While the men’s draw has suffered from marquee withdrawals by Federer and Nadal, the women’s draw in Miami witnesses the return of world #1 Serena Williams and Australian Open finalist Li Na to North American hard courts. They have landed in the same quarter of the Sony Open draw, with which we start our women’s preview.
First quarter: Since she won Brisbane to start 2013, Serena’s season has not gone as she would have hoped. Injury and illness have contributed to losses at the Australian Open and Doha, so she will hope to regroup from those setbacks at her home tournament, which she has dominated when healthy. More successful here than almost anywhere else, Serena should deploy her serve to devastating effect against the meager return games of her first few opponents. Italian veteran Flavia Pennetta would have wished for a better draw than facing the world #1 in the second round, while potential fourth-round opponent Dominika Cibulkova should find her height and wingspan too limited to cope with this level of first-strike power. Somewhat more intriguing is the prospect of Lucie Safarova, a lefty more capable of matching Serena hold for hold when at her best, but her results have remained too erratic to depend on her reaching the fourth round.
On the opposite side of the quarter, an intriguing draw would pit Indian Wells runner-up Wozniacki against Australian Open runner-up Li in the fourth round, a rematch of some scintillating three-setters that the two have played on outdoor hard courts. Neither faces too intimidating a challenge before that stage, although the former might take note of surging Spanish phenom Garbine Muguruza. That rising star reached the fourth round of Indian Wells as a qualifier and easily could upset the reeling Pavlyuchenkova in the second round to reach Wozniacki in the third. But the Dane should have taken more confidence from her finals appearance in the desert than from her resounding defeat to Sharapova there. She should weather the test posed by Muguruza and probably also the challenge presented by Li, who has not played since her outstanding January campaign. The Chinese star may need some matches to regain her rhythm after so long an absence and so severe an injury. If Wozniacki does meet Serena in the quarterfinals, the top seed likely would relish the opportunity to avenge a miserable loss to the same opponent at the same stage last year.
Second quarter: Defending champion Agnieszka Radwanska could not have drawn a much more challenging route to a repeat performance in Miami, nor did her performance over the last two weeks inspire much confidence in her. More impressive on a similar surface at Indian Wells, Mona Barthel will train her huge serve and return weapons against the Pole in the third round. Perhaps more compelling for local fans is the third-round meeting between Venus Williams and Sloane Stephens, who personify the past and future of American women’s tennis. The latter woman has not built upon her Australian Open semifinal in recent weeks, however, struggling with an abdominal injury and exiting Indian Wells in her first match. Venus, who has not played since Sharapova demolished her in Melbourne, has shared her sister’s history of success at their home tournament but fell to Radwanska here a year ago.
If she can survive the imposing serves in her immediate vicinity, Radwanska can expect little reprieve in the quarterfinals. The highest-ranked woman who could meet her there, Petra Kvitova, dismantled her with ease last month in Dubai and reached her first Indian Wells quarterfinal last week. On the other hand, Kvitova never has distinguished herself in Miami and will have some obstacles of her own to surmount before she can reach Radwanska. Among them is Marion Bartoli, knocking on the door of the top ten again and more successful here than Kvitova. The double-fister suffered a surprising loss to Errani in the desert, but her competitive tenacity could allow her to exploit the Czech’s inevitable episodes of erratic play. One of the most intriguing unseeded players in the draw, Andrea Petkovic aims to reawaken the memories of her 2011 semifinal run in Miami. She faces a stern series of opening tests against Bojana Jovanovski, Bartoli, and Julia Goerges before she even reaches Kvitova. From this unpredictable section of the draw, an unexpected semifinalist could emerge.
Semifinalist: Er, Kvitova?
Third quarter: One match short of the Indian Wells-Miami double in 2006, Maria Sharapova eyes a comfortable route to position herself at least within range of that accomplishment. She has not lost a set to anyone but Serena in her last two tournaments, cruising to the desert title without any physically or emotionally arduous matches that would have drained her energy. Many women would suffer a hangover after capturing a title of that magnitude, but the career Grand Slam champion has grown sufficiently accustomed to achievements on that level to avoid such a lapse. Even if she did, early rounds against Vesnina or an assortment of qualifiers and wildcards should not threaten her. A rematch of the Indian Wells semifinal might loom in the fourth round, but Kirilenko may struggle to sustain her Indian Wells form. The only woman to win a set from Sharapova at Roland Garros last year, Klara Zakopalova could inconvenience her on one of her more inconsistent days.
