It’s too bad that Indian Wells doesn’t officially open the tennis season, because it fills the bill in multiple ways. After an artificially lit indoor swing and a trip through the Arabian desert, where the players do their thing under a seemingly perpetual night sky, the California desert feels like sunrise on a new day and a new year—after all, what good is playing, or watching, or writing about, tennis if you can’t get a tan while you do it? More important, if the season has a core period, it begins now and ends with the U.S. Open. For the next seven months, everything counts.
At the same time, the event also feels a little like the pre-season; baseball fans in the U.S. will recognize a spring training vibe in Indian Wells. The players love it because of the easy pace and many, many golf courses—I'd say this is the spot to announce your retirement—and fans love it because the practice courts are the most accessible of any tournament’s in the world. Wandering the grounds in the mornings, watching the players bang tennis balls and kick soccer balls underneath clear skies and jutting mountains, it can feel like everyone in the sport is just getting warmed up.
The draws are out, and, with a few exceptions on the women’s side, they’re as full as you would expect for a season kick-off event. I’ll start my preview on the WTA side today. If the Aussie Open gave us a glimpse of the coming of a new women’s guard, Indian Wells will almost certainly solidify it. Absent are old guard stalwarts Venus, Serena, and Kim; present, for the first time in a month, is the young No. 3 Petra Kvitova. She joins new No. 1 Victoria Azarenka, not only in the singles draw, but on the doubles court. Vika is 22; Petra turns 22 on Thursday; fourth seed Caroline Wozniacki does the same in July, and fifth seed Agnieszka Radwanska was 22 until yesterday. We'll see if these women of a certain age can show us something of the future.
Azarenka keeps winning—she comes to Indian Wells without an official defeat in 2012—and she keeps drawing Mona Barthel. That could be a bad thing for Vika—the young German is talented—but it probably won't stop her. Barthel pushed Azarenka to play with more fire midway through her run in Melbourne, and then totally capitulated to her, 1 and 0, in Doha.
Also here is the occasionally dangerous, to opponents as well as herself, Svetlana Kuznetsova. Fourteenth-seeded Julia Georges, who had her lethally complicated forehand working in Dubai two weeks ago. Jelena Jankovic, who also showed signs of life in the desert. Sorana Cirstea, conqueror of Sam Stosur in Oz. And, most intriguingly, Agnieszka Radwanska. The latter won the event in Dubai to reach a career-high No. 5. More interesting, of course, has been her feisty new 2012 ’tude. The last time Aga met Aza, the former walked off in a huff. She said she had “lost some respect” for the world No. 1 after Azarenka made a dramatic show of an ankle injury before getting back up and straight-setting her. Can we just put those two in the quarters now? I’d be interested to see how tough the new Aga would be in that situation.
For now, though, the women’s event is all about Vika. She obviously likes hard courts, she’s been to the semis here before, she should be rested, and she has no legends to worry about. And she has motivation: She still needs to beat Kvitova and/or Caroline Wozniacki to cement her ascent over her own age group.
Kvitova sits atop this section, and in Azarenka’a half. She will be rusty, after an Achilles’ problem and a virus sidelined her from the last two events. She also might be re-matched with the woman who beat her here in the first round in 2011, Barbara Zahlova Strycova. It’s an obvious recipe for a Kvitova upset; just the kind of tournament she’ll have to fight through if she’s going to fulfill her No. 1 potential.
Also here: pesky but eventually overmatched Christina McHale; due for a strong result Sloane Stephens; mostly likely to disappoint, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova; fun to watch Vania King; slowly fading and recently injured Vera Zvonareva; two-time champ here (yes, really) Daniela Hantuchova; and I’ll never know what to call them countrywomen Zheng Jie/Jie Zheng and Li Na/Na Li.
Sleepers: Sloane Stephens; Vania King
One more indignity for former No. 1, current No. 4 Caroline Wozniacki: Now she has to search for her name in the draw. Instead of sitting pretty on the top bracket, it’s buried at the bottom of the third quarter, opposite No. 7 seed Marion Bartoli. These two played in the final last year; they’re slotted for the quarters this time.
Also here: Kaia Kanepi—after her lame outing in Melbourne, does her early-season good form still count? I think so. Francesca Schiavone—where does she go, exactly, when the tour leaves Paris? Ana Ivanovic—she usually pulls it together here. Ekaterina Makarova—Serena’s conqueror in Australia could play Wozniacki in the second round.
How much does this tournament mean for Wozniacki, the defending champ? It’s been a mainstay of hers in the past, one of the few big events where she’s been successful, and the slow courts are made for her defensive game. Here she shouldn’t have to listen to the rest of the world and attack more. With her draw, a loss before the semis would be the biggest bummer in a lengthening series of them.
This is a hitter’s section: Sharapova, Stosur, Lisicki, and Petrova all have byes. Sharapova is the second seed and has been a champion here before. She’s also had some time to shake off her blowout loss in the Australian Open final. Her draw—Dokic, Halep, Cetkovska, a recently injured Cibulkova in the fourth round—looks highly manageable as well.
On the other side is Sam Stosur, a perennial Sharapova whipping girl who bombed out in Oz but found her feet with a runner-up finish in Doha last month. She has at least one good memory from the desert as well: Two years ago she cracked the Top 10 for the first time with a win at Indian Wells.
Maria should have bigger fish to fry here. She has spent the last 12 months making herself a consistent contender again. She’s beaten the players she’s supposed to beat, only to lose, badly, at the end of big events, to women with much less experience on those stages. Last year at Indian Wells her bad loss came to Wozniacki; she may get another crack at her, on those same slow courts, this time around. At the moment, she’s the old guard’s last best shot.
Semifinals: Azarenka d. Hantuchova; Wozniacki d. Sharapova
Final: Azarenka d. Wozniacki