From a WTA perspective, we might call this year’s event in Indian Wells the tournament that Serena Williams almost played. For the first time in more than a decade, the world No. 1 was willing to entertain the idea of ending her boycott, which began when she was heckled off the court here in 2001. In the end, she decided against it. As far as the event was concerned, this wasn’t the devastating news that it once was, in the days before Larry Ellison wrapped the tournament in his protective billions. But as far as the state of the women’s game goes, Serena’s absence still hurts. A big tournament is never quite as big, significance-wise, without the world’s best player.
That said, Indian Wells won’t lack star power, quality matches, high drama, and a few big question marks. Defending champion Maria Sharapova returns after a month away. New No. 2 Li Na tries to turn her Australian Open win into longer-lasting momentum. Provided her injured foot has healed, Victoria Azarenka, who typically excels in March, will do her best to turn her disappointing start to 2014 around. And two leading women from Melbourne, Dominika Cibulkova and Genie Bouchard, should get warm welcomes from the fans in the desert. As it has been for 13 years, Indian Wells will offer the women a chance to play while Serena is away. Here's the draw; here's the breakdown.
Li Na is still getting used to seeing her name at No. 2 in the rankings; how will she like being the No. 1 seed at an event as important as Indian Wells, a place where she has never reached the final? The Australian Open champion is at the top of the draw this time, but it hasn’t earned her an easier ride to the semifinals. Kvitova, Makarova, Cibulkova, Lisicki, Pavlyuchenkova, and Zakopalova are the seeds in her section; all of them, on the right day, are capable of an upset. Li might also have a tricky opener, against her countrywoman and former Grand Slam semifinalist Zheng Jie. But Li did win their last two matches comfortably.
First-round match to watch: Caroline Garcia vs. Bethanie Mattek-Sands. Garcia, of France, has talent, and she reached the semis last week in Acapulco.
Sleeper: Svetlana Kuznetsova. She’s a two-time finalist here. Does the 27th seed have another good run in her?
Semifinalist: Li Na
Maria Sharapova may be the tournament’s biggest star, but she’s only its fourth seed—besides Serena, she now trails Li, Victoria Azarenka, and Agniezska Radwanska in the rankings. Which means it's a good thing she’s coming back to Indian Wells, where she’s a two-time winner and has been to the last two finals. Sharapova should be able to see a road to at least the quarters this time. She’ll start against the winner of Julia Goerges and Jana Cepelova; could get Sorana Cirstea after that; and is scheduled to play Sam Stosur, a woman she has mostly owned, in the fourth round.
The other side of this section is intriguing, if highly unpredictable. It's dominated by the tour's youth brigade—Sloane Stephens, Garbine Muguruza, Monica Puig, Ajla Tomljanovic, Elina Svitolina, and the wild-carded Vicky Duval, none of them yet 21, are all jammed together here. Chaperoning the kids are the ever-erratic Ana Ivanovic and the somewhat steadier Angelique Kerber, both of whom like the desert. The German made the semis here last year and has her ranking back up to No. 6; the Serb has her ranking up to No. 13 and was the champion in 2008.
First-round match to watch: Puig vs. Svitolina
Sleeper: Flavia Pennetta, resurgent at 32.
This is the land of the walking wounded: Victoria Azarenka, recovering from a foot injury, is the top seed; Simona Halep, recovering from an Achilles’ injury, is the second seed. It's a big event for the oft-hurt Azarenka, a hard-court lover who has started 2014 slowly, but who traditionally plays some of her best tennis in March. If she can’t do something here or in Miami, it could be a while before she’s in the winner’s circle again. If she has recovered fully, though, Azarenka should, on paper, do well: The seeds in Vika’s section are Roberta Vinci, Kirsten Flipkens, and Daniela Hantuchova.
On the other side, provided she’s healthy, we’ll see what the next step is for Halep after her impressive title in Doha last month. Sara Errani, a woman Halep demolished at that event, is the next highest seed.
Also here: Aussie semifinalist Eugenie Bouchard. The 18th seed will try to shake her Oz hangover against either Vera Zvonareva or Peng Shuai.
It’s been an odd year so far for Aga Radwanska. On the upside, she reached the semis in Melbourne and Doha; on the downside, when she got there, she was beaten badly by two lower-ranked players, Cibulkova and Halep. Radwanska probably won’t complain about draw here: The other three seeds in her half of this section are Elena Vesnina, Carla Suarez Navarro, and Alize Cornet. But Aga could have a tricky start against teen phenom Belinda Bencic of Switzerland.
Count Jelena Jankovic among the lovers of the desert; JJ, who is back up to No. 8 in the rankings, won this tournament in 2010. She may have to face the woman she beat in the final that year, Caroline Wozniacki, in the fourth round this time. Caro will be an interesting case: A finalist last year, she’s been working with a new coach who may have her trying a few new change-of-pace tricks. This will be an early test of how effective they might be, and whether there really is a way back to the top for her.
Player to watch: Bencic
Semifinals: Sharapova d. Li; Azarenka d. Jankovic
Final: Sharapova d. Azarenka