For the second straight Premier Mandatory tournament, Sara Errani would await Sharapova in the quarterfinals. Despite the Italian’s ability to reach that stage at Indian Wells, she may find her path more complicated this time. The massive serve of Sabine Lisicki, always fragile and always dangerous, could produce a stark contrast of styles if she meets Errani in the third round. But the third-round match below offers more intrigue, for it should pit Ivanovic against either Makarova or former Miami champion Kuznetsova. Gifted shot-makers all, those three women will look to stay patient on the slow hard court and bounce back from Indian Wells disappointments. They must stay even more patient against Errani than each other, but each might have a stronger chance than the Italian to trouble Sharapova because of their greater capacity to finish points. It is hard to imagine the world #2 stumbling early if she sustains her Indian Wells form, though.
Fourth quarter: Will she or won’t she? The question hovers over the status of Victoria Azarenka, a two-time Miami champion who withdrew from Indian Wells with an ankle injury. Having glanced at her draw and seen the heavy serve of Madison Keys in her opener, Vika may feel some trepidation about testing that joint in a match where she will need her movement to shine. Afterwards, she could meet a group of slow-court specialists like Cornet, Vinci, or Suarez Navarro. Climbing the rankings regularly in recent weeks, the Spaniard showcases the finest one-handed backhand among the seeded women here. Together with Keys on the list of home hopes, Christina McHale continues to regroup slowly from her mono last year. She led eventual Indian Wells semifinalist Kirilenko by a set and a break, so she should feel encouraged by her progress. Young British hope Laura Robson rounds out this section’s crop of rising stars.
Veterans proliferate in the upper half of this section, from Jankovic and Petrova to Zheng and Schiavone. Indian Wells semifinalist Kerber will need to raise her spirits following a dispiriting loss to Wozniacki in which she seemed firmly in control and battled to the bitter end. If she can, none of the opponents in this section should match her blend of alert anticipation and lefty shot-making, although Sorana Cirstea flickered into form at Indian Wells by winning a set from Radwanska. A finalist in Miami during her prime, Jankovic did not bring her momentum from winning the Bogota clay tournament to North America and struggles to string together strong results. Of greater note is the eleventh-seeded Petrova, remarkable still near the elite in singles and doubles despite her age. This section remains difficult to predict as long as Azarenka’s status is uncertain, but Kerber looks poised to take advantage of a lapse by the Australian Open champion.
Check back tomorrow for a similar look at the men’s draw in Miami.
Read about what to expect from the first Premier Mandatory tournament of 2013 as we break down each quarter of the WTA Indian Wells draw in detail!
First quarter: For the second straight year, Azarenka arrives in the desert with a perfect season record that includes titles at the Australian Open and the Premier Five tournament in Doha. Able to defend those achievements, she eyes another prestigious defense at Indian Wells on a surface that suits her balanced hybrid of offense and defense as well as any other. In her opener, she could face the only woman in the draw who has won multiple titles here, Daniela Hantuchova, although the more recent of her pair came six long years ago. Since reaching the second week of the Australian Open, Kirsten Flipkens staggered to disappointing results in February, so Azarenka need not expect too stern a test from the Belgian. Of perhaps greater concern is a rematch of her controversial Melbourne semifinal against Sloane Stephens, who aims to bounce back from an injury-hampered span with the encouragement of her home crowd. Heavy fan support for the opponent can fluster Azarenka, or it can bring out her most ferocious tennis, which makes that match one to watch either way. Of some local interest is the first-round match between Jamie Hampton, who won a set from Vika in Melbourne, and Kuala Lumpur runner-up Mattek-Sands.
