Indian Wells WTA Preview: Is Osaka the favorite? Desert stories abound

Indian Wells WTA Preview: Is Osaka the favorite? Desert stories abound

Twelve months ago, she wasn’t even among the 32 seeds in Indian Wells; now she’ll come back at the top of the board, as the No. 1 seed.

The women have played just enough in 2019 to establish a few themes for the season: Naomi Osaka has continued to surprise, on all fronts; Petra Kvitova has been a bride once and a bridesmaid twice; Karolina Pliskova and Elina Svitolina have dug in deeper; Belinda Bencic has made it feel like 2015 all over again.

Now, though, the preliminaries are over and the regular season, one that lasts until the summer break after Wimbledon, begins in earnest in Indian Wells. Who else might begin to make their presences felt? Who might find an oasis in the desert? Here’s a first look at the WTA draw.

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First Quarter

Osaka describes her title run here last year as the week when she “got on the board.” Twelve months ago, she wasn’t even among the 32 seeds in Indian Wells; now she’ll come back at the top of the board, as the No. 1 seed.

But is Osaka the favorite? Since winning the Australian Open, she has split with her coach, Sascha Bajin, and lost the only match she’s played, to Kiki Mladenovic. She may have a chance for revenge—or a second defeat—right away: Osaka might face Mladenovic in the second round.

That might be the least of Osaka’s worries. She could play 25th seed Danielle Collins in the third round, Bencic or Caroline Wozniacki in the fourth round, and Karolina Pliskova in the quarterfinals. Osaka had all of her biggest wins with Bajin; is she ready to move on, or will she still be as unsettled as she appeared to be in Dubai? We know she can run the table against any lineup of players, once she gets comfortable.

Player of Interest: Donna Vekic. The Croatian has had a strong start to the year; she could play Pliskova in the third round.

Semifinalist: Pliskova

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Second Quarter

Overall, Kvitova may be having the best season of anyone, but she doesn’t have quite as much to show for it as she should. She won the title in Sydney, and lost three-set finals at the Australian Open and in Dubai, to two players, Osaka and Bencic, that she was favored to beat.

At first glance, Indian Wells wouldn’t seem to be the ideal place for her to go one step farther. Kvitova has never been to the final here, she lost early to Amanda Anisimova last year, and she has never loved the conditions in the States—and there are a lot of conditions in Indian Wells. There are also some good players in Kvitova’s way: her path to the semis could potentially put her up against Venus Williams, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova or Maria Sakkari, Madison Keys or Julia Goerges, then Angelique Kerber or Aryna Sabalenka.

Question Mark: Sabalenka. She has a good draw; can she put a very frustrating third-set-tiebreaker loss to Bencic in Dubai behind her?

Semifinalist: Kvitova

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Third Quarter

Kiki Bertens and Sloane Stephens are the top two seeds in this section, and those two clay-adept all-surfacers could each make a deep run on Indian Wells’ slow hard courts. For now, though, they’ll have to play second fiddle to what’s happening in the middle of this section. That’s where 10th-seeded Serena Williams is slated to meet Victoria Azarenka, provided Azarenka wins her first-round match. Just three years ago, Vika beat Serena played for the title here. This time Serena should be favored.

Should Serena also be favored to win her first title in Indian Wells in 18 years? Her road may be bumpy: Azarenka, possibly followed by Garbiñe Muguruza, possibly followed by Bertens, possibly followed by Sloane. But Serena still wants another title here, and an early encounter with Azarenka could be just what she needs to build the momentum to make it happen.

Question Mark: Stephens. Like Osaka, she split with the coach who took her to a Slam title, Kamau Murray, and she hasn’t reached a semi so far in 2019. But she has a draw that could give her chance to put any early-season doubts behind her.

Wild card: Anisimova, who will open against Aleksandra Krunic.

Player to Watch: Elise Mertens. She won in Doha, and she’s in the non-Serena half of this section.

Semifinalist: S. Williams

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Fourth Quarter

Simona Halep is another player who recently split with her coach, and while she hasn’t had a terrible start to the year, she hasn’t found her best form, either. Indian Wells would seem to be a good place for her to hit and run herself into a groove. She won the title here in 2015, and she has always liked North American hard courts. Halep also has a manageable draw; the three seeds she could face before the quarters are Aliaksandra Sasnovich, Jelena Ostapenko, and last year’s finalist, Daria Kasatkina.

If the draw holds, Halep will meet Elina Svitolina in the quarters. Like Kvitova, Svitolina has been in fine form this year, week in and week out, but doesn’t have the hardware to show for it. In Doha and Dubai, she lost close semifinals to Halep and Bencic.

Question Mark: Daria Kasatkina. Last year, her run to the final seemed to herald great things; so far this year she has struggled to win a match.

Player to Watch: Ash Barty. She’s in Svitolina’s half of this section.

Wild Card: Jen Brady has been playing well of late, and could pull an upset or two.

Semifinalist: Halep

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Semifinals: Pliskova d. Kvitova; S. Williams d. Halep

Final: S. Williams d. Pliskova