Before the first ball of the main draw is even hit, this year’s hard court mini-majors promises to be different. World No. 1 Serena Williams plans a return to the BNP Paribas Open for the first time since 2001 on Friday: an instant game-changer for the rest of the field. How will the women’s side shake out with one of the world’s most dominant hard court players of the last decade throwing her hat into the ring?
Ahead of the two “mini-majors” – Indian Wells and Miami – the TTI Staff broke into smaller groups to discuss the states of the ATP and WTA: who will rise to the challenge, who will be left hoping for a change in fortune when concrete turns to dust, and which #fifthslam is the fifthiest of them all.
Of the WTA:
1. Who will March through the Madness?
This is Serena Williams’ big return to Indian Wells, yet rumors are swirling that a knee issue makes her less than 100% fit. She’s also lost her long time hitting partner to Victoria Azarenka, so the stars don’t exactly look lined up for the World No. 1. That said, this is still Serena Williams, and it’s Serena Williams on a mission. That is not something that we should ever underestimate, so I think she’ll show up struggling but battle through; once she gains momentum, she’ll start to roll.
I do not think she’ll win both tournaments – and I probably feel more confident that she’ll take Miami than Indian Wells – but I feel sure that we’ll see her lifting at least one of the trophies.
It’s hard to ignore the impending return of Serena Williams at Indian Wells. Williams may have just split with longtime hitting partner, Sascha Bajin, but she’ll be hungry for even more success in the desert – especially given the controversy surrounding her hiatus.
And then there’s Miami, an event she’s won a record seven times. The target is set for Williams to achieve the historically difficult Indian Wells-Miami double (last achieved by Kim Clijsters in 2005).
Can she do it? Of course she can, she’s Serena Williams.
If she’s firing on all cylinders, Victoria Azarenka certainly has a lot going in her favor over the next month. With no points to defend for the foreseeable future, she can now start to make a serious charge back up the WTA rankings. And what better place(s) to start than on her favorite surface at some of her favorite venues?
Azarenka has the past (plenty of career success at both tournaments) and the future (a brand new camp) on her side this March; the combination of Wim Fissette and Sascha Bajin have joined her at what seems to be the perfect time. There are about 700 points between her (No. 38) and No. 20 (Barbora Zahlavova Strycova) at the moment, and I wouldn’t put it past her to be right on the Top 20’s heels on the other side of Indian Wells and Miami.
Perhaps the most compelling storyline of this year’s March hard court swing is Serena Williams‘ return to Indian Wells for the first time since 2001. She won the title then and is poised to do the same again; she’s world No.1 and is showing no signs of slowing down.
A loss in the desert simply doesn’t fit the narrative, and Williams has always been exceptional in Miami. She could bag at least one of these titles, even if an early exit might provide opportunity for competitors like Simona Halep and Maria Sharapova, both of whom have also had strong years coming in.
Much like with Novak Djokovic on the men’s side, it’s impossible to overlook Serena Williams on the women’s side. It’s the first time she’s playing both events in over a dozen years. I wouldn’t put money on her to do the double as easily as the Serb, but as long as her (heavily) strapped knee holds up, I’d be surprised if she didn’t win at least one event and made a deep run in the other.
2. Who will be left “Craving Clay?”
Caroline Wozniacki* is having a really disappointing season after the excitement surrounding her return to form in 2014. I don’t trust the Dane to rediscover her form for Indian Wells and Miami. I suspect the best we’ll see from her is a quarterfinal run. Does Wozniacki ever really crave clay, though?
The grass season will be around the corner beckoning her.
*(Please feel free to copy and paste the above paragraph and replace every mention of Wozniacki with Agnieszka Radwanska. It would be great to see the Polish No. 1 bring back some of the magic we’re so used to, but she’s another player who has really underwhelmed this year.)
Though it can’t be said that Radwanska will be salivating at the thought of transitioning onto the dirt, it’ll most likely be the case upon her inevitable loss(es) at either of the big American hard court tournaments. The Pole’s best effort in Miami was a title win in 2012, but she’s vulnerable and far from her best this season – perpetuated by early exits during the Middle Eastern swing.
It’s tough to say just exactly where Eugenie Bouchard will stand at the end of Indian Wells and Miami. With injury concerns coming in and new coach Sam Sumyk by her side, Bouchard certainly has the opportunity to improve on fourth and second round showings from a year ago. Her game requires a few matches to get into rhythm; byes into the second round, then, may end up doing more harm than good.
