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Beyond the Baseline

Li Na, Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka top field at Indian Wells

Li Na has not been in great form since her first major victory. (David Callow/SI) Li Na has been out of form since her second major victory. (David Callow/SI)

With the recent shake-up in the WTA's top five, which saw top-three stalwarts Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova drop to Nos. 4 and No. 5, respectively, the BNP Paribas Open will be a shootout to the end. There's just no clear favorite to win. On the contrary, the top names in the field all come in with some questions about the state of their games, meaning the women's tournament should yield some exciting and unexpected results.

With Serena Williams once again skipping the mandatory tournament, Australian Open champion Li Na is the top seed. Agnieszka Radwanska is the No. 2 seed.

Here are five questions from what looks like a wide-open draw. You can view the full draw here.

How will Li Na deal with the pressure? In her only tournament since winning the Australian Open, Li looked rusty and out of rhythm, losing in the third round of the Qatar Open to No. 134 Petra Cetkovska. Post-major slumps are understandable, but Li insists that her experience of dealing with the increased pressure and expectations the first time around, after winning the 2011 French Open, should help her handle it better this time.

This is the biggest tournament at which Li has ever been the top seed and she's been handed a very tricky draw. Petra Kvitova, Sabine Lisicki, Dominika Cibulkova, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Ekaterina Makarova and recent WTA winner Klara Zakopalova are all in her quarter. In fact, a rematch of her Australian Open final against Cibulkova, who just won in Acapulco, could happen as early as the fourth round. Her potential semifinal opponents come from a quarter that includes Sharapova, Angelique Kerber and Ana Ivanovic.

How will Sharapova and Azarenka rebound? I can't be the only one who wonders whether Sharapova was getting some quality practice time in during her correspondent gig with NBC during the Olympics. Sharapova is the defending champion at Indian Wells and the tournament has kicked off a strong stretch of the season for her the last two years. In her one tournament since the Australian Open she lost to Pavlyuchenkova in the semifinals of the Paris Indoors. Keep an eye on her potential third-round match against the big-hitting Sorana Cirstea. And the potential quarterfinal match against Kerber has "midnight three-setter" written all over it.

As for Azarenka, she was wearing a soft cast on her left foot a month ago and hasn't played since losing to Radwanska in the Australian Open quarterfinals. It's impossible to know what to expect from her. The 2012 champion will need a few matches to knock off the rust and test her body, so she'll be pleased with a draw that features some soft early opponents. Her toughest competition before the semifinal should come from Simona Halep, Sara Errani or Eugenie Bouchard.

Can Radwanska avoid the early drama? This is a great draw for the No. 2 seed, who won't have to play the game's big hitters until late in the tournament. But in order to be fit enough to compete at her best in the latter stages, she has to conserve her energy through the early rounds. That means not getting stuck in unnecessary three-setters under the desert heat. She's never made the final here. A rematch with Azarenka after she threw down a third-set bagel at the Australian Open would be fun.

Can we still call Halep a dark horse? The draw is set up perfectly for the Romanian. The sixth seed won the biggest of her seven WTA titles -- all recorded in the last 12 months -- at the Qatar Open in February. She retired at the Dubai Championships with an Achilles heel injury, but if she's fully fit she should contend for the title here. At worst, she would have to go through Lucie Safarova, Bouchard or Errani, Azarenka and Radwanska to make the final. Those are all winnable matches for her.

Will Sloane Stephens get up for this? Granted, that's a question at any tournament that isn't a Slam. Stephens had a disastrous Middle East swing, going winless through two tournaments. But she should feel right at home in Southern California and she's had more time to work with new coach Paul Annacone since returning from overseas. She's in Sharapova's quarter and if the seeds hold up she could face Ivanovic, Kerber and Sharapova just to make the semifinal.

Prediction: Halep d. Sharapova. I'm going out on a limb. 

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