Maria Sharapova will be hoping to crack into top 32 before Indian Wells rolls around
February is the first month in the three-month-long wait in the Grand Slam calendar. The next big event after Australian Open in January is Indian Wells which doesn't start before the second week of March.
On the Tennis calendar in February, we see stars packing the draw in smaller events in Rotterdam, Dubai, and Doha. Lucky for Maria Sharapova fans, she's playing in both of the last two competitions
Sharapova to start off against Romanian Monica Niculescu in Doha
Monica Niculescu may be only ranked 92, but she's by no measure a minnow. Her stellar doubles season in 2017 (which included a run to Wimbledon finals alongside Chan Hao-ching of Chinese Taipei) explains her entry in top 20 of doubles rankings. Her trademark is a tricky forehand slice which also makes her an intriguing player to watch.
On paper, this is an easy match to call considering their player profiles and rankings. The fact that she and Sharapova haven't played before, makes her a very tricky opponent for the Russian.
Sharapova has not played since Australian Open but Niculescu will be coming into the first round encounter with two wins in qualifying. On paper, Niculescu should be well adjusted to the surface's speed and bounce, but Sharapova is a champion in her own right.
Niculescu has nothing to lose in this match but Sharapova will be going into this match with not only her reputation but also ranking points at stake. If she beats Niculescu, she goes on to play the winner of the match between Magdalena Rybarikova and Fatma Al-Nabhani.
The road to Indian Wells
The third round is where the heat really turns up for Sharapova. In the third round, she could play Australian Open champion and World No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki. While it is difficult to predict the outcome of Sharapova vs Wozniacki (or if that match will ever happen), it will be one of the most eagerly anticipated matches of the tournament and certainly of the year so far.
Sharapova also has another incentive to win against Wozniacki - the ranking points. Doha being a Premier tournament, a third-round loser here earns 105 WTA points. A finish in quarter-finals earns the Russian a top 35 ranking with 190 points in her bag.
She has also accepted a wildcard in Dubai and has no points to lose until Stuttgart, which is scheduled deep during the Clay season in May. A solid finish in Doha and Dubai will almost guarantee a top 32 ranking before Indian Wells starts in California next month. This is what she will be gunning for - a seeding, and therefore a potentially easier draw in Indian Wells and Miami.
Sharapova has already had a decent start to the year with semi-finals appearance at an International event in Shenzen (China). She lost to Katerina Siniakova in a tough three-set battle in the semi-finals. At the Australian Open, she started off with straight sets wins against Tatjana Maria and Anastasija Sevastova in rounds one and two respectively. She was beaten in straight sets by Angelique Kerber in the third round.