Ana Ivanovic hasn’t had a particularly noteworthy year apart from a strong showing in Brisbane, and suffered extremely disappointing exits at the hands of players that she should have beaten.
It may seem like I’m picking on the popular Serb after (successfully) choosing her for an early exit at the Australian Open, but it’s only because we’ve come to expect so much from her since 2014. Clay has always been her best surface – even in her slumping years – so her 2015 might not be so bright until she gets under the lights at Stuttgart.
Eugenie Bouchard isn’t exactly “craving clay” – though her sole title on the red dirt in Nuremberg foreshadowed a run to the semifinals of the French Open – but she’s going to have an interesting and difficult month ahead of her. She has only played one match after the Australian Open, a loss at the hands of Germany’s Mona Barthel. From there, last year’s Wimbledon finalist pulled out of Dubai and Monterrey with an arm injury.
Has her arm healed properly? Has Sumyk started adding more of a B-game to his charge’s game? Will she start showing up more regularly at events outside the slams? A lot of question marks. I doubt we’ll see all the answers in Indian Wells and Miami.
3. Who makes up the most exciting “March-Up?”
I really want Williams and Maria Sharapova to compete for the final in Miami. That tournament always feels very much like the American’s playground, a space where she is highly invested in not letting anyone – much less her Russian nemesis – get her breakthrough. They played a really close final there a few years back, and it looked – if for a moment – like Sharapova might finally defeat Williams’ on the unlikeliest of stages, but once Williams got rolling there was nothing Sharapova could do and the match ended with a brutal bagel set.
I know it’s a one-sided, seemingly inevitable head-to-head. But it’s just so much fun(?)
Victoria Azarenka is projected to meet Sharapova in the third round of Indian Wells. That would seem to be an obvious choice – a rekindling of that. truly. fierce. rivalry. – but alas. I’m much more interested to see how she’ll fair against the resilient Simona Halep. The pair haven’t played since Azarenka’s peak 2012 season, but Halep was a mere shadow of the player she is now. In two matches Halep’s won just six games.
Can she claim more this year should the seeds fall into place?
I found myself wondering the other day just when we’d get an Azarenka-Sharapova match-up again, and it seems that the draw gods of Indian Wells obliged. Going from six head-to-head meetings in one year (2012), to just one in 26 months is quite jarring, though Azarenka’s injuries are the driving force behind that. The Belorussian is hungry to get back to the top, and she certainly doesn’t need any extra motivation to bring her best against Sharapova. #splashysour
During Azarenka’s prolonged absence from the Tour last season, Halep and Bouchard stole the “aggressive baseliner” spotlight typically reserved for the Belarusian; a matchup with either of the two of them would be highly compelling over this double fortnight. While Azarenka has played Halep before, she hasn’t played Top10!Halep, a notedly more efficient and powerful player than in the past.
Bouchard has never played Azarenka before, and with the added narrative drama of recently hiring Sam Sumyk that matchup could prove to be an exciting one.
So many. Bouchard-Azarenka in Indian Wells. Vaidisova-Kvitova in Miami. Bacsinszky-Garcia in both finals.
Just to name a few.
In all honestly, one match I’d be particularly happy to see is Keys-Pliskova. If they’re both are at their ballstriking best, that could be quite spectacular.
4. Who will make a “Concrete” Breakthrough?
I feel like we can just pick a name out of a hat with the young WTA these days; so many of them seem capable of pushing through and having a great week. While Caroline Garcia and Timea Bacsinszky have looked great recently, I’ve got to feel they’re going to be tired after contesting back-to-back finals. The player to watch recently has been Karolina Pliskova; if she holds true to recent form, I see no reason why she shouldn’t have a successful couple of weeks during the hard court swing.
What of Karolina Pliskova? She played pretty spectacularly to reach the final in Dubai, balancing much improved movement with her whippet-fast baseline strokes. She gave Simona Halep a stern test there, as well. I’m predicting big things for the Czech over the next couple of weeks; she certainly has the ability to take out the giants with powerful ease.
I would love to see Timea Bacsinszky continue this roll and make a big splash in either Indian Wells or Miami, but I can’t help but think the grind of a 12-match winning streak has to catch up with her eventually. With that said, I’ll go out on a limb and choose Monica Puig. The Puerto Rican had some hard luck in Mexico, holding match points in marathon losses in Acapulco and Monterrey, but she seems to be on the brink of something under the tutelage of Ricardo Sanchez. Maybe.
