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Indian Wells 2012: Women's preview

Yes, the North American spring hardcourt swing sticks out as a bit of a sore thumb in the tennis calendar. A pair of Masters’ tournaments played on slow hardcourts (read: ideal preparatory events for a slow hardcourt Slam), being held after the Australian Open instead of before? Yeah, it’s tough not to fear for the sanity of tennis organizers after looking at schedules such as these. Still, it’s unlikely that the apparent lack of logic behind organizing these events in March instead of January will stop us from welcoming the Indian Wells tournament, which starts tomorrow, with open arms. It’s been more than a month since we’ve seen some serious tennis action, and the heat of the California desert is exactly what is needed to soothe our parched tennis-watching eyes, as paradoxical as that may sound. So let’s get down to business by breaking down the 96-strong women’s draw:

First Quarter: The Invincibility March

Victoria Azarenka

Victoria Azarenka has been a busy woman this year, winning all those matches and attending all those press conferences that come with being ranked No.1 in the world. Continuing with that trend, she’s been slotted into a busy quarter here – she may have to face Svetlana Kuznetsova in the third round, and after that, the woman who’s turned hitting dozens of winners every match into something of a hobby – Julia Goerges. Waiting in the quarters may be Jelena Jankovic or, more likely, Dubai champion Agnieszka Radwanska. There may be party-poopers that prevent the latter from happening, of course – huddled amid Radwanska’s section of the draw are big-hitting Yanina Wickmayer, solid counterpuncher Flavia Pennetta and giant-killers Sorana Cirstea and Tsvetana Pironkova. But if Azarenka and Radwanska do meet in the quarters, it will be their 4th meeting this year. Quirk of the draw? Or the definitive rivalry on the women’s side this year? Azarenka has won all three of her matches against Radwanska this year, but two of them were close three-setters, and Radwanska recently added plenty of spice to the matchup by publicly dissing Azarenka, who is supposed to be a good friend of hers, for faking her injuries.

Oh by the way, expect Azarenka’s ongoing winning streak to make more noise in this quarter than anything else, including her ear-splitting shrieks.

Semifinalist: Victoria Azarenka

Dark horse: Yanina Wickmayer

Second Quarter: All that promise

Petra Kvitova

One 21-year-old has a chance to solidify her standing in the game, while another has a chance to arrest a dismal slide that is threatening to take her out of the game. Petra Kvitova can firmly establish her place in the top echelon of women’s tennis with a good showing here; we’ve known since a long time that she has the talent, so a solid performance to back up her semifinal appearance at the Australian Open will convince the few remaining doubters of her immense potential. On the other hand, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, the Russian teen phenom that people were raving about before they’d even heard of Kvitova, has had a miserable start to the year, to put it mildly. She’s won just 2 of her last 7 matches, which is hard to stomach after the strong signs of progress she showed last year. Kvitova and Pavlyuchenkova are slated to meet in the 4th round, but at this stage, even making it there will be an accomplishment for the Russian.

Meanwhile, Vera Zvonareva is the third highest seed here, but she has the in-form Daniela Hantuchova (who’s also a two-time winner at Indian Wells) as her likely 3rd round opponent, so I wouldn’t put money on Zvonareva making her seed. And then there’s Na Li. The French Open champion is just as likely to flame out at the first hurdle as she is to win the whole thing, so I’m not going anywhere near that either.

Semifinalist: Petra Kvitova

Dark horse: Angelique Kerber

Third Quarter: Regaining Lost Turf

Caroline Wozniacki

Is this Caroline Wozniacki‘s return to the scene of her greatest triumph? Surprisingly, it is. She won the biggest title of her career here last year, defeating Marion Bartoli in the final and cementing her place atop the rankings in the process. At that time, winning a Slam seemed like the next logical step, and a matter of ‘when’ rather than ‘if’. Things are a little different for her now, of course. She’s no longer the World No.1, and her string of recent early losses has led to question marks even about her ability to rule the second-tier tournaments, something she was accused of being too adept at when was No.1. She’s in a relatively soft spot of the draw this year, though, and she will likely have little trouble making the quarters. The problem? She won’t find it so easy to get past that woman Bartoli this time, who probably awaits in the quarters.

Semifinalist: Marion Bartoli

Dark horse: Ana Ivanovic

Fourth Quarter: Motivation Niggles

It’s hard to decide what Maria Sharapova‘s efforts to ascend to her pre-shoulder injury status deserve more: admiration or pity. On one hand, you’ve got to tip your hat to her never-say-die attitude; despite all the setbacks and struggles, she keeps chugging along, never taking her eye off the ball. On the other hand, you’ve got to feel sorry for her because despite all her hard work, she still seems incredibly far from that elusive Slam win – her crushing loss to Azarenka in the final at Melbourne felt less like a resurgent champion fighting for something that was rightfully hers than like a desperate last stand of a veteran who knew her time was running out. With so many uncomfortable questions surrounding her place in the game, it’s tough to imagine her being motivated enough to do well at a tournament that will never be mistaken for a Major, even if it is nicknamed the ‘Fifth Slam’.

Sabine Lisicki

If not Sharapova, then who’s got the best chance to make it out of this quarter? There’s Samantha Stosur, but betting on the US Open champion to win a single match, let alone a tournament, is akin to betting on Shahid Afridi lasting more than 10 balls in a match. There’s also the Russian pair of Maria Kirilenko and Nadia Petrova, but Kirilenko’s lack of firepower will likely be her undoing yet again, and Petrova, well, let’s just say she’s got similar motivational problems as Sharapova (for a player as gifted as Petrova, lack of motivation has got to be the only explanation for a career’s worth of subpar results, right?). Instead, I’m going with Sabine Lisicki, the power baseliner who hasn’t had much chance to show off that mammoth serve since her run to the Wimbledon semifinals last year.

Semifinalist: Sabine Lisicki

Dark horse: Simona Halep

Semifinals: Kvitova def. Azarenka; Lisicki def. Bartoli

Champion: Kvitova

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