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.