This week the tennis tours leave the windy desert of Indian Wells and jump straight into another sprawling seven-round mandatory tournament on the humid barrier island of Key Biscayne, just a few minutes across a causeway from downtown Miami. The WTA welcomes back Serena Williams—playing her first tournament since Doha, a month and a half ago, and Li Na, who has been out since the Australian Open with an ankle sprain. (Lesser stars Sabine Lisicki and Aleksandra Wozniak also returned to the tour this week, but have already lost their first-round matches, to Simona Halep and Kristina Mladenovic, respectively.)
As the seeded players begin their campaigns, here’s how I expect the women’s tournament to unfold, one eighth of the draw at a time, with late-round predictions at the end. For each player with a chance of making an impact, I list a form score, which shows whose recent results are disappointing (scores less than 4), and whose are impressive enough to propel them higher in the rankings (scores greater than 5). See this post for an explanation of how the scores are calculated.
(Friday Update): This post is now complete, in time for the second-round matches in the bottom half of the draw. I did pretty well with my second-round picks in the top half, correctly predicting upsets by Muguruza and Petkovic, and anticipating the possibility of those by Morita and Oprandi. I incorrectly predicted that Begu would upset Lepchenko, and failed to predict upsets by Ajla Tomljanovic (d. Goerges) and Magdalena Rybarikova (d. Barthel).
After withdrawing from Dubai last month citing an ankle injury, Serena has a potentially difficult first match against former top-10 player Flavia Pennetta. Williams has a 3-0 record against the Italian, who has played tentatively in her first weeks back on tour after five months of recovery from wrist surgery. But if Pennetta takes confidence from her decisive first-round defeat of Johanna Larsson and plays freely, her precise and versatile game could make things complicated for the heavily favored Serena.
Williams’ most likely third-round opponent is Yanina Wickmayer, who hits big from the baseline but can’t match Serena’s more complete skill set or the angles she’ll generate if she’s fit and in form. If Wickmayer has a bad day, she could lose in the second round to the ambitious two-fisted counterpuncher Ayumi Morita.
In her opening round, Dominika Cibulkova faces Kristina Mladenovic in a match that will feature aggressive hitting on both sides. It could be a close battle, between a compact player who’s established her place in the top-20 and a rising star with much more wingspan. Both players have had mixed results so far this year and struggled with their shot timing in recent weeks. The winner of that match will face either the dangerous but slumping Lucie Safarova, or the unpredictable and unorthodox game of Romina Oprandi.
Predicted fourth round: S. Williams d. Cibulkova
Third most likely to reach the fourth round: Mladenovic
Not to be counted out: Safarova, Pennetta
Li Na could be tested in the second round by the powerful Kiki Bertens, but if Li is fully fit her vastly superior movement and versatility should carry her through without much trouble. By seeding, Li’s third round opponent should be the slumping Varvara Lepchenko, but Irina-Camelia Begu has had better results this season and I expect her to pull off an upset. Neither Begu nor Lepchenko has Li’s ability to dictate points, and if Li lands her shots in the court she should advance to the fourth round with little trouble.
In her opening match, Caroline Wozniacki faces Kuala Lumpur champion Karolina Pliskova, whose serve and shotmaking can be real threats when everything is working. However, Pliskova is weak in the very areas where Wozniacki is exceptionally strong: consistency, movement, and competitive instinct. Wozniacki is likely to win with little trouble, and could have a sense of deja vu in the third round, where she will face another powerful but inconsistent baseliner—either Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova or Garbiñe Muguruza. Muguruza made her first big splash in Miami last year, when she upset Pennetta and Vera Zvonareva (then ranked #9) on her way to the fourth round. Based on her run to the fourth round in Indian Wells last week, I think Muguruza might well upset Pavlyuchenkova. But like Pliskova, she’s unlikely to be consistent enough to seriously threaten Caro.
Predicted fourth round: Li d. Wozniacki
Third most likely to reach the fourth round: Begu
Those who like tennis built around creativity, patience, and finesse should love the second-round match between Agnieszka Radwanska and Hsieh Su-Wei. While the rallies should be entertaining, there’s little doubt about the outcome—Hsieh is unlikely to match Radwanska’s superlative consistency or relative power. However, Aga is likely face a much more serious threat from surging shotmaker Mona Barthel in the third round.