The most intriguing first-round match in the lower section of this quarter pits Laura Robson against the blistering backhands of Sofia Arvidsson. In fact, plenty of imposing two-handers highlight that neighborhood with those of Julia Goerges and the tenth-seeded Petrova also set to shine. The slow courts of Indian Wells might not suit games so high on risk and low on consistency, possibly lightening the burden on former champion Wozniacki. Just two years ago, the Dane won this title as the world #1, and she reached the final in 2010 with her characteristic counterpunching. Downed relatively early in her title defense last year, she has shown recent signs of regrouping with strong performances at the Persian Gulf tournaments in February. On the other hand, a quick loss as the top seed in Kuala Lumpur reminded viewers that her revival remains a work in progress. She has not faced Azarenka since the latter’s breakthrough in mid-2011, so a quarterfinal between them would offer fascinating evidence as to whether Caro can preserve her mental edge over her friend.
Second quarter: Unremarkable so far this year, Kerber has fallen short of the form that carried her to a 2012 semifinal here and brings a three-match losing streak to the desert. Even with that recent history, she should survive early tests from opponents like Heather Watson and the flaky Wickmayer before one of two fellow lefties poses an intriguing challenge in the fourth round. For the second straight year, Makarova reached the Australian Open quarterfinals, and her most significant victory there came against Kerber in a tightly contested match of high quality. Dogged by erratic results, this Russian may find this surface too slow for her patience despite the improved defense and more balanced weapons that she showed in Melbourne. Another woman who reached the second week there, Bojana Jovanovski, hopes to prove that accomplishment more than just a quirk of fate, which it seems so far. Also in this section is the enigmatic Safarova, a woman of prodigious talent but few results to show for it. If she meets Makarova in the third round, an unpredictable clash could ensue, after which the winner would need to break down Kerber’s counterpunching.
Stirring to life in Doha and Dubai, where she reached the quarterfinals at both, Stosur has played much further below her ranking this year than has Kerber. A disastrous Australian season and Fed Cup weekend have started to fade a bit, however, for a woman who has reached the Indian Wells semifinals before. Stosur will welcome the extra time that the court gives her to hit as many forehands as possible, but she may not welcome a draw riddled with early threats. At the outset, the US Open champion could face American phenom Madison Keys, who raised eyebrows when she charged within a tiebreak of the semifinals in a strong Sydney draw. The feisty Peng, a quarterfinalist here in 2011, also does not flinch when facing higher-ranked opponents, so Stosur may breathe a sigh of relief if she reaches the fourth round. Either of her likely opponents there shares her strengths of powerful serves and forehands as well as her limitations in mobility and consistency. Losing her only previous meeting with Mona Barthel, on the Stuttgart indoor clay, Ivanovic will seek to reverse that result at a tournament where she usually has found her most convincing tennis even in her less productive periods. Minor injuries have nagged her lately, while Barthel has reached two finals already in 2013 (winning one), so this match could prove compelling if both silence other powerful servers around them, like Lucie Hradecka.
Third quarter: Another woman who has reached two finals this year (winning both), the third-seeded Radwanska eyes perhaps the easiest route of the elite contenders. Barring her path to the fourth round are only a handful of qualifiers, an anonymous American wildcard, an aging clay specialist who has not won a match all year, and the perenially underachieving Sorana Cirstea. Radwanska excels at causing raw, error-prone sluggers like Cirstea to implode, and she will face nobody with the sustained power and accuracy to overcome her in the next round either. In that section, Christina McHale attempts to continue a comeback from mono that left her without a victory for several months until a recent breakthrough, and Maria Kirilenko marks her return from injury that sidelined her after winning the Pattaya City title. Although she took Radwanska deep into the final set of a Wimbledon quarterfinal last year, and defeated her at a US Open, the Russian should struggle if rusty against the more confident Aga who has emerged since late 2011. Can two grass specialists, Pironkova and Paszek, cause a stir in this quiet section?
Not much more intimidating is the route that lies before the section’s second highest-ranked seed, newly minted Dubai champion Kvitova. Although she never has left a mark on either Indian Wells or Miami, Kvitova suggested that she had ended her habitual struggles in North America by winning the US Open Series last summer with titles in Montreal and New Haven. Able to enter and stay in torrid mode like the flip of a switch, she aims to build on her momentum from consecutive victories over three top-ten opponents there. The nearest seeded opponent to Kvitova, Yaroslava Shvedova, has struggled to string together victories since her near-upset of Serena at Wimbledon, although she nearly toppled Kvitova in their most recent meeting at Roland Garros. Almost upsetting Azarenka near this time a year ago, Cibulkova looks to repeat her upset over the Czech in Sydney when they meet in the fourth round. Just reaching that stage would mark a step forward for her, though, considering her failure to build upon her runner-up appearance there and the presence of ultra-steady Zakopalova. Having dominated Radwanska so thoroughly in Dubai, Kvitova should feel confident about that test.
