Unseeded Serena, Maria, Vika: A unique WTA Indian Wells draw preview

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Simona Halep has an interesting draw to deal with at Indian Wells. (AP)

The heart of the tennis season traditionally kicks off at the BNP Paribas Open. From now through the end of Wimbledon in July, there’s hardly time to take a breath as the players travel across two continents and three surfaces. But that opening-day vibe is stronger than ever this year, because Indian Wells also marks the official 2018 WTA debut of (an unseeded) Serena Williams. For the first time since Serena left the tour more than a year ago, the women will have a fully loaded field at a top-tier event.

Now that the first big question is out of the way—where did Serena land in the draw?—let’s take a look at how the next two weeks might go. Serena isn’t the only Grand Slam champ who is unseeded and looming in the desert.


First Quarter

Serena is the A1 story, and Caroline Wozniacki won the season’s first Grand Slam, but Simona Halep is the top seed. Going by recent history, that makes sense: Halep won this tournament in 2015, and she’s typically at her best on U.S. hard courts. She’s also 14-1 in 2017, she’s coming off a gritty run to the Australian Open final, and her draw looks manageable. Jelena Ostapenko, the woman who beat her in the French Open final, is the second seed in this section, followed by Johanna Konta and Kiki Mladenovic. The first seed that Halep could face is 30th-ranked Dominika Cibulkova.

Returning: Svetlana Kuznetsova, Belinda Bencic

New face: Aryna Sabalenka. She’s 19, she’s from Belarus, and the volume of her grunt is matched only by the power in her strokes. Remind you of anyone? Maybe another woman who has played well in Indian Wells in the past? Sabalenka starts against Varvara Lepchenko and could face Kuznetsova after that.

Semifinalist: Halep

Second Quarter

From a red carpet in Hollywood to a hard court in Palm Springs: That’s the trip that Garbiñe Muguruza, fresh from her visit to the Oscars, will make this week. The No. 3 seed has already had her ups and down in 2018. She went out early in Melbourne, before showing off some good tennis in Doha and Dubai. Her recent work with new co-coach Conchita Martinez seems to have steadied the ship. But Muguruza will have to be very steady to navigate her way through this stormy quarter.

No. 5 seed Karolina Pliskova beat Muguzura in the quarters here last year. No. 9 seed Petra Kvitova has won 13 straight matches and two straight tournaments to send her ranking back into the Top 10. After that we have two of the WTA’s best athletes, Ash Barty and CoCo Vandeweghe. And then, finally, we have one of the tournament’s three unseeded major champions, Maria Sharapova. The two-time Indian Wells winner could play Muguruza in the third round.

First-round match to watch: Sharapova vs. Naomi Osaka

Wild cards to watch: 16-year-old American Amanda Anisimova, and Eugenie Bouchard, who is slated to play Muguruza in the second round.

Question Mark: Pliskova. The world No. 5 went out early in Doha and Dubai

Semifinalist: Kvitova

Opening Thoughts: 

Third Quarter

This, in case you don’t know by now, is where Serena landed. It’s also, unfortunately, where her sister Venus also happened to land—they could face each other in the third round. First Serena will need to make her way past 53rd-ranked Zarina Diyas and 29th-seeded Kiki Bertens; nothing will be a lock for the 36-year-old Serena this week, as she works her way back into match condition.

If the Williams sisters do end up playing, the winner should like what she sees from her draw after that. The other seeds in this section are Elina Svitolina, Madison Keys, Julia Goerges, Magdalena Rybarikova, Anastasija Sevastova, and Carla Suarez Navarro.

Question Mark: Keys. She went out in the first round in Brisbane, made the quarters in Melbourne, then lost a 6-0 third set to CiCi Bellis in Doha. Her draw to the round of 16 here looks good.

Semifinalist: Svitolina

Serena Williams Discussion: 

Fourth Quarter

Like Halep, Wozniacki is off to a banner start to the year; she’s 15-3, and she won her first major title, at age 28, at the Australian Open. Also like Halep, Wozniacki enjoys Indian Wells, where she won the title in 2011 and reached the finals in 2010 and 2013. How will Wozniacki like her draw? At first glance, it doesn’t seem as if she can complain: The highest seed in her half of this section is Sloane Stephens, who has won one match since September. Look a little closer, though, and another name jumps out from deep in the brackets: Victoria Azarenka, champion here in 2012 and 2016, has taken a wild card. Vika is currently ranked No. 204 and hasn’t played since Wimbledon. She’ll start against Heather Watson; if she wins that, she’ll face Stephens in the second round.

The highest seed in the other half, Angelique Kerber, could be a tough out for anyone over the fortnight. Kerber is 15-3 in 2018, and has returned to the Top 10. She would seem to be due for a deep run at Indian Wells, where she has never reached the final despite conditions that should suit her scrambler’s game.

Next Genners to Watch: Daria Kasatkina and CiCi Bellis. The 20-year-old Russian reached the Dubai final and beat Wozniacki in St. Petersburg; the 18-year-old American reached the quarters in Doha.

Semifinalist: Wozniacki

Final Call

Semifinals: Halep d. Kvitova; Wozniacki d. Svitolina

Final: Halep d. Wozniacki

WTA Indian Wells is on Tennis Channel Plus.

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