Victoria Azarenka (above) could face Sloane Stephens in the Indian Wells round of 16. (AP)
INDIAN WELLS, Calif. -- The BNP Paribas Open is missing two key names in No. 1 Serena Williams and recent Australian Open finalist Li Na, and their absence creates a prime opportunity for the field. It's déjà vu for last year's champion, Victoria Azarenka, who once again comes into this tournament undefeated on the year, with two titles and a 14-0 record. Though she can't overtake Williams in the rankings here, a successful defense would give her a chance to reclaim the No. 1 ranking at the Sony Open in Miami later this month.
Here's a breakdown of the women's draw (click here for the complete draw):
Victoria Azarenka's half: Things are looking good for Azarenka here, as her draw is littered with players she's handled with ease. A potential round-of-16 clash against Sloane Stephens looms, which would be their first meeting since the controversial Australian Open semifinal in which Azarenka called a medical timeout after failing to convert five match points and then returned to finish it out in straight sets. Whether that rematch happens is largely on Stephens, who had problems closing out matches in the Middle East, winning just one match last month.
Azarenka is projected to meet Caroline Wozniacki in the quarterfinals, an enticing matchup of the two peers who haven't played each other in two years. Wozniacki leads that head-to-head 4-2, and it's a matchup we've wanted to see for a while now that Azarenka has ascended to the top of the game. Waiting for Azarenka in a potential semifinal are a slew of talented players with big question marks. Angelique Kerber hasn't won a match since taking a few weeks off to heal a back injury, and Samantha Stosur and Ana Ivanovic are prone to implosions in the early rounds.
The player to watch in this half is Mona Barthel. The young German won the Paris Indoors last month and has already made two finals and a semifinal this season. She could be a surprise semifinalist here, though she may have to knock off Ivanovic and Stosur to do it. With her steady but powerful game, I like her chances in those matchups.
Semifinal Prediction: Azarenka d. Ivanovic.
Maria Sharapova's half: The last time Sharapova was on Stadium Court here, she took a second straight shellacking from Azarenka, losing the 2012 final 6-2, 6-3 . She has the tougher road to the final this year, drawing Dubai champion Petra Kvitova, Agnieszka Radwanska (who beat her for the Miami title last year) and the always unpredictable Svetlana Kuznetsova and Marion Bartoli (though Sharapova is 5-0 against the Frenchwoman).
But perhaps the biggest question coming out of this section is how Kvitova will fare. She hasn't performed well in this North American spring hard-court season, having never progressed past the third round of either Indian Wells or Miami. The good news for Kvitova is that she's shown her ability to end these types of trends with authority. She had a horrendous record during the summer's U.S. Open Series before last year, when she collected titles in Montreal and New Haven, Conn. This year she went into the Middle East swing having never won a match there and proceeded to make the quarterfinals of Doha and win the title in Dubai.
Semifinal Prediction: Kvitova d. Sharapova.
All-American clashes: With 12 American women already into the main draw (a few more are trying to work their way through qualifying), there were bound to be some All-American bouts in the first round. Madison Keys will take on Melanie Oudin for the right to play Stosur, while Jamie Hampton will face a confident Bethanie Mattek-Sands, with the winner to play 20th-seeded Hsieh Su-Wei.
Early-round matches to watch:
First Round: Madison Keys vs. Melanie Oudin; Flavia Pennetta vs. Francesca Schiavone; Jamie Hampton vs. Bethanie Mattek-Sands; Laura Robson vs. Sofia Arvidsson; Taylor Townsend vs. Lucie Hradecka; Lauren Davis vs. Simona Halep; Christina McHale vs. Tsvetana Pironkova.
Potential Second Round: Jelena Jankovic vs. Svetlana Kuznetsova; Angelique Kerber vs. Heather Watson; Ana Ivanovic vs. Taylor Townsend; Samantha Stosur vs. Madison Keys; Lauren Davis vs. Dominika Cibulkova.
Potential Third Round: Ana Ivanovic vs. Mona Barthel; Marion Bartoli vs. Jelena Jankovic.
Final Prediction: Azarenka d. Kvitova.