Fourth quarter: Semifinalist in 2011, finalist in 2012, champion in 2013? Before she can think so far ahead, the second-seeded Sharapova must maneuver past a string of veteran Italians and other clay specialists like Suarez Navarro. Aligned to meet in the first round are the former Fed Cup teammates Pennetta and Schiavone in one of Wednesday’s most compelling matches, but the winner vanishes directly into Sharapova’s jaws just afterwards. The faltering Varvara Lepchenko could meet the surging Roberta Vinci, who just reached the semifinals in Dubai with victories over Kuznetsova, Kerber, and Stosur. Like Kvitova, then, she brings plenty of positive energy to a weak section of the draw, where her subtlety could carry her past the erratic or fading players around her. But Sharapova crushed Vinci at this time last year, and she never has found even a flicker of self-belief against the Russian.
Once notorious for the catfights that flared between them, Jankovic and Bartoli could extend their bitter rivalry in the third round at a tournament where both have reached the final (Jankovic winning in 2010, Bartoli falling to Wozniacki a year later). Between them stands perhaps a more convincing dark horse candidate in Kuznetsova, not far removed from an Australian Open quarterfinal appearance that signaled her revival. Suddenly striking the ball with confidence and even—gasp—a modicum of thoughtfulness, she could draw strength from the memories of her consecutive Indian Wells finals in 2007-08. If Kuznetsova remains young enough to recapture some of her former prowess, her compatriot Pavlyuchenkova also has plenty of time to rebuild a career that has lain in ruins for over a year. By playing close to her potential, she could threaten Errani despite the sixth seed’s recent clay title defense in Acapulco. Not in a long time has anyone in this area challenged Sharapova, though.
Come back tomorrow before the start of play in the men’s draw to read a similar breakdown!
More remarkable than any feat in tennis outside the majors, the Indian Wells-Miami double title requires many factors to fall together for those who would complete it: sustained form across twelve matches, resilient fitness in heat and humidity, efficiency in early rounds, the ability to raise one’s level in later rounds, adjustments to contrasting playing styles, and—perhaps—a bit of luck from fortuitous upsets late in the draw. Since Federer completed a stunning pair of doubles in 2005-06, only one player on either Tour has matched his accomplishment, but several have come close. We take a look at each of the leading threats to rampage through March in both the ATP and WTA.
Djokovic: The aforementioned architect of an Indian Wells/Miami double, the Serb demonstrated his improved fitness by sweeping these arduous draws early in his spectacular 2011 campaign. Even before he became the fearsome member of the big four, moreover, he came within a match of the same feat by finishing runner-up at the first and champion at the latter in 2007. Last year, Djokovic came within a tiebreak of the Indian Wells final before defending his Miami crown. The slow courts should favor his more physical style over Federer’s preference for short points, and he currently holds the momentum in his rivalry against Murray with three straight victories. Entering the Dubai semifinals, Djokovic had won 16 straight matches and 26 of his last 27, opening a massive lead as world #1.
Murray: Four years ago, he came within a win of the double when he fell to Nadal in the Indian Wells final before sweeping Del Potro and Djokovic to win Miami. Often at his best on North American hard courts, Murray has won six of his eight Masters 1000 titles there—but has lost three straight matches at Indian Wells, where he has advanced past the quarterfinals just once That futility in the desert, which should suit a high-percentage game adaptable to variable conditions, has stemmed from emotional hangovers after losses in the Australian Open final. Although he lost there again this year, Murray seemed less distraught afterward, so he could bounce back sooner. He might well avoid long-time nemesis Nadal at both events but probably will have to reconquer the Djoker at least once.
