By Leighton Ginn (bnpparibasopen.com)
No. 1 Serena Williams, No. 2 Maria Sharapova and Daniela Hantuchova are among eight players to have won the BNP Paribas Open title twice. They join a select and impressive group that also includes Martina Navratilova, Steffi Graf, Kim Clijsters, Justine Henin and Mary Joe Fernandez.
The strong field with the potential to make history is adding buzz to the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells this year.
Williams, a 19-time Grand Slam winner, comes into the BNP Paribas Open with an 11-match winning streak, and won the last two majors, the US and Australian Opens. The American world No. 1 was champion here in 1999 and 2001, having last lost at this event in 2000.
This will be Williams’ first time back at the BNP Paribas Open, and she’s looking strong for a third title.
“Serena has to be the favorite,” tournament director Steve Simon said. “When she’s playing well, she’s difficult to beat. She can go down as one of the best ever to play the game, and rightfully so.”
Sharapova, who won the title in 2006 and 2013, is also playing well this year, having won Brisbane, reached the finals of the Australian Open and won two matches against Agniszka and Urszula Radwanska in Fed Cup play.
However, Sharapova had to pull out of her semifinal match in Acapulco with a stomach ailment.
And it won’t be easy for Sharapova, as the Russian’s half of the draw includes former champion Ana Ivanovic, last year’s winner Flavia Pennetta, and 2012 champion Victoria Azarenka, whom Sharapova could meet in the third round.
“Maria is a great champion,” Simon added. “She’s the most professional and one of the most competitive players who brings it every day. I saw she has Azarenka in the third round, so she has to be ready to go from the get go.”
Hantuchova comes into the BNP Paribas Open unseeded, so unlike Sharapova and Williams, will have to play in the first round. Hantuchova, who won the title in 2002 and 2007, will open in the first round against Klara Koukalova and could face up-and-coming American Madison Keys in the second round.
“She’s comfortable here and she likes it. I think the conditions suit her,” Simon said about Hantuchova. “When players are in environments they’re comfortable in, they play well. It would be fun to see if she can win it three times because she’s become a favorite here.”
Williams is slated to meet world No. 3 Simona Halep in the semifinals should the seeds hold. Also on the top half of the draw is the elder Radwanska sister, a finalist here a year ago who is seeded 7th. No. 8 seed Ekaterina Makarova, a two-time Grand Slam semifinalist in the last nine months, could be Williams’ quarterfinal opponent.
On the bottom half of the draw, Sharapova is joined by the aforementioned Wozniacki, the two slated to meet Ana Ivanovic and Eugenie Bouchard in their respective quarterfinals. Azarenka, Pennetta, Keys and former champion Jelena Jankovic all look to make their mark on that half of the draw.
Williams returns to the BNP Paribas Open for the first time since winning the title in 2001. She also won the1999 tournament, which was her first big tournament title. Williams, then 17, was able to parlay her success in September, when she won her first Grand Slam event, the US Open.
Wozniacki, winner here in 2011, had a resurgent 2014 after falling from her pedestal as No. 1 in the world in 2012. She’s had a busy few months off the court, but that hasn’t seemed to affect her play on it.
Last summer, while training for the New York Marathon, Wozniacki began playing some of her best tennis in years, capped off by a finals appearance at the US Open.
By the Australian Open, Wozniacki’s ranking rose to No. 5 in the world. In February, the Dane garnered even more attention with her photo spread in the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. Last week, she won her 23rd career title, a victory in Kuala Lumpur.
Main draw play for the women gets underway on Wednesday, with the top 32 receiving byes. Seeded players will begin their second round matches on Friday and Saturday.