March is a strange month in tennis, dominated by Indian Wells and Miami, a pair of tournaments that in some ways feel like grand slams, and in other ways don’t even come close. Like the slams, Indian Wells and Miami each span two weeks and have main draws that are seven rounds deep. But every seeded player gets a first-round bye, making the tournaments less grueling for top players and reducing the number of interesting early matches. The events’ rich purses and mandatory status mean all the top players are in the field (well—ahem—almost), but each tournament is worth only half the ranking points of a slam. Since the two long events are played in very different climates on somewhat different surfaces with little break in between, it’s difficult for even the most dominant players to win both in the same year.
To kick things off, today I analyze the women’s draw, highlighting interesting early match-ups and predicting who will advance to the later stages. For each eighth of the draw, I show the seeds and a few more players who might upset one. For each player, I also list a form score, which shows how players’ recent results (updated through last week’s tournaments) measure up against expectations at their level in the rankings. Players with scores greater than 5 are playing above their ranking. See this post for an explanation of how the scores are calculated.
It might seem Victoria Azarenka faces a real threat in the second round from two-time Indian Wells champion Daniela Hantuchova. But Hantuchova barely beat qualifier Stephanie Foretz-Gacon in the first round to end a three-year losing streak in Indian Wells, and her results over the past year have been mixed at best. Azarenka should outclass her, and also have little trouble in the third round against Kirsten Flipkens or Monica Niculescu.
Since losing to Azarenka in the semifinals of the Australian Open, Sloane Stephens has had a couple of disappointing results, losing to Klara Zakopalova and Sorana Cirstea, both times after winning the first set. If Stephens doesn’t play with her best level of aggression and precision or fails to seize her opportunities, she could lose her opening match against Urszula Radwanska.
The winner of that match faces the winner of an intriguing match between Jamie Hampton and Hsieh Su-Wei. Hsieh was hampered by an arm injury at the beginning of the season, but lately has shown more of the inventive defense that won her two titles last year. Hampton had a chronic back injury flare up at the Australian Open, but her first-round defeat of Kuala Lumpur finalist Bethanie Mattek-Sands suggests she’s finding form again. If Hampton duplicates the shotmaking she demonstrated in Australia, she can overpower Hsieh and have a good chance against Stephens or Radwanska.
Predicted fourth round: Azarenka d. Hampton
Third most likely to reach the fourth round: Stephens
Not to be counted out: U. Radwanska
It’s difficult to know what to expect from Caroline Wozniacki this week. In Doha and Dubai, she played up to her ranking and showed signs of adding more aggressiveness to her game. But last week she suffered a baffling, listless loss to #186 Wang Qiang in the first round of Kuala Lumpur. Wozniacki has won her last four matches in straight sets against her opening-round opponent, Alizé Cornet, so she should have a good chance to rebuild her confidence. She could face a greater challenge in the third round from Elena Vesnina, who was sick early last month but played smart, high-quality tennis in Australia. But as the more battle-tested and consistent competitor, Wozniacki should win if she plays anywhere near her best.
Nadia Petrova had decent results in Doha and Dubai, but so far this season has been far from the dominant force she was late last year. She should be able to overpower Stefanie Voegele in the second round, but Voegele is a skilled player from every part of the court and will make her earn the victory. Petrova’s most likely third-round opponent is Julia Goerges, who has started her season with an unconvincing 4-5 record on hard courts. Goerges could be vulnerable to a second-round upset by Sofia Arvidsson, who staged a ferocious comeback for a three-set victory over another powerful but often erratic shotmaker, Laura Robson, in the first round.
Predicted fourth round: Wozniacki d. Petrova
Third most likely to reach the fourth round: Goerges
Not to be counted out: Arvidsson, Vesnina
Still in her first year as a top-10 player, Angelique Kerber has started her season poorly, too easily irritated by opponents eager to score an upset. Her serve and forehand have been weakened by a lower back injury she sustained at the Australian Open. If she has recovered, she may rediscover the power and confidence she had last year and advance to the quarterfinals with little trouble. If either her mind or body aren’t at full strength, she could struggle badly in the third round to beat likely opponent Yanina Wickmayer, who is a powerful threat from the baseline but can make poor tactical decisions.
