No sooner has the desert dust settled on Indian Wells than the tour charges on to Miami. Boasting an equally generous $5 million dollar prize money pot, similarly excellent facilities and Premier Mandatory status, the Sony Open Tennis is neck-and neck with the BNP Paribas Open in terms of prestige, but is distinguished by the presence of one Serena Williams.
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The 17-time Grand Slam champion is aiming for a record seventh title in Miami this year, and the bad news for the rest of the field is that she will arrive in Crandon Park feeling hungry. Serena was last seen playing a stinker of a match against Alize Cornet in Dubai, and will obviously be keen to put that ultra-rare loss behind her.
Following a first round bye, the world number one will play Yaroslava Shvedova or Francesca Schiavone. Neither woman will have Serena quaking in her boots. Shvedova may have pushed her to the limit at Wimbledon a couple of years ago, but the Kazakh has fallen far since then. Schiavone, meanwhile, has won just a single match in 2014. Serena’s slated third round opponent, Klara Zakopalova, could theoretically put up more of a fight – the Czech has reached three finals this season and has beaten Serena before, albeit on clay.
It’s worth noting that Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Sam Stosur have also landed in Serena’s vicinity – both, at their very best, can challenge the elite players. Alas, there is no knowing when either will produce a peak performance, and based on recent results – Pavlyuchenkova’s third set collapse against Wozniak in Indian Wells and Stosur’s 2-3 record in her last three events – it seems safe to bet that a steady Serena will book a spot in the quarter-finals.
At that stage, she is due to face fifth seed Angelique Kerber. The German looked relaxed and solid on court during Fed Cup and in Doha last month, but she has suffered a reversal of fortunes recently, losing brutal three-setters to Ana Ivanovic in Dubai and to Maria-Teresa Torro-Flor in Indian Wells. To book a last eight meeting with Serena in Miami, she’ll have to come through a section that includes Sorana Cristea, Ekaterina Makarova and Sara Errani. Kerber has a winning record over Cristea and would be confident of taking out the struggling Errani, but she trails her head-to-head with Makarova 3-4.
Predicted quarter-final: Serena v Makarova
Maria Sharapova’s surprising loss to Camila Giorgi in Indian Wells has seen the Russian slip to seventh in the WTA standings. A finalist in Miami last year, she’ll need to avoid an early exit in 2014 to prevent a further rankings tumble. Provided Sharapova keeps her error count respectable, neither Annika Beck nor Kurumi Nara should pose much of a threat in the second round, but Lucie Safarova, bane of so many top players, lurks in round three. Sharapova’s most recent encounter with the Czech lasted more than three hours, and all but one of Safarova’s losses this year have come at the hands of top ten players. If she can grind out that win, however, Sharapova will be favoured to get the better of either Kirsten Flipkens or Sabine Lisicki in the last 16. Both of those women made waves at Wimbledon last summer, but neither has done much of note since.
Not so long ago, fans would have relished the prospect of a Sharapova-Kvitova quarter-final, but it seems foolish to get excited about such a showdown in Miami. Kvitova finished 2013 strongly and looked set to recapture the form that once brought her a Wimbledon title, yet she has floundered this season, reaching only one semi-final. Kvitova may have enough confidence to overcome Svetlana Kuznetsova and book a spot in the fourth round, but to take down Ana Ivanovic or, more likely, the red-hot Flavia Pennetta, she’d have to raise her game to levels we haven’t seen since Istanbul.
Predicted quarter-final: Sharapova v Pennetta
Topping the third quarter of the Sony Open Tennis draw is the Indian Wells finalist, Agnieszka Radwanska. How will the Pole respond after seeing another big chance to win a major title slip by? Over the last year, golden opportunities have come and gone for the ultra-talented 25-year-old, and although a knee injury rather than a disappointing performance stalled her progress last week, there is a growing sense that too much has to go right for Radwanska to succeed at the marquee events. Even assuming she has fully recovered for Miami, it wouldn’t be altogether surprising if the third seed suffered a letdown and lost early to Elena Vesnina or Eugenie Bouchard.
Radwanska’s vulnerability opens the door for one of the tour’s in-form players, Simona Halep. The Romanian marked another milestone by reaching her maiden Premier Mandatory semi-final in Indian Wells; moreover, she appears to be enjoying every minute of her rise to the upper echelons of the game. But Halep has been handed a very tough draw in Miami. She will face either Casey Dellacqua or Stefanie Voegele in the second round, after which looms a likely meeting with Venus Williams, another player who has been smiling a lot recently.
The elder Williams sister will be in action for the first time since her superb title run in Dubai, and would love nothing more than to keep that momentum going on home soil. If Venus serves as well as she did in the UAE, she could overpower Halep and send a message to the rest of the field; if the 33-year-old is rusty, Halep will keep her off balance with clever mixes of angles and spins. Whichever player triumphs will need to reproduce the magic in round four, where Dominika Cibulkova will probably be waiting.
Predicted quarter-final: Venus v Bouchard
Many of the tour’s most promising newcomers have been bunched in the final quarter. Madison Keys has lost some steam of late, but will be favoured to beat Estonian wild card Anett Kontaveit in in the first round and could cause problems for Slovak veteran Daniela Hantuchova in round two. (A third round battle with Li Na would almost certainly get top billing.) Keys’ compatriot, Christina McHale, has a winnable opener against Jie Zheng and would play the struggling Kaia Kanepi next, while Sloane Stephens and Garbine Muguruza should have few problems living up to their seedings.
But which of these young guns can make a statement with a win over a more experienced and established player? Muguruza could face a third round showdown with Jelena Jankovic, and Stephens is likely to meet Caroline Wozniacki at the same stage. While Jankovic is currently playing with zest and confidence, Wozniacki definitely isn’t, and is therefore a viable target for the American number two. Beating Jankovic for the first time could prove a trickier task, however.
Predicted quarter-final: Li v Jankovic
Predicted semi-finals: Serena def. Sharapova; Li def. Venus
Although she has won “only” one of the three events she’s played this year, Serena is the favourite in Miami. She is never more dangerous than when she has something to prove, and is increasingly motivated by her place in history: a seventh title in Florida would see her surpass Andre Agassi as the most decorated player in the tournament’s history. Furthermore, her only legitimate semi-rival over the last couple of years, Victoria Azarenka, is out with injury.
The fun will come from seeing what happens elsewhere in the draw. Can the famously clutch Sharapova step up her comeback? Could Li Na’s Australian Open triumph inspire her to great things against Serena? And can Venus and Pennetta, two of the tour’s elder stateswomen, continue their remarkable renaissances?
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