I think she could spring a surprising result or two over the next month: the courts in Indian Wells in Miami are suited to her game, and she’ll certainly get a lot of fan support at the latter, where she’s based.
While some may not easily warm to Garbiñe Muguruza‘s hard-down-the-center style of play, one can’t deny that it’s effective, and she’s executing this game more effectively than ever. She has had some of her best results in the past at Miami and Indian Wells before she had even dropped her second “Blanco” surname, and the courts seem to suit her game.
Expect her to topple a big name or two, further announcing her presence as one of the WTA’s most prolific Rising Stars™.
I want to say Bacsinszky because I do feel she hasn’t really registered with the public at large despite her two titles in the last 10 days. I want to say Azarenka because I think she’ll make at least one semifinals and return to the Top 25 after Miami. But I’ll go with a left-field option and pick rapidly rising and improving Russtralian Daria Gavrilova to qualify in both events and make the second week in one of the two fortnights.
5. Who will Hog the Spotlight?
I really want to say Alizé Cornet or Barbora Zahlavova Strycova, the WTA’s year-long Oscar campaigners – and genuinely talented threats. This swing though, it’s got to be Williams. I think there is going to be some serious drama over the course of the March Madness. As I said, I think she’ll win, but I think she’ll have her struggles and we’ll see some real emotion bubbling through to the surface.
If that drama just happens to be against Cornet or Strycova, then that’s just fine!
I’m hoping Alizé Cornet will bring some of the drama to the courts of Indian Wells and Miami. The animated Frenchwoman doesn’t seem to care who she picks a fight with, and has no qualms offending her coach, the lines judges, the umpire or her opponent during one of her rages. Aside from the obvious, I think Serena Williams will be harboring some on-court nerves at Indian Wells that could definitely result in some dramatic moments over the next week.
With Hawkeye featuring on all the courts at Indian Wells, my version of this question is: which player is the most likely to argue with the technology? Caroline Wozniacki has experience in this area.
But really, if I ran the draw, a (Q?) Yulia Putintseva/Eugenie Bouchard second round match would be incredible.
Barbora Zahlavova Strycova seems like an easy answer, and it’s almost guaranteed we’ll get a few tastes of her eyerolling and easily aggravated humour this March. However, something inside me feels like Wozniacki is going to engage in some heated rule-related debate (in which she’ll likely be wrong).
It happened in Doha and with the Dane looking for some wins over big names to justify her ranking; it’s not inconceivable that tensions might get the best of her when the calls get close.
Alizé Cornet might be the go-to option here, but the Frenchwoman hasn’t played that well in recent weeks. So I’ll go with someone who is playing good tennis AND bringing the on-court entertainment – Barbora Zahlavova Strycova (aka BeeZuS):
Hey remember Antwerp when Beezus decided to tell Cicak that she will say whatever she wants... http://t.co/FB6WNg4T8V—
René Denfeld (@Renestance) February 28, 2015
...and Cicak was having absolutely NONE OF IT? http://t.co/SKxHVduaQO—
René Denfeld (@Renestance) February 28, 2015
6. Which is the Fifth Slam: Indian Wells or Miami?
I’m sticking with the narrative, it’s got to be Indian Wells. The tournament is generally just a better experience in general, and carries a heavier sense of importance than its blue water equivalent. There is nowhere to hide in the desert.
The return of Serena Williams will cement the memory of Indian Wells this year. History has shown that Miami produces far more high quality (and low quality) matches than its American sister.
That being said, who wouldn’t want a $1 million quench coming their way? Diamonds are a girl’s best friend, after all.
The default answer here is Indian Wells. When Williams’ return to the desert is coupled with the fact that there are more opportunities for those who aren’t at the venue to actually see something dramatic, it’s not close.
Indian Wells, easily. The first of the two “Fifth Slams” has always treated its ladies more favorably than its East Coast counterpart, giving them more time on the bigger courts and with more online streaming than in Miami. Coupled with Williams’ compelling return to the tournament and almost a month off for some of the game’s other big names, Indian Wells should prove to be a compelling start to the Premier Mandatory season.
Indian Wells. Serena Williams’ return to the desert should (and will be) a bigger storyline than pretty much anything Miami could come up with.
Or whatever we see of it, anyway. #streamshade
Unless the WTA cranks up the number of broadcasted matches in Miami. it’ll play second fiddle to Indian Wells. 34 out of 95 matches is quite frankly nowhere near good enough for a WTA Premier Mandatory.
Who would you have chosen? Sound off in the comments!