Lucie Safarova is a skilled and dangerous shotmaker who can upset nearly anyone when her shot timing and concentration are in place. But since August, she has only beaten top-30 players when playing in Fed Cup at home in the Czech Republic. If she has a bad day or her timing is thrown off by the desert wind, Safarova could succumb to the variety-packed game of Magdalena Rybarikova in the second round. Ekaterina Makarova, a physically larger left-hander whose game is in some ways like a more consistent version of Safarova’s, is likely to pose a much more serious threat in the third round.
Predicted fourth round: Makarova d. Kerber
Third most likely to reach the fourth round: Wickmayer
Not to be counted out: Safarova
Sam Stosur faces a difficult and powerful opening-round opponent—18-year-old Madison Keys. Like Stosur’s, Keys’ game relies primarily on a dominating serve and the ability to hit explosive forehand winners. Keys has already proved this year she’s a threat to high-quality players. But Stosur has more experience in big matches and had solid results in Doha and Dubai, and is likely to emerge as the winner. Stosur should have an easier third round, most likely against Peng Shuai, who didn’t play in February due to a shoulder injury, and has beaten only one top-50 player since September.
Ana Ivanovic has an interesting second-round match against widely-touted American sixteen-year-old Taylor Townsend. Townsend is so new to the professional tour that I haven’t had a chance to see her play, but she beat the powerful Lucie Hradecka in the first round and is likely to make the match competitive. Ivanovic is likely to face a much greater threat from the aggressive Paris champion Mona Barthel in the third round. Barthel recently hired a professional coach for the first time and shows every sign of building on the promise she showed early last year and sealing her place as a star player.
Predicted fourth round: Barthel d. Stosur
Third most likely to reach the fourth round: Ivanovic
Not to be counted out: Keys
Petra Kvitova found renewed confidence and consistency in Doha and Dubai last month. The cool, dry conditions in Indian Wells should favor the asthma sufferer, while the relatively slow court surface could interfere with her attacking game. Unless Olga Govortsova plays exceptionally well, Kvitova should face no major obstacles until at least the third round, where she will face either the relentless counterpunching of Lesia Tsurenko, or the dangerous weaponry of Yaroslava Shvedova, who has started her season poorly. If Kvitova plays like she did on her way to the Dubai title, she’ll beat either player in straight sets.
Dominika Cibulkova had a brilliant run to the final in Sydney, but has struggled badly with her shot timing and confidence since. She could face a significant challenge in the second round from Simona Halep. Like Cibulkova, Halep is a compact player who can choose between varying levels of defensiveness and aggression and doesn’t always find the right balance. Halep has struggled for much of this season with a lower back injury, but dominated Lauren Davis, 6-2 6-0 in the first-round.
If Cibulkova gets past Halep, she’ll need all the timing and confidence she can muster to beat Zakopalova, a shotmaker who has strung together consistently impressive performances this year and is having the best season of her career.
Predicted fourth round: Kvitova d. Zakopalova
Third most likely to reach the fourth round: Cibulkova
Agnieszka Radwanska should have an easy second round against American wildcard Maria Sanchez. By seeding, Radwanska should meet Sorana Cirstea in the third round, but Cirstea may struggle first to get past Anabel Medina Garrigues. Medina Garrigues has started the season poorly, but matches up well against the often erratic Cirstea, who prefers to use the power of more aggressive opponents against them. If Cirstea survives to play Radwanska, who is both unshakably consistent and a conjurer of delicate shots, that match-up nightmare only gets worse.
Maria Kirilenko could face a challenge in the second round from Christina McHale, who has started winning matches again after a bout with mononucleosis. McHale may still be vulnerable, though—days after impressively beating Lucie Safarova in straight sets in Doha, she fell to #150 Kurumi Nara in qualifying for Dubai. By seeding, Kirilenko should face Tamira Paszek in the third round, but Paszek has a 1-7 record since September, and could lose to powerful qualifier Mallory Burdette in the second round.
