Indian Wells women's draw analysis: Can Angelique Kerber celebrate her return to No. 1 by winning the title?
Fuzzy yellow balls are going to rumble in the desert as the season’s inaugural Premier Mandatory WTA tournament – the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells, California is set to take the tennis world by storm. With the qualifying rounds already having finished, the main draw kicks off on March 8, bringing back all the biggest stars of the sport under the same roof for the first time since the Australian Open.
The talk naturally veered to the battle for the numero uno spot between the sport’s top two players – Serena Williams and Angelique Kerber. The latter would have wrested it back from Serena in the scenario of the Australian Open champion getting ousted before the semi-finals.
But with the two-time Indian Wells-winning American’s late withdrawal due to a knee injury, the No. 1 position has automatically gone back to Kerber even before a ball has been struck by the reigning US Open champion.
Does that ease some of the pressure from her shoulders? Can Kerber ride on this and finally break her Indian Wells duck? Let us have a look at how her draw and everybody else’s look like:
Pliskova vs Svitolina quarter-final headlines top half
By WTA Rulebook, World No. 3 and 2016 Indian Wells semi-finalist Karolina Pliskova takes the spot made vacant by Serena. And that presents the possibility of a blockbuster quarter-final match between two of the hottest stars this season – Pliskova herself and Elina Svitolina.
Both have already won two titles this season and were crowned queens during the Middle Eastern swing. While the Czech emerged victorious at Doha, it was Svitolina’s mind-boggling run at Dubai that caught everybody’s attention.
She not only toppled Kerber and Caroline Wozniacki en route to the title but even made her much-coveted top 10 debut.
There’s a lot more conviction in her game now and if she goes on to lock horns with the 2016 US Open runner-up Pliskova, it would be nothing short of a cracker.
However, the path to that much-awaited last-eight encounter is not hassle-free. Svitolina’s 13-match winning streak will be put to a stern test by the ever-threatening Daria Gavrilova in the third round. It gets even tougher in the very next round with the seventh seed Garbine Muguruza lurking in the Round of 16 for her.
The two are tied at 2-2 in their head-to-head record. Suffice to say, if the French Open champion does indeed find her range, the outcome of this contest will depend on the mental fortitude of either player.
Can Cibulkova catch fire in the second quarter?
The semi-final opponent for Pliskova, Svitolina or Muguruza can be any one of Dominika Cibulkova, Daria Kasatkina, Johanna Konta or Svetlana Kuznetsova. From such a stacked second quarter, who will proceed into the last-four is anyone’s guess.
Having ended 2016 on a high by winning her maiden WTA Finals title, the Slovak has not been able to match up to those dizzying heights so far this season. She needs an inspired performance to overcome the likes of talented youngsters, Jelena Ostapenko and Daria Kasatkina, whom she is most likely to face in her first couple of rounds.
Australian Open quarter-finalist Johanna Konta too is placed in that loaded quarter of the draw. A left foot injury compelled her to withdraw from Dubai and if her fitness is not a concern anymore, she can make quite an impact.
Former champions Wozniacki and Halep the biggest names in third quarter
Former champions Caroline Wozniacki and Simona Halep’s presence makes the third quarter pretty interesting. Halep is coming off a hiatus after tending to her knee and could face the red-hot Kristina Mladenovic as early as the third round. The Frenchwoman won her maiden singles title this year and made it to yet another final at Acapulco just last week. It goes without saying that she does indeed have the arsenal of strokes to cause a few upsets.
The World No. 14 Wozniacki, in contrast, was the most consistent performer during the Middle Eastern swing having finished as the runner-up in both Doha and Dubai. The 2011 champion would certainly be aiming to carry on in that same vein.
She has to counter the barrage from the fast-rising Naomi Osaka, who is the potential candidate for her to face in the Round of 16 and then surmount Halep or Mladenovic in the quarter-finals if she has any intention of adding a second title in the desert.
Can Kerber overcome Venus or Radwanska in the fourth quarter?
The Indian Wells title win is the best possible celebration that Kerber can look to have after being assured of a return to the No. 1 ranking when the tournament ends. But for that to happen, the southpaw has to be at her immaculate best, something she hasn’t been able to produce so far this year.
The two-time semi-finalist should have her compatriot Andrea Petkovic as her first round opponent. After that, her road looks apparently comfortable till the quarters where she can come up against the 2016 Australian Open runner-up Venus Williams or her familiar rival, Agnieszka Radwanska.
However, both Venus and Radwanska themselves have their paths littered with obstacles.
The 2014 runner-up Radwanska needs to be wary of Ekaterina Makarova in her opener and the 19-year-old Ana Konjuh in the next round. The Croat beat her in their very last meeting at the US Open last year and that would be a good enough reason to give the Pole a headache.
Venus too has her task cut out as she has to contend with fellow veteran Jelena Jankovic and the 2016 Australian semi-finalist Coco Vandeweghe or the menacing Lucie Safarova in her first couple of rounds.
If the early few rounds can help Kerber get acclimatized to the conditions and if she can find her composure, there is no reason why she cannot take advantage of this draw and make a statement.