Indian Wells preview: Serena returns, Sharapova could face Azarenka early
INDIAN WELLS, Calif. — The women's draw for the 2015 BNP Paribas Open was conducted Monday afternoon, with all eyes on the road to the title for No. 1 Serena Williams. Serena returns to Indian Wells this week for the first time since 2001, when a racially-charged incident drove Serena and her sister Venus to boycott the tournament for 13 years. While Venus has chosen to skip the tournament for the fourteenth straight year, Serena, a two-time champion with a 14-1 record in the California desert, will play her first WTA tournament since winning the Australian Open in January. After a bye in the first round, she will open her tournament against either No. 68 Monica Niculescu or No. 77 Aleksandra Krunic.
Serena's potential road to the final is a fairly straightforward one. The top seeds in her half of the draw are Ekaterina Makarova, who she could face in the quarterfinals, No. 3 Simona Halep and No. 8 Agnieszka Radwanska. After opening against either Niculescu or Krunic, she's projected to play No. 32 Zarina Diyas, a slumping No. 14 Angelique Kerber and then Halep in the semifinals. The two players to look out for in Serena's quarter are No. 26 Timea Bacsinszky, who is riding a 12-match winning streak after back-to-back titles in Acapulco and Monterrey the last two weeks, and No. 11 Lucie Safarova, who won her biggest title at the Qatar Open two weeks ago.
Halep, a semifinalist last year, is in good form after winning her second title of the year at the Dubai Championships. Halep's quarter features two top-quality youngsters in No. 15 Karolina Pliskova and No. 22 Garbine Muguruza. The two could meet in the third round, with the winner to face Halep. Muguruza beat Halep earlier this month on hard courts at the Fed Cup, while Halep beat Pliskova in the Dubai final.
The most intriguing early-round matchup in the draw comes in the bottom half, where No. 2 Maria Sharapova could face No. 38 Victoria Azarenka in the third round. The two had developed a tightly-contested rivalry until Azarenka's injury-addled season last year. This is a matchup that was a Grand Slam final just three years ago at the Australian Open and a final here at Indian Wells that same year (Azarenka rolled in straight sets in both matches). Azarenka is quickly rounding back into form this year, including a confidence-boosting run to the Qatar Open final this month, where she defeated Caroline Wozniacki and Venus Williams. Azarenka leads the head-to-head 7-6 but has not beaten Sharapova in their last two meetings. This is your popcorn match. Also looming for Sharapova is a potential quarterfinal against Ana Ivanovic.
The other quarter of Sharapova's draw is anchored by the fifth-seeded Wozniacki and No. 7 Eugenie Bouchard. The two could face off in the quarterfinals. This section also includes No. 16 seed Madison Keys, who is playing her first tournament since making the Australian Open semifinals. She will play either Daniela Hantuchova or Klara Koukalova in the second round. CoCo Vandeweghe is also seeded here at No. 30. She will face either Tsvetana Pironkova or a qualifier in the second round. The winner could play Bouchard.
First-round matches to watch: Taylor Townsend vs. Bethanie Mattek-Sands, Sloane Stephens vs. Chanelle Scheepers, Niculescu vs. Krunic, Mona Barthel vs. Kristina Mladenovic, Monica Puig vs. Nicole Gibbs, Heather Watson vs. Julia Goerges, Alison Riske vs. Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, Christina McHale vs. Petra Cetkovska.
The first round begins on Wednesday. The men's draw will be conducted on Tuesday afternoon.