Predicted fourth round: A. Radwanska d. Kirilenko
Third most likely to reach the fourth round: McHale
Sara Errani should have an easy second-round match against either clay-court specialist Lourdes Dominguez Lino or qualifier Grace Min. In the third round she is likely to face Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, who started the season with an impressive run to the Brisbane final and who has the power to threaten Errani. But to win, Pavlyuchenkova will have to play with more consistency and intelligence than she’s shown since Brisbane. Indeed, she could face a test of her own in the second round from counterpuncher Johanna Larsson. On her best days, Larsson places the ball well enough to frustrate players like Pavlyuchenkova, who rely on their ability to take control of points by hitting big shots.
Marion Bartoli should have an easy second round against Chanelle Scheepers. At her best, Scheepers can use a variety of spins and an all-court attack to make things difficult for any opponent, but she has yet to play with that kind of initiative this year.
By ranking, Bartoli’s third-round opponent should be Bogotá champion Jelena Jankovic. But the only top-30 opponent Jankovic has beaten since Tokyo last year is the slumping Paszek. I expect Jankovic to lose in the second round to the resurgent Svetlana Kuznetsova, who beat Bartoli in straight sets in Doha last month and most likely will beat her again.
Predicted fourth round: Kuznetsova d. Errani
Third most likely to reach the fourth round: Bartoli
Maria Sharapova faces an opening-round opponent with an unusually big resumé, but has a 3-0 record against Francesca Schiavone. Since they last played in 2009, Sharapova’s game has improved dramatically, and Schiavone’s has deteriorated. In the third round, Sharapova is likely to face Carla Suarez Navarro, who is at her career-high ranking and has pulled off a couple of impressive upsets on hard courts this year. However, Suarez Navarro will have to make a quick adjustment after playing last week on clay in Acapulco, and Sharapova should overpower her without too much trouble.
Roberta Vinci faces a significant test in the second round from the tough left-handed fighter Ksenia Pervak, who overwhelmed Zheng Jie in the first round, 6-1 6-2. But Vinci is coming off an excellent performance in Dubai, where she upset two top-10 players to reach the semifinals, and is likely to win with her more varied arsenal. Her likely third-round opponent is Varvara Lepchenko, who beat her in Fed Cup last month on clay. However, Lepchenko has started the year with a 1-5 record on hard courts, and her powerful topspin is arguably better suited to clay. On current form, the surface counterintuitively favors the Italian over the American.
Predicted fourth round: Sharapova d. Vinci
Third most likely to reach the fourth round: Pervak
Azarenka d. Wozniacki
Barthel d. Makarova
Kvitova d. A. Radwanska
Sharapova d. Kuznetsova
Azarenka d. Barthel
Sharapova d. Kvitova
Azarenka d. Sharapova
Victoria Azarenka hasn’t lost a match since falling to Serena Williams in the first week of the year in Brisbane, and there’s little reason to predict that streak will end this week. She has won six of her last seven hardcourt matches against Sharapova, my pick as her most likely opponent in the final.
Should Kvitova reach the final instead of Sharapova, things could get much more exciting. Kvitova has won her last four matches against Azarenka—but they haven’t played since Kvitova’s star-making 2011 season.
Roster of the Missing
Serena and Venus Williams continue their 12-year boycott of Indian Wells (which I wrote about in the comments of this post by Lindsay Gibbs on The Changeover).
Li Na is still recovering from the ankle sprain she suffered in the Australian Open final.
Sabine Lisicki withdrew with a viral illness, presumably the same one that caused her to retire from the final in Memphis.
Kaia Kanepi has been off the tour since Tokyo last year with a foot injury.
Aleksandra Wozniak has been out with a shoulder sprain since Quebec City last year.
Anna Tatishvili withdrew with an ankle injury.
Petra Cetkovska has been out since November with a stress fracture in her foot.
Camila Giorgi withdrew with a shoulder injury.