Tennis’ unofficial “fifth slam” gets underway this week, boasting over $5 million in total prize money and a hefty 1000 ranking points for the champion. The Williams sisters are the only notable names sitting out the Premier Mandatory event, which features a main draw of 96 players.
Check out the Draw: WTA Indian Wells 2014 Draw
With Serena absent, Li Na takes on the role of number one seed for the second time since her Australian Open triumph. The 32-year-old failed to live up to the top billing in Doha, where she lost early to Petra Cetkovska, and will obviously be keen to rebound in Indian Wells. A second round meeting with either Paula Ormachea or Jie Zheng shouldn’t be too taxing – Li has a 2-4 record against her compatriot but hasn’t lost to her since 2006 – yet things could get much tougher in round three. Li is seeded to meet Klara Zakopalova, the veteran Czech who has just won a hard court title in Florianopolis. Li leads the head-to-head 3-2, but their last two meetings have been ultra tight three-setters. Sabine Lisicki is slated to be the Chinese superstar’s last 16 opponent, but if the oft-injured German fails to gather momentum quickly, the path will clear for the likes of Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Bethanie Mattek-Sands.
Also in the top quarter of the draw are two players heading in opposite directions in 2014. Dominika Cibulkova has followed up her surprise run to the Australian Open final with a trophy in Acapulco, a feat that puts the diminutive Slovak on the cusp of the top ten. Petra Kvitova, on the other hand, is on the verge of exiting the WTA upper echelons. The Czech has recorded only four wins this season, and looks to be woefully short of confidence. Cibulkova has a tough but winnable route to the fourth round, with Ekaterina Makarova the main stumbling block. Kvitova should get past either American wild card Coco Vandeweghe or Romania’s Alexandra Cadantu in round two, but how will she fare against the inconsistent but always dangerous Svetlana Kuznetsova?
Predicted quarter-final: Li v Cibulkova
As ever, Maria Sharapova will be the focus of much attention in the California desert. Having missed most of the second half of 2013, the Russian has made a solid but not spectacular comeback this season, and will be hoping to hit top form at a such a lucrative point in the calendar. The defending Indian Wells champion should have too much game for either Jana Cepelova or Julia Goerges in the second round, but will need to keep the unforced error count down in a potential third round meeting with Sorana Cirstea or Andrea Petkovic. Sharapova is slated to face Sam Stosur in the last 16, but the Aussie has won only two of her last six matches and will surely struggle to come through a section that features a resurgent Flavia Pennetta.
There is no shortage of young blood in the remainder of the draw’s top half. Elina Svitolina and Monica Puig will face off for the right to play Ana Ivanovic, and the winner of that second round match could play Sloane Stephens in round three. Stephens is under pressure to deliver on home soil, having disappointed many fans and pundits with desultory performances in the Middle East. A strong result in Indian Wells could regain favour as well as momentum. Elsewhere, a less talked about but equally talented young player, Garbine Muguraza, is a dark horse pick to take out fifth seed Angelique Kerber. The Spaniard lost the Florianopolis final from a winning position, but her aggressive playing style and fondness for hard courts make her one to watch.
Predicted quarter-final: Sharapova v Kerber
After capturing her first Premier 5 title last month, the next goal for Simona Halep is a Premier Mandatory trophy. The Romanian, now ranked seventh in the world, has done nothing but improve over the last ten months, and took out three top ten players in Doha. Assuming she has fully recovered from her recent achilles injury, Halep looks set to live up to her seeding in Indian Wells. Lucie Safarova could test her in round three, but the other seeds in her section, Eugenie Bouchard and Sara Errani, are unlikely to hit her off the court.
If Halep is a hot pick in Indian Wells, Victoria Azarenka is merely lukewarm. No one doubts the Belarusian’s ability to dominate a Serena-less field on hard courts, but is she in good enough shape to make a statement over the coming week? A foot injury has kept her out of action since Melbourne, and her body seems eternally prone to breakdowns. That said, the mental break from competition could be to her advantage, and she has been handed a very favourable draw. She’ll open against either a qualifier or up-and-coming American Lauren Davis, after which she’s seeded to play Daniela Hantuchova, to whom she hasn’t lost in three years. The other seeds in Azarenka’s vicinity – Roberta Vinci and Kirsten Flipkens – are not to be feared either. Flipkens hasn’t beaten a top thirty player in 2014, and Vinci hasn’t beaten anyone at all.
Predicted quarter-final: Azarenka v Halep
A match-up many will be hoping to see is a second round showdown between Agnieszka Radwanska and Swiss youngster Belinda Bencic. Ranked inside the top 150 despite playing only a handful of top lever senior events, the 16-year-old Bencic is widely tipped as a future Grand Slam champion, and would no doubt relish the opportunity to play a marquee match against the world number three. Radwanska will of course be the favourite to win, but how much further can she go in Indian Wells? A question makes hangs over the Pole, who played one of the matches of her life against Azarenka in Melbourne but fell meekly to Pennetta in Doha. If she in under par in California, dangerous floaters such as Annika Beck, Elena Vesnina or recent Serena-slayer Alize Cornet could take advantage.
After Shaparova, the player defending most ranking points in Indian Wells is Caroline Wozniacki. The Dane’s run to last year’s final was a highlight in an otherwise forgettable 2013 season, and an early loss at the 2014 BNP Paribas Open could see her tumble out of the top 15. The bad news for Wozniacki is that her draw is littered with problematic opponents. She could play Bojana Jovanovski – a woman who has beaten her twice – in the second round, and in round three could run into 24th seed Kaia Kanepi, another player who has got the better of Wozniacki in the past. Should the 10th seed overcome those hurdles, however, a battle with Jelena Jankovic would surely be one of the fourth round’s most entertaining matches. The pair’s head-to-head stands at 5-4 in Wozniacki’s favour, but they haven’t met since 2012, long before the Serb’s renaissance.
Predicted quarter-final: Jankovic v Cornet
Almost all of the top players have something to prove in Indian Wells. Can Li Na get back on the podium so soon after Melbourne, and thus quell fears that she might suffer a post Grand Slam-winning slump? Is Radwanska happy to chug along week in, week out, or is she ready to step up and push for the biggest trophies? And can Sharapova and Azarenka reclaim their auras after recent injury setbacks? It’s possible that not all of these questions will be answered, but they make this year’s event one of the most open and intriguing in a long time. We’ll use current form as the main guideline, and tip the tour’s fastest rising player for the 2014 Indian Wells title.
Predicted semi-finals: Sharapova def. Cibulkova; Halep def. Jankovic
Champion: Simona Halep