Sloane Stephens hasn’t done a good job of backing up her run to the semifinals of the Australian Open, but she should match up well against her inconsistent second-round opponent, Olga Govortsova. Assuming Stephens wins that match, she’ll need to take all the confidence she can from it to beat Venus Williams, her most likely adversary in the third round. Venus isn’t as consistent or as fit as she was at her peak, but she’ll be fired up to play well in her home tournament and avenge her sister’s Australian Open loss to Stephens.
On the other hand, Venus has a potentially difficult opening match herself against Kimiko Date-Krumm, who took Williams into an extended third set at Wimbledon two years ago and is playing well again.
Predicted fourth round: A. Radwanska d. V. Williams
Third most likely to reach the fourth round: Barthel
Not to be counted out: Stephens
Petra Kvitova has the weapons to beat her opening opponent, Peng Shuai, but the humid conditions will exacerbate her asthma and the fact that she’s never been past the third round in Miami won’t help her confidence. The winner of that match plays the winner of an interesting battle between two skilled, on-form all-court players, Kirsten Flipkens and Stefanie Voegele. Flipkens’ bigger serve and big-match experience may give her the edge there, but she could be overpowered if she meets Kvitova in the third round.
Marion Bartoli faces a real threat in her second-round match against Andrea Petkovic, who leads the head-to-head, 3-2. They haven’t played each other since 2011. Petkovic broke into the top-10 at the end of 2011, but is still finding her game again after being derailed by a series of injuries. Bartoli’s form has been spotty this year and she appears to be still searching for a new coach, so it’s difficult to predict the outcome of the match.
Whoever wins it is likely to face Julia Goerges in the third round. Goerges has never won a set from Bartoli on hardcourt. Goerges has the firepower to beat Petkovic, but will need to play with unusual consistency to win if Petkovic finds the form to get that far.
Predicted fourth round: Petkovic d. Kvitova
Third most likely to reach the fourth round: Bartoli
Not to be counted out: Goerges, Peng, Flipkens
Almost anything could happen in this section.
Sara Errani has a very difficult second round against Daniela Hantuchova, who had a difficult season last year but whose results have improved over the last two months. The hardcourt head-to-head between the two is 3-3. They’ve played twice already this year, each winning once, with both matches decided by a third set. I give the edge to Errani, who won the last meeting and has been the more consistent performer, but it’s a close call.
By seeding, the winner should face Tamira Paszek. But Paszek has a 1-8 match record since September, and I expect her to lose to Simona Halep in the second round. Halep upset Memphis finalist Sabine Lisicki in the first round, and could be a threat in the third round, especially if she’s lucky enough to meet Hantuchova on a bad day. Halep is less likely to be consistent enough to overcome Errani.
Ana Ivanovic also has a difficult opening match against Urszula Radwanska, who beat her in three sets in Tokyo last year, their only meeting. Ula is adding more dimensions to her game and has defeated two top-20 players, Stephens and Roberta Vinci, in the last two months. Ana will have to play her most aggressive and precise game to win.
The winner of that match faces either Ekaterina Makarova or Svetlana Kuznetsova. Makarova’s results since the Australian Open have been disappointing, and I expect Kuznetsova to advance. Since Ivanovic peaked in 2008, she and Kuznetsova have split their matches, 2-2.
Predicted fourth round: Errani d. Ivanovic
Third most likely to reach the fourth round: Kuznetsova
Not to be counted out: Hantuchova, U. Radwanska, Makarova
In the second round, Maria Sharapova faces nineteen-year-old Canadian wildcard Eugenie Bouchard, who in many ways must remind Sharapova of her younger self. These days, though, Maria is more consistent and moves better, and as the much better match player should advance with little trouble. She’s likely to be tested more in the third round by Elena Vesnina, who actually won their last match in 2010. But Maria is playing much better than she did in 2010, and should overpower her Russian compatriot.
