins together since making the final in Sydney, managing just two match-wins in three tournaments. She has, though, scored some good result in Indian Wells—losing finalist in 2014, losing semi-finalist to Williams last year and making at least the quarters on four further occasions.

Even if she makes it past Ekaterina Makarova, and then either Ana Konjuh, who beat her at the US Open, or Acapulco champion Lesia Tsurenko, she has more pressure from either Venus Williams or Coco Vandeweghe. Ultimately, she should face Kerber in the quarters, too. So it is a draw that could either produce a confidence-boosting run or a quick exit for the popular Pole.

Konta and Watson carry British hopes

Johanna Konta and Heather Watson played alongside one another in February to take GB to the Fed Cup playoffs in great style. And Konta’s form earlier in the year was outstanding, too: the semis in Shenzhen, title in Sydney and quarters in Australia. So it has been an intense couple of months for the No11 seed, and perhaps little wonder that she withdrew from Dubai to rest a foot injury.

This will be just her second main-draw appearance in Indian Wells—she made the third round last year—and she does have the kind of draw that could see her exceed that: Her first higher seed is Kuznetsova in the fourth round. But first, as the luck of the draw would have it, she could face the only other Briton, Heather Watson, in her first match.

Watson made the main draw by the skin of her teeth, the last direct acceptance as she struggles to get back to winning form.

The only time these two Britons have played each other before was at an ITF event in Barnstaple in 2013, with both ranked outside the top 100: Konta won via retirement. First Watson has to beat Nicole Gibbs, who the Briton beat at the French Open last year in three tight sets.

Previous champions in draw: Halep, Wozniacki, and Jankovic
Youngest: Kayla Day, age 17
Oldest: Venus Williams, age 36
Wild cards: Day, Jennifer Brady, Danielle Collins, Irina Falconi, Nicole Gibbs, Bethanie Mattek-Sands, Taylor Townsend, Donna Vekic
Missing seeds: Injured Serena Williams, new mother Azarenka, and world No12 Kvitova, who is still recovering from the hand injury sustained in an attack.
Title winners so far in 2017: Lauren Davis, Konta, Pliskova x 2, Katerina Siniakova, Elise Mertens, Mladenovic, Svitolina x 2, Timea Babos, Tsurenko, Ashleigh Barty,

[NB all 32 seeds have bye in Round 1, so first match is Round 2]

Top half

No3 seed Pliskova quarter
R2, Puig or Collins
R3, first seed, No29 Irina-Camelia Begu
R4, No15 seed Bacsinszky or No18 seed Kiki Bertens
QF, No7 Muguruza, No10 Svitolina, No24 Daria Gavrilova, No32 Lucic-Baroni
SF, No5 Cibulkova or No8 Kuznetsova are top seeds

No5 seed Cibulkova quarter
R2, Jelena Ostapenko or Danka Kovinic
R3, first seed, No33 Kasatkina
R4, No19 seed Pavlyuchenkova or No17 seed Strycova
QF, No8 Kuznetsova, No11 Konta, No21 Caroline Garcia, or No26 Roberta Vinci
SF, No3 Pliskova or No7 Muguruza are top seeds

Bottom half

No4 seed Halep quarter
R2, Vekic or Alison Riske
R3, first seed, No28 Mladenovic
R4, No22 Anastasija Sevastova or No16 Sam Stosur
QF, No9 Keys, No23 Carla Suarez Navarro, No30 Shuai Zhang, No13 Wozniacki
SF, No2 Kerber or No6 Radwanska are top seeds

No2 seed Kerber quarter
R2, Andrea Petkovic or Vania King
R3, first seed, No27 Yulia Putintseva
R4, No14 Elena Vesnina or No25 Timea Babos
QF, No12 Venus Williams, No20 Vandeweghe, No6 Radwanska, or No31 Konjuh
SF, No4 Halep and No9 Keys are top seeds

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