Both women should be fresh after walkover wins into the semifinals, and both will be willing to grind to reach the final. Playing her second semifinal in her last three tournaments, Wozniacki is bidding to reach her third Indian Wells final in the last four years. The former world No. 1 has peaked in the desert in the past: Wozniacki won the 2011 Indian Wells’ title and is 16-2 in her last 18 matches in the desert, with her losses to former Serbian No. 1s Jelena Jankovic (in the 2010 final) and Ana Ivanovic (in the round of 16 last year).
There are some stylistic similarities. Both women can counter-strike, are very fit and quick around the court, sport adidas' three stripes, and they’ve split four career hard-court matches. But the 5’10” Wozniacki has a longer reach and has served an average of 73 percent in three match wins over Alize Cornet, Elena Vesnina and Nadia Petrova. Wozniacki likes to hit the wide serve on the deuce side to set up her kill shot, the two-handed backhand. She must serve about 70 percent, as Kerber is adept at attacking second serves; the left-hander has broken serve 16 times in three straight-sets wins.
Kerber has lost seven straight matches to Top 10 opponents, with her last Top 10 wins coming in Cincinnati last August, when she toppled Serena Williams and Petra Kvitova in succession before losing to Li Na in the final. She consistently hits through the ball on both wings; consequently, the flatter-hitting German tends to maintain the depth of her drives—whereas when Wozniacki brushes up on her topspin forehand a bit too much, she can leave the ball short in the court. Because Kerber is a bit more aggressive and is more comfortable changing direction off both wings, I give her the edge.
The Pick: Kerber in three sets
Former doubles partners face off for the second straight year at Indian Wells in a match that pits Sharapova’s superior power against Kirilenko’s all-court acumen. Three of their last four meetings have gone the distance, including a memorable 2012 Indian Wells quarterfinal that offered wild momentum shifts and mood swings, with Sharapova fighting back for a 3-6, 7-5, 6-2 victory that spanned three hours and five minutes.
The 15th-ranked Kirilenko is a savvy, stubborn competitor who has won four straight three-setters in this tournament, including victories over 2012 Wimbledon finalist Agnieszka Radwanska and 2011 Wimbledon champion Kvitova. Kirilenko is the better mover and more skilled at net—she’s won 12 doubles titles, including the 2012 Miami and WTA Championships crowns—and has put her variety and problem-solving skills to good use in winning 13 of her last 15 matches, including her last six three-setters.
Sharapova has played with resilience, overcoming eight double faults and denying 13 of 16 break points in beating back Sara Errani in a rematch of the 2012 French Open final. Sharapova served 72 percent with just one double fault in her opening-round win over Francesca Schiavone, but since then she’s hit 20 double faults. Sharapova can hit the kick serve to complement her flatter slice serve, but sometimes falls into predictable patterns of repeatedly going for a massive first serve. She must mix it up against Kirilenko.
These ladies know each other’s games well, and Sharapova, who has gotten off to slow starts in her last three matches, is well aware she cannot afford a similar lapse against her fellow Russian. Look for Kirilenko to try to work the entire court in an effort to stretch Sharapova, coax some errors, and use her front-court skills to blunt the bigger hitter’s power. Kirilenko will want to vary the spins and height of her shots to try to keep the ball out of Sharapova’s sizable strike zone and prevent the four-time Grand Slam champion from establishing rhythm. Sharapova will try to impose a more straightforward match, drive the ball deep, and back Kirilenko up behind the baseline.
If Sharapova is landing her first serve, she can dictate from the first strike. Kirilenko is a dangerous competitor, but she’s expended a lot of energy to reach the semis. Though she's very fit, the cumulative toll of those grueling matches—combined with Sharapova's strength—may well be too much to overcome. Sharapova is the more explosive player, is eager to reach her first final of the season—and I believe she’ll make it.
The Pick: Sharapova in two sets