World No. 1 Naomi Osaka defends her Indian Wells title in California, but this looks a wide open tournament with the Japanese coming into this tournament under something of a cloud.
After clinching her second consecutive Grand Slam title at the Australian Open, 21-year-old Osaka surprisingly split with coach Sascha Bajin. Then in the Dubai Tennis Championships, she went out tamely in straight sets to Kristina Mladenovic and blamed media scrutiny of the Bajin break-up.
Last week, Osaka announced that she would now work with Venus Williams’ former hitting partner Jermaine Jenkins. Coincidentally, Bajin was Serena Williams’ hitting partner before teaming up with Osaka.
How that affects Osaka on the court is yet to be seen, but it may take time for her to adjust to the change and she faces a tough draw in the Premier Mandatory tournament.
First up, after a first-round bye, is a possible rematch with Mladenovic with surprise Australian Open semi-finalist Danielle Collins a likely third-round opponent. And then it could be Dubai winner Belinda Bencic in round four. She will have to play consistently well just to make the second week.
Osaka has a job retaining her number one ranking too, given that she is defending a full 1000 points from last year.
Her victim in the Australian Open final, Petra Kvitova, Simona Halep, Sloane Stephens and Karolina Pliskova could all overtake her with the former best-placed to do so.
Kvitova was a third-round casualty 12 months ago and a semi-final appearance this time would probably be enough to put her atop the rankings for the first time in her career.
While Kvitova is known for her prowess on grass – her two Slam victories have both come at Wimbledon – she is at home on all surfaces.
As hard courts go, the ones at Indian Wells are pretty slow. But as a three-time winner of the Madrid Open, Kvitova should have few problems with the pace of the courts and tennis betting fans should not be put off by the fact that she has never been past the quarter-finals.
The desert heat might not be to her liking but Melbourne was plenty warm enough and she fared all right there. And with Angelique Kerber and Aryna Sabalenka struggling for form, the Czech appears to have a winnable quarter.
That can’t be said for the third quarter with Serena Williams, Kiki Bertens, Sloane Stephens and Garbine Muguruza all in there.
Williams is the bookies’ outright favourite despite being out of action since blowing four match points against Pliskova in the Australian Open quarter-finals.
While it would be foolish to write her off, I can’t help but feel that one of Victoria Azarenka, Muguruza and Bertens will get the better of her.
The fourth quarter looks the weakest of all with world number two Halep and Elina Svitolina the standouts. While the latter still flatters to deceive in the Slams, she did win the WTA Finals at the end of last season.
But Halep won at Indian Wells in 2015 and hasn’t done too much wrong so far this term. She almost pulled off a miraculous comeback against Serena Williams in the match of the tournament at the Australian Open before her key win over Pliskova helped Romania knock defending champions the Czech Republic out of the Fed Cup in Ostrava.
Halep threw away a lead of a set and a break against Elise Mertens in the final in Doha but needed treatment on her right foot in the decider. And she complained of being tired in her defeat to Bencic in the Dubai quarter-finals.
But a break of nearly two weeks means the 27-year-old should be raring to go at a venue which suits her game very well.
Her movement around the court enables her to get most things back and if she can push Serena Williams so close in speedier conditions in Melbourne, I think she is a huge player on one of the slowest hard courts the women will encounter this season.
Only a couple of bookies are offering quarter betting which is probably my favourite market for the Slams.
With 96 players in the draw – the same number of rounds as a Slam but the 32 seeds get byes into round two – there is the potential to back something at a price.
In quarter one, Anastasija Sevastova looks overpriced but that wouldn’t be the first time I’ve said that and I’m sure it won’t be the last. The owner of the best drop shot in the game took a set off Osaka in Melbourne on a surface which would have been quicker than ideal.
Back on a slower court, the Latvian is a threat to anyone and she has a winning record over potential fourth round opponent Pliskova ahead of a possible rematch with Osaka in the quarter-finals.
Betfair go 7/1 about Sevastova winning the first quarter which is more than fair. She’