The WTA tour heads to sunny California for the first premier mandatory event of the season, the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells. 29 of the top 30 players in the world will be in action in the Californian desert, Maria Sharapova being the only member of the top 30 not taking part in the event due to an ongoing forearm injury (and a provisional ban due to taking a recently banned substance at the Australian Open in January). The tour’s top players will be looking to restore order over the next couple of weeks after a wacky February which was filled with upsets and surprise champions. Most notably, Serena Williams will be aiming to claim her first Indian Wells title since 2001 in her second appearance at the event since a decade long boycott of the event. Defending champion Simona Halep will also be keen for a big fortnight after a very slow start to the season.
One of the biggest stories of the event will be the return of Venus Williams to Indian Wells. The American has not participated it the event since 2001 where she was booed upon her arrival to centre court to watch Serena Williams participate in the final (Venus handed Serena a walkover into the final due to injury). This will be one of the biggest moments in the American’s stellar career, it promises to be an emotional return just like it was for Serena last year. Venus has landed in the same quarter of the draw as Serena and will start her tournament with a second round clash with either Teliana Pereira or a qualifier after receiving a bye through the opening round.
All 32 seeds will receive a bye into the second round of the draw meaning the first round line-up isn’t particularly exciting. Laura Robson, Peng Shuai and Galina Voskoboeva will all be returning from long-term injuries this week. Robson faces Magdalena Rybarikova in the first round whilst Peng Shuai will face Yulia Putintseva and Galina Voskoboeva will play Heather Watson in their opening matches.
(1) Serena Williams: The world number 1 will take to the courts for the first time since her shock loss to Angelique Kerber in the final of the Australian Open in January. Serena made an emotional return to Indian Wells last year where she reached the semi-final stage before handing Simona Halep a walkover into the semi-finals. Serena didn’t have any great expectations at Indian Wells last year, instead she was proud just to take part in the event. This year will be very different, Indian Wells is one of very few tournaments outside of the Grand Slams that Serena will be desperate to win in 2016. The world number 1 wants to create new memories at the event to override the horror of 2001. Serena will also be desperate to reassert her dominance on the tour given her failures at the two most recent Grand Slams.
(2) Angelique Kerber: There has never been so much pressure/attention on Angelique Kerber heading into Indian Wells. The Australian Open champion made a really disappointing return to action in Doha last month, suffering a first round loss to Saisai Zheng in her first tour level match since her triumph at the Australian Open. Kerber has lost in her opening round match at Indian Wells in the past two years and will been to do much better this year. Angie has a great chance to push closer to the world number 1 ranking over the next couple of weeks given she only has 63 points to defend at Indian Wells and Miami, two deeps runs (and a couple of slip ups from Serena) would bring the German within reach of the world number 1 ranking.
(3) Agnieszka Radwanska: The former finalist at Indian Wells has made a good start to the season, reaching the semi-finals at the Australian Open and in Doha. Aga seems to be making a conscious effort to compete in less tournaments this year and really focus all her energy on the bigger events. Radwanska has a good record at Indian Wells and will see this event as an opportunity to gain a heap of ranking points given the Pole suffered a shock second round loss to Heather Watson last year. Interestingly, Radwanska has reached at least the semi-final stage in her last 6 events. The draw hasn’t been particularly kind to the Pole given she looks likely to run into Dominika Cibulkova in the second round, a tough early round test for Aga.
(4) Garbine Muguruza: In 2016 the Spaniard has struggled to emulate her brilliant end of 2015 season form. Garbine has a 4-4 win/loss record this year, losing to 4 opponents that she would usually expect to defeat (Varvara Lepchenko, Barbora Strycova, Elina Svitolina and Andrea Petkovic). Muguruza has never made it past the second round at Indian Wells, and has only ever won 1 main draw match at the event in her young career. Muguruza has struggled with ongoing injuries over the last couple of months but I expect these issues to be less troublesome over the coming weeks and the Spaniard should be expected to raise her level.
(5) Simona Halep: The Romanian claimed the biggest title of her career at Indian Wells 12 months ago, her first and only premier mandatory level title. However, Simona arrives in the Californian dessert in poor form and totally deprived of confidence. The world number 5 has lost 4 of her last 5 matches and looks very likely to struggle in her title defence at Indian Wells. Simona has a large chunk of points to defend this month as she also reached the semi-finals in Miami last year, if Simona doesn’t quickly find her range her ranking will drop dramatically.
The WTA tour has been particularly unpredictable over the last couple of months and we are again likely to see more upsets in the Californian desert. However, I do believe some order will be restored, I expect Serena Williams to be incredibly difficult to defeat and expect players such as Agnieszka Radwanska, Petra Kvitova and Garbine Muguruza to have a good couple of weeks. I think Serena will ultimately be crowned champion. The world number 1 hasn’t won a title for quite some time now and will be eager to make amends for her recent failures. Serena hasn’t won this title since that infamous 2001 championship and will be very motivated to override those negative memories by winning the title this year. Again, it’s hard to see Serena losing, but it’s always possible.