All to play for in the women’s singles at Indian Wells
By winning her 23rd Grand Slam title in Australia, Serena Williams got herself back on the right track, reclaiming top spot in the world rankings in the process. She proceeded to send a clear message to Angelique Kerber, her main rival over the past few months, and to other aspirants to her crown: “I’m back, be afraid!” While that may have been true at the time, the American was subsequently forced to pull out of the Indian Wells Masters, due to an injury to her left knee. In addition, she announced she would not be competing at the forthcoming Miami Open. Consequently, Angelique Kerber is now guaranteed to return to the world n°1 spot, and a certain number of other pretenders to the Indian Wells title have emerged. Let’s take a look at the main contenders.
A glaring absence
The announcement that Serena Williams would not be taking part in the Indian Wells Masters inevitably caused something of a stir on Tuesday. Absent from the courts since her memorable triumph in Melbourne, the living legend clarified that she would be holding off on her return to competition so as to allow further treatment to her left knee, while her right knee is supposedly also giving cause for concern.
"Sadly, I have to withdraw from the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells and the Miami Open,” Williams said. "I have not been able to train due to my knees and am disappointed I cannot be there. I will keep moving forward and continue to be positive. I look forward to being back as soon as I can."
The absence of the world No.1, a finalist in California last year, will likely have boosted the morale of several players dotted around the bracket, particularly her principal challenger and current world No.2, Angelique Kerber.
Read more: Sublime Serena creates more history
One thing is for certain: Angelique Kerber is already the big winner of the high-profile spring hard-court tournament. Why? Because irrespective of the results, “Angie” is now assured, thanks to Williams’ withdrawal, to return to the top of the rankings after the Indian Wells Masters draws to a close. Although the two-time Grand Slam champion was preparing for a battle for points with the American, who would have needed to reach the semi-finals in the Coachella Valley to remain No.1, she now knows that she will regain her position at the top of the next WTA rankings, where she will stay until at least 2 April. In doing so, she will attain a minimum of 22 weeks at the top, thereby surpassing illustrious names such as Kim Clijsters (20 weeks), Tracy Austin and Maria Sharapova (both 21 weeks).
However, the German is aware that she still has some work to do before getting her hands on the coveted trophy. Her disappointing experience last year, which saw her lose in the second round to Denisa Allertova, coupled with the fact that Indian Wells is not one of her favoured events (despite her twice reaching the semi-finals), are likely to be preying on her mind. In addition, she suffered defeats in her opening matches in both 2014 and 2015. “I’m not thinking about the rankings or points. For me, it’s about playing good tennis again and regaining my rhythm,” says Kerber, who has had an up-and-down start to the season.
Read more: Kerber's new status brings added pressure
Williams’ decision to withdraw came after the draw had been made but before the competition had properly started. Consequently, there was a reshuffling of the top seeds, resulting in No.3 seed Karolina Pliskova – who has already bagged two titles this season, in Brisbane and Doha, and has only lost two matches so far – taking Williams’ place at the top of her bracket. The fast-improving Czech, one of the favourites for the title, now finds herself in the same section of the draw as another on-form player, Elina Svitolina, who has just broken into the top 10 and arrives in Indian Wells having won her last 13 consecutive matches, triumphed in Kuala Lumpur and Dubai, and remained unbeaten since the Australian Open. The two rising stars of women’s tennis have not only captured the most high-profile titles over the past few weeks, but they have also racked up the greatest number of wins in 2017.
While both players will fancy their chances of adding the Indian Wells Masters to their CVs, last year’s winner, Victoria Azarenka, who gave birth to a baby boy in December, will not be defending her title. Elsewhere, in the lower section of the bracket, Simona Halep, who hoisted the trophy in 2015, will have her eye on a second victory (as will Caroline Wozniacki and Jelena Jankovic). However, the world No.4 will be participating in her first tournament of the season after withdrawing from the St. Petersburg Ladies Trophy due to a knee injury.
And let’s not forget Kristina Mladenovic, winner of the prestigious Russian event (a WTA Premier tournament), who may feel she is due a breakthrough singles success. Also present in the lower section are Agnieszka Radwanska, Venus Williams and CoCo Vandeweghe, who are all forces to be reckoned with on their day. In summary, only the bravest gambler would pick out a clear favourite from this year’s Indian Wells line-up, in what appears to be one of the most open-looking tournaments in recent memory.