Berdych: A Miami finalist in 2010, he never has reached the final at either of the tournaments in any other year and has won just one Masters 1000 shield. Nevertheless, Berdych has grown more consistent in the last several months against players outside the elite, and he will take comfort from the knowledge that he may not face either Federer or Nadal. Securing his fair share of success against Murray over the years, he never has defeated Djokovic on a hard court. For a player of his size and (limited) mobility, Berdych handles slow courts unusually well because his groundstrokes still can power through them, while he often will have the time to run around his backhand for forehands.
Del Potro: The only active major champion outside the Big Four, he does own a somewhat recent victory over Djokovic and momentum against Federer following two victories last fall. But Del Potro never has defeated either Djokovic or Murray on an outdoor hard court, at least pending his Dubai semifinal against the former. Most of his notable successes have come on faster courts like those at the US Open or the year-end championships, where his forehand can break open rallies more quickly. Although his fitness has proved unreliable in the heat, his four-title surge during the summer of 2008 showed that he can stay torrid for a long time when his game starts to sizzle.
Federer cannot complete the double because he has not entered Miami. Nadal? Well, he remains entered in both tournaments as of this writing and thus will have a chance to complete a feat that he never quite has approached. In the reality of his comeback, however, Nadal surely cannot sweep twelve straight hard-court matches in elite draws and conclude an exhausting four weeks by winning Miami for the first time after losing three finals there. Nor might he want that accomplishment, for it surely would drain him before the crucial clay season.
Sharapova: Within one win of a 2006 double, when she won Indian Wells and finished runner-up to Kuznetsova in Miami, she has produced outstanding results at each of the March mini-majors in the last two years. Denied only in the finals of both 2012 tournaments, Sharapova has started this year with a relentlessness similar to what she showed last year despite a surprising loss to Li Na in the Australian Open semifinals. She has not defeated Azarenka on an outdoor hard court since 2009, but she towers above the rest of the Indian Wells field in credentials. Much more complicated is Miami, where she has lost all four of her finals and must hope for someone else to dispatch Serena.
Azarenka: Undefeated entering Indian Wells for the second straight year, she often has raced to a fast start early in the season before losing momentum as injuries accumulate. Last year, she won Indian Wells with ease but arrived significantly depleted in Miami, where she could not survive the quarterfinals. The world #2 shares Djokovic’s affinity for a surface that showcases her transitions from defense to offense as well as her returning prowess. Apparent niggles with her fitness already have surfaced this year in every tournament that she has played, however, leaving her durability still in doubt. Rarely has she won titles in consecutive weeks.
Radwanska: By contrast, the Pole whom Azarenka ruthlessly has suppressed since the start of 2012 has demonstrated her ability to win key titles in consecutive weeks. Radwanska swept the Premier Five/Premier Mandatory pair of Tokyo and Beijing in 2011, catalyzing a surge that has not yet ended, and she should welcome the slow courts. The defending champion in Miami, where she defeated Venus and Sharapova last year, she should approach the pressure of that status with her characteristic tenacity. But Radwanska has reached a major semifinal only once because of her failure to outlast the WTA’s fiercest aggressors through a seven-round tournament, and the same pattern might undo her in the attempt to win consecutive six-round tournaments against the best in the sport.
Kvitova: Feckless in North America until last year, she suddenly erupted during the US Open Series with two titles and a semifinal. Kvitova can tear through a draw or multiple draws without warning, as she showed by emerging from a slump to claim the Premier title in Dubai without dropping a set, including a victory over Radwanska. She never has defeated Serena and has struggled lately against Sharapova, while she astonishingly has not faced Azarenka since the latter’s rise early last year. More dangerous with every round that she advances further into a tournament, Kvitova will hope to avoid dark horses early in both draws and find the patience necessary to win rallies on the slow courts.
Among the key reasons why no woman has completed the double lately is the presence of the Williams sisters in Miami but not in Indian Wells. Their dominance at the former tournament, near their Palm Beach Gardens home, once inevitably forestalled the champion of the desert from repeating in Miami. While the tottering Venus probably cannot win a title of this magnitude, Serena remains the favorite at any non-clay tournament that she enters when healthy. Healthy she may not be, considering her injury-hampered hobbles through Melbourne and Doha, but the month of rest since the latter tournament may have allowed the world #1 to recover.