Wednesday March 7th, 2012

Ekaterina Makarova hasn't played a match since her surprising run to the Australian Open quarterfinals. (Andrew Brownbill/AP)

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. -- One thing I've realized while staring at the men's and women's draws for the BNP Paribas Open is that it's much easier (and more fun) to find players flying under the radar on the WTA than the ATP. My theory is that the top four men are so dominant (in an arguably boring way) that any player who offers any sense of promise is automatically on the radar (such as Milos Raonic, Juan Martin del Potro or Jo-Wilfried Tsonga). On the other hand, the women are always ripe for upsets and unexpected surges regardless of ranking. Count me as a fan of parity.

Here are five players who don't get a ton of ink who could play spoiler to some of the big names over the next week:

Ekaterina Makarova: Since upsetting Serena Williams (along with then-No. 7 Vera Zvonareva and Brisbane champion Kaia Kanepi) to make the quarterfinals of the Australian Open, Makarova has been completely off the radar with no match play. But the 23-year-old Russian showed tremendous poise in Melbourne and isn't one to be fazed by big stages or deep fields. It's tough to know what her level will be like after the long layoff, but if the 42nd-ranked Makarova plays well she's a dangerous lefty floater no matter the draw. As for this draw, she has a potential second-round match with Caroline Wozniacki. If she knocks out the Dane, that quarter would be up for grabs with Makarova, Marion Bartoli and Ana Ivanovic all potentially in the hunt.

Lucie Safarova: It's entirely possible that I have an obsession with ball-bashing lefties, but I've been impressed with the 28th-ranked Safarova this year. Most impressive was her 4-6, 6-4, 7-6 (3) win over Wozniacki in Doha. Down triple match point at 4-5 in the third set, Safarova steeled herself to fire three great serves to get back to deuce. That couldn't be dismissed as a fluke, either, as she came back from being down a minibreak in the third-set tiebreaker to close out the match. If you haven't followed Safarova's career, let me break it down for you: Saving match points and coming through in tight moments is not something for which the talented Czech is famous. Quite the opposite, in fact. It was such a notable performance that I'm wondering if Safarova has turned a corner. She's in Bartoli's section, which might just be soft enough to get her into the quarterfinals.

Daniela Hantuchova: Hantuchova loves Indian Wells. It's the home of her first title, in 2002, when she beat Justine Henin and Martina Hingis, and she won again in 2007. While she and Maria Sharapova may argue about "whose" house this is, the fact remains that Hantuchova has played her best tennis in the California desert. She's quietly had a solid year with the exception of a first-round loss in Doha, defending her title in Pattaya City and making the Brisbane final. The 21st-ranked Hantuchova is in a section of the draw with Zvonareva, Li Na and Zheng Jie, all of whom are slumping and/or haven't played much since Melbourne. I like her chances to make the quarterfinals.

Kevin Anderson: The 25-year-old South African is fresh off a title in Delray Beach, where he saved three match points to defeat Andy Roddick and also took out John Isner. Anderson, who moved up this week to a career-high-tying No. 30, could get a crack against Novak Djokovic in the third round -- obviously an unenviable task. But if Anderson can find a good serving rhythm and hold easily, I give him a chance in a best-of-three match against Djokovic. If Anderson can't do those things, then please forget that I ever wrote this.

Nicolas Almagro: The big question with No. 12 Almagro is whether he has the legs to perform at his best after a busy clay-court run leading up to Indian Wells. The Spaniard defended his title in Sao Paulo and dropped a three-set final to David Ferrer in Buenos Aires before losing to Fernando Verdasco in the Acapulco quarterfinals. It wasn't a bad loss, as Verdasco played one of his best matches in recent memory, but Almagro didn't look like he had the legs to grind it out. If Almagro can rebound quickly, he has a nice shot at the quarterfinals, with Sam Querrey, Kei Nishikori, Roddick and Tomas Berdych potentially in his way. Besides, who doesn't want to see an Almagro-Berdych rematch after the way their Australian Open fourth-round match ended? Well, other than Berdych.

More Indian Wells: Men's Draw | Women's Draw | Nguyen: Draw analysisJenkins: Mixed events pack major punch | Nguyen: Players who need good results

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