This is the 12th consecutive year that Venus and Serena Williams will be boycotting Indian Wells, but it may be the one that hurts the most. So far this season, Serena and Victoria Azarenka have begun to sow the seeds of a real rivalry at the top of the WTA. Last month in Doha, Serena took Vika’s No. 1 ranking the day before Vika finally managed to beat, as well as annoy, Serena. Now all of that will have to wait until later in the month, when the two will presumably take their places across from each other in the draw in Key Biscayne.
Azarenka, of course, is in Indian Wells, where she returns as defending champion. But the stories and players to watch come a little farther down the rankings rung. Petra Kvitova is coming off a very good month of February and is up to No. 6; we know she can challenge anyone on any day. Sara Errani has avoided a sophomore slump so far, after her breakout 2012. Sloane Stephens will try to get back on a winning track, and withstand the inevitable heightened scrutiny after her recent Grand Slam success, back at home. And chances are that Caroline Wozniacki will keep things interesting, one way or another.
Here’s a look at where those players, as well as everyone else, has fallen in this 96-woman, Premier Mandatory draw. How will they handle each other, as well as the blistering sun, the hot days, the cool nights, the thin air, and the whipping winds that will surround them in the California desert? Fighting through the elements should be worth it; there's 5 million bucks on the line.
It doesn’t take long to spot the juiciest potential matchup of this tournament: Azarenka could play Stephens in the fourth round. Judging by her recent form—she lost early in Doha and Dubai—Sloane has to make sure she gets there first. Near her are Urszula Radwanska, Su-Wei Hsieh, Jamie Hampton, and a possibly resurgent Bethanie Mattek-Sands.
Caroline Wozniacki is the top seed in the other half here. It’s been an up and down ride for Caro so far this season. Her latest result was a first-round loss to a qualifier in Kuala Lumpur, but she’s been a champ and a runner-up in Indian Wells in the past.
Also here: Petrova, Vesnina, Goerges, Date-Krumm, and Laura Robson, another youngster who will look to get back on track. She starts against Sofia Arvidsson.
Angelique Kerber, No. 4 seed overall and top seed in this section, is one more player looking to bounce back from a poor swing through Doha and Dubai. Returning from a back injury, she went 0-2 without winning a set in the Arabian desert. But she reached the semis in the American one last year.
If Kerber is still struggling, this becomes a very open section. Sam Stosur and Ana Ivanovic are the next two seeds, and they’re scheduled to play in the fourth round. Stosur, quarterfinalist in Doha and Dubai, early loser in Melbourne, has had middling results this season. Ivanovic likes the easy pace of life in Indian Wells, and is a past champion at the event.
Also here: Mona Barthel, who nearly beat Azarenka here last season; Bojana Jovanovski, who has made various kinds of noise this year so far, some of them good; and promising American teen wild cards Madison Keys and Taylor Townsend.
First-round match to watch: Madison Keys vs. Melanie Oudin
Shot to shot, point to point, day to day, month to month, you really never know what Petra Kvitova is going to do next. She spent February rescuing herself from January; how will March go? Kvitova starts as the second seed in this section, with a seemingly manageable draw in front of her. Still, she often struggles with the elements as much as she does her opponents, and there are plenty of elements in Indian Wells; last year she was upset early by Christina McHale. Near her in the draw this year are Shvedova and Cibulkova.
The top seed in this quarter is Agnieszka Radwanska. After a blazing, two-title start to the season, she’s come down to earth—she lost her last two matches, decisively, to Azarenka in Doha and Kvitova in Dubai. Radwanska reached the quarters here last year, where she was blown off the court by Azarenka. This year the names near her are Cirstea, Paszek, and Kirilenko. After that, Aga could get another crack at Petra. Steadiness often wins the day in the heat and gusts and temperature changes of Indian Wells, and Radwanska is nothing if not steady.
Player with fourth-round points to defend: Christina McHale. She starts with Pironkova.
What about Maria Sharapova? After a brilliant start in Australia, she suddenly seems like the odd woman out at No. 3. She’ll come back after a month’s rest to a tournament where she has always thrived—a former champion, she lost to Azarenka in last year’s final. In Sharapova's section are Schiavone, Pennetta, Suarez Navarro, and Vinci.
On the other side is yet one more Italian, Sara Errani, who should theoretically thrive on Indian Wells’ slow hard courts. But so should her possible opponents: Pavlyuchenkova has been a semifinalist in IW, Bartoli has been a runner-up, and Jankovic has been a champion.
First round match to watch: Schiavone vs. Pennetta
Potential second-round match to watch: Vinci vs. Varvara Lepchenko. The two played an epic in Fed Cup a few weeks ago.
Semifinals: Azarenka d. Stosur; Sharapova d. Radwanska
Final: Azarenka d. Sharapova