Maria Kirilenko will have to battle in her opening match against Bethanie Mattek-Sands, who has all-court skills to match Kirilenko’s and arguably a bit more power from the baseline. Kirilenko’s greater consistency and defensive ability should carry her into the third round, however, where she’ll most likely face Klara Zakopalova. Both players are having the best seasons of their careers, and both produce a deceptively powerful punch from their relatively slight frames. Kirilenko’s sharper skills at the net and greater resilience on big points should give her the edge and set up a Maria vs. Maria rematch of the Indian Wells semifinal.
Predicted fourth round: Sharapova d. Kirilenko
Third most likely to reach the fourth round: Zakopalova
Not to be counted out: Mattek-Sands
Angelique Kerber seemed to have rebounded from her early-season back injury in Indian Wells, and played well to reach the semifinals… where she felt the injury again and faded in the third set to lose to Wozniacki. Her form and fitness will be a question again in Miami, but in the second round she should get past the struggling Francesca Schiavone, who hasn’t beaten a top-90 opponent since September.
Most likely, Kerber will meet Sorana Cirstea in the third round. In their only previous match last year in Hobart, Kerber struggled with a wrist injury but came from behind (with some help from Cirstea) for a narrow three-set victory. Often dangerous but inconsistent in the past, Cirstea has built a solid record of results so far this year, and another match against Kerber could be a nail-biter like the last one.
It’s never easy to predict how well Nadia Petrova will play from one match to the next, but she’s had decent results since the Australian Open and has a 9-1 record against her first opponent, Zheng Jie. Assuming she wins, she’s likely to face Jelena Jankovic in an intriguing third-round match. Jankovic leads the head-to-head 6-2, but the two haven’t played each other since 2008, when Jankovic was ranked #2. Jankovic won Bogotá last month against weak opposition, but otherwise has struggled this year, and based on current form, Petrova should have the edge.
Predicted fourth round: Kerber d. Petrova
Third most likely to reach the fourth round: Cirstea
Not to be counted out: Jankovic
The condition of Victoria Azarenka may be the unknown with the biggest potential effect on the tournament, after she withdrew from her Indian Wells quarterfinal with foot/ankle tendinitis. As I write this, it’s unclear whether she will play at all. If she’s fit, she should be able to dismantle Madison Keys in her opening match with her greater consistency and versatility. If not, Keys could run her into the ground with her booming serve and penetrating forehand, and this section of the draw becomes very hard to predict.
(Friday Update, 1100 EST: The tournament announced less than 20 minutes before the start of play that Azarenka has withdrawn.)
The winner faces either Alizé Cornet or Laura Robson. Robson has bigger weapons, but has struggled with her health and her form so far this year. Cornet plays a more technically consistent game, and can play with surprising aggression, but is known for mental fragility.
Roberta Vinci faces a difficult opening challenge from Christina McHale, who shows signs of returning to form. At her best, though, Vinci’s variety of spins and improving power may be enough to take control from the American.
The winner of that match faces either aggressive and surging Jamie Hampton (my pick) or Carla Suarez Navarro, who is at her career-high ranking but has had mixed results so far this year.
Predicted fourth round: Azarenka d. Vinci (New pick: Vinci d. Keys)
Third most likely to reach the fourth round: Hampton
Not to be counted out: Keys, Robson, Suarez Navarro
A. Radwanska d. Petkovic
S. Williams d. Li
Sharapova d. Errani
Kerber d. Azarenka (New pick: Kerber d. Vinci)
S. Williams d. A. Radwanska
Sharapova d. Kerber
With reasons to doubt that five of the top eight seeds will be physically able to perform at their best in Miami (Williams, Azarenka, Li, Kerber, and Kvitova), a lot of things can happen to spoil my predictions over the next eight days. But on the balance of probabilities, I say:
Serena Williams will defeat Maria Sharapova for the 2013 Miami title.
Roster of the Missing
Sam Stosur withdrew due to the calf injury she sustained at the end of her Indian Wells fourth-round victory over Mona Barthel.
Kaia Kanepi has been off the tour since Tokyo last year with a foot injury.
Petra Cetkovska has been out since November with a stress fracture in her foot.
Polona Hercog has been off the tour since the Australian Open with a wrist injury.