The first round of the Indian Wells WTA event is almost over – and that means the tournament is almost ready to truly begin.
In its efforts to equal the Grand Slams for seven rounds of match play, the BNP Paribas Open awards a whopping 32 first round byes for the highest-ranked competitors at the Premier Mandatory event. Consequently, few opening matches actually take place. And for some of the world’s elite, a second round clash against a player who has already notched a victory in the desert can prove difficult.
With world no. 1 Serena Williams and defending champion Victoria Azarenka absent from the event, it takes a brave man or woman to try and predict the outcome. But I will at least attempt to predict some semifinalists.
Projected quarter-final: Karolina Pliskova (2) vs Garbine Muguruza (6) (Pliskova leads H2H 5-1)
Serena’s late injury withdrawal – not just from Indian Wells, but also from the Miami Open – has reshuffled the draw in California. Most notably, world no. 3 Pliskova has been off whisked into the first quarter – and will now open against Olympic gold medallist Monica Puig, who thrashed home hope Danielle Collins 6-0 6-2 in the first round. Never rewarded with ranking points for her golden run in Rio – where she defeated three straight Grand Slam champions – Puig’s career-high ranking is still just world no. 27. The Puerto Rican has claimed some big wins since her stunning triumph, but still goes from burning efficiency in one match to wavering form in the next. If she’s not completely dialled in against Pliskova, the US Open finalist – who has won all three of their previous meetings in straight sets – could easily make her pay. The key for Puig and her aggressive backhand is to make the Czech move.
If the direction Pliskova moves in is forwards, then things should actually relent for the 24-year-old. Young Louisa Chirico and clay-loving Irina Camelia Begu are not expected to provide resistance in round three – although Chirico, already a Premier semifinalist at the age of 20, could be inspired by her home crowds. Should Pliskova avoid danger here, then 2016 French Open semifinalist Kiki Bertens could be her fourth round opponent – providing the Dutchwoman comes through an encounter with former world no. 7 Belinda Bencic. The teen just picked up her first WTA match win since October against Tsvetana Pironkova.
Garbine Muguruza – defending French Open champion – is projected to take on Pliskova in the quarterfinals, but the Spaniard is anything but certain to make it through. After a ghastly second half of the 2016 season, things began promisingly for Muguruza in 2017: a Brisbane semifinal run ending only in retirement, and a trip to Melbourne’s last eight coming as a vague surprise. Nevertheless, she enters Indian Wells having withdrawn injured from yet another match in Dubai, with the 23-year-old’s last completed clash a three set loss to world no. 31 Shuai Zhang.
Worse news for Muguruza is her first opponent in Cali. Tricky Kirsten Flipkens and her sliced backhand upset Muguruza in her first match as Roland Garros champion, and the Belgian comes into their second round Indian Wells encounter off a fighting three set win over talented American Catherine Bellis. In short, she’s warmed up. And a world ranking of no. 87 does not do justice to her ability.
If Muguruza comes through that round, a potential meeting with Australian Open semifinalist Mirjana Lucic-Baroni would be no straightforward task. Nor would a round of 16 meeting with Elina Svitolina. The world no. 10 may not have the raw talent of many women on tour, but her focus and competitive nature have taken her places lately – including title victory in Dubai. All things considered, the Ukranian – who has won her last two meetings with Muguruza, and whose biggest threat prior to round four is counterpunching Daria Gavrilova – could be the most reliable woman in this section of the draw.
SEMIFINALIST: Karolina Pliskova
Projected quarter-final: Svetlana Kuznetsova (7) vs Dominika Cibulkova (4) (Cibulkova leads H2H 6-3)
Both had thrilling highlights in 2016. But Kuznetsova and Cibulkova sandwiching a quarter at the ‘fifth Grand Slam’ tells you something about the current state of the WTA elite.
Cibulkova might have the ‘toughest’ run en route to a potential meeting with Kuznetsova. Jelena Ostapenko – an ultra-aggressive, ultra-feisty Latvian – awaits in round two after edging Danka Kovinic in three sets. The winner would be on track to face another talented youngster: Russia’s determined and battle-ready Daria Kasatkina, who next faces Karolina Pliskova’s twin sister Kristyna. For whichever woman emerges victorious (and this is near impossible to predict), former junior star Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and giant slayer Barbora Strycova pose potential fourth round roadblocks.
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Meanwhile, two-time Slam champion Kuznetsova – who made the 2016 Miami Open final – will be looking to make the most of having no points to defend in Indian Wells. Johanna Larsson – an underrated Swede who rarely performs to her full potential – is the Russian’s first challenger, after dismissing Camila Giorgi in straight sets in round one. Round three is hardly intimidating, with Madison Brengle – a victor over Serena Williams in dreadful conditions earlier this season – or the fading Italian Roberta Vinci awaiting.
Johanna Konta, having fallen to world no. 11 after not playing since the Australian Open, leads the charge to potentially face Kuznetsova in round four. A quarter-finalist in Melbourne, Konta’s campaign begins with an intriguing maiden WTA meeting with British no. 2 Heather Watson. The winner would be widely expected to survive a clash with flailing Caroline Garcia or Evgeniya Rodina.
SEMIFINALIST: Johanna Konta
Projected quarter-final: Simona Halep (3) vs Madison Keys (8) (Halep leads H2H 5-1)
In a more interesting section of the draw, 22-year-old Madison Keys finally begins her 2017 season after wrist injury delayed her debut. The home star may find it difficult to channel her raw power straight away – especially at a tournament where she’s not progressed beyond the second round in six previous attempts. Nevertheless, the big-serving powerhouse is an intimidating on-court presence, and Mariana Duque-Marino – whose unconventional game is better suited to clay courts – will not be happy to be faced with this in the second round. Should the American progress, the third round would be a must-watch affair, with bubbly Japanese talent Naomi Osaka or Chinese threat Shuai Zhang likely to await.
Caroline Wozniacki enters the desert off a successful run to the Dubai final, but the competition in California is likely to be a few steps up. With new addition Sascha Bajin still serving as her hitting partner, she will launch her trophy quest against the overlooked Magda Linette, before a probable third round showdown with either slicing-dicing Carla Suarez-Navarro or energetic Katarina Siniakova. A fourth round clash with Keys – all-out aggression against relentless counterpunching – would provide a highly watchable showdown.
On the other side of the section, world no. 4 Simona Halep looks to improve her 2-2 win/loss record on the season. Returning from injury for the first time since early February, she awaits either Alison Riske or Donna Vekic – two women who have previously won WTA titles, but are struggling for form at present – in her opener. Danger could await in the next round – but not from Eugenie Bouchard, the world no. 53 who is currently better known for her off-court ventures than her tennis. Halep’s potential opposition is far more likely to be Kristina Mladenovic. The 23-year-old Frenchwoman has won multiple Grand Slams in doubles, and her singles promise is coming to fruition after a maiden WTA title in St Petersburg last month. The intense right-hander is capable of the upset against Halep, and the winner of that duel could encounter 2011 US Open champion Samantha Stosur – who could just as easily be upset by Julia Georges or Anastasija Sevastova beforehand – in the fourth round.
SEMIFINALIST: Caroline Wozniacki
Projected quarter-final: Angelique Kerber (1) vs Agnieszka Radwanska (5) (H2H tied at 6-6)
Ironically, the bottom quarter of the women’s draw is the most loaded.
Soon to be crowned world no. 1 once more – by virtue of Serena’s absence – Kerber has a lot to prove in the desert. At seven wins to five losses on the season, the German has hardly looked her consistent self of 2016 so far this year. The German may have zero ranking points to defend, but the pressure is on this week.
And her journey will be challenging for the offset. Fellow German Andrea Petkovic was confirmed as her second round competition after Vania King retired with a left ankle injury. While the 29-year-old is far from her top ten glory days, she knows Kerber and her game well, and delivered some of the best insights on the world no. 2’s rise late last season. Feisty Yulia Putintseva of Kazakhstan could take on the winner of that duel in the last 32, with Elena Vesnina, Shelby Rogers and Yaroslava Shvedova the leading names to pose a (rather kind) fourth round challenge.
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Meanwhile, world no. 6 Agnieszka Radwanska – who will contest her first match since losing to 17-year-old Bellis in the Dubai third round – could be about to continue her recent wobble. Ekaterina Makarova, a Russian lefty who dumped her out of Wimbledon in 2014, is likely to be her first opponent, while Ana Konjuh – who swept her out of last season’s US Open – is on track for the third round. Even if the Croatian teen does not make it, recent Acapulco champion Lesia Tsurenko or the experienced Shuai Peng could make Radwanska uncomfortable – which is a sensation the 28-year-old is used to inflicting upon others.
The Pole’s projected fourth round opponent, rankings-wise, is world no. 13 Venus Williams. But the Australian Open finalist – still seeking her first match win since returning to the event that she boycotted for 15 years – has it tough from the offset. Jelena Jankovic, a former world no. 1 who has won seven of their 13 meetings, is her opening test, with either Melbourne semifinal victim CoCo Vandeweghe or 2015 Roland Garros finalist Lucie Safarova lying in wait in round three.
Every round considered, Venus Williams might just have landed the toughest draw at this season’s BNP Paribas Open. But even though I’m not predicting her to make the semifinals, I would not be at all surprised if she did.
SEMIFINALIST: Angelique Kerber
Thanks for reading! Who do you think will win the WTA Indian Wells title? Comment and let me know! ATP version coming soon…