The WTA is gearing up for one of the most eagerly anticipated BNP Paribas Open tournaments in Indian Wells for years, as the absence of world number one Serena Williams blows the field wide open.
Serena was always scheduled to sit out of Indian Wells – she hasn’t played there in over a decade – and would have struggled to compete anyway after suffering a back injury before play in Dubai two weeks ago.
With the American’s absence, Victoria Azarenka has a great chance to prove her dominance on the tour once again and is clear favourite to claim her third title of the season so far. The Belarusian beat her adversary 7-6 2-6 6-3 in the Doha final two weeks ago but also pulled out of Dubai days later, citing a foot injury.
Clearly the strains of maintaining your place at the top of the tour is affecting Azarenka’s physical state but with Serena already out she should have no problem making the final.
So who will Azarenka meet on the hard court on 11 March? Second seed Maria Sharapova will be hoping to improve on a promising yet sparse start to 2013 where, in her two tournaments, she has fallen at the semi-final stages.
Her impressive run at the Australian Open was quickly cut short by Li Na, who will fancy her chances in another semi should the pair be drawn in the same half, while Serena smoothly dispatched of the Russian over two sets in Doha.
Sharapova should progress at Indian Wells but one feels she isn’t tough enough to withstand a strong top order, with Li and Agnieszka Radwanska more than capable of taking down the 25-year-old.
Further down the seeds, Petra Kvitova is in bullish form after beating Sara Errani in three sets for the Dubai title last week and has played a lot of tournaments this year for little reward. The Czech started 2013 badly and failed to impress in her second-round defeat to Laura Robson in Melbourne, yet after a controlled run to the Dubai final suddenly she looks the part once again.
Errani herself had a chance of getting back into that final but looked physically exhausted in the Dubai humidity come set three and had nothing more to give, but will have used this past week of recovery to build her fitness ahead of Indian Wells.
Two players that should be expelled from this list of potential finals candidates are Caroline Wozniacki and – dare I say it – Angelique Kerber. Wozniacki’s form this season has been as erratic as ever, the former world number one making the semis in Dubai before crashing out of the first round in Thailand.
That Thai result is a major blow to her aspirations of climbing up the WTA rankings, for it was a relatively weak field she should have walked through. The Dane lost 6-2 6-7 1-6 to China’s world number 186 Qiang Wang: the kind of result that is becoming less of a shock each time she falls early in tournaments.
Kerber, meanwhile, has exited early in her last two outings despite a long rest since making the Melbourne last 16. A disappointing second set against Roberta Vinci in Dubai pretty much sums up where Kerber is right now – stuck in a rut and unlikely to bypass any lower-ranked opponent with a bit of fight in them.
For the British contingent, both Robson and Heather Watson will want to improve on recent results that have left quite a bit to be desired. Robson dropped out early in Dubai but claims the chest infection that has plagued her recent outings is now almost gone, while British number one Watson should really have made the semis in Memphis last week.
For what it’s worth, my money is on Radwanska to meet Azarenka in the final so long as she’s placed in the bottom half of the draw. If the pair are scheduled to clash in the semis, then a finals run is Sharapova’s for the taking although both Li and Petrova will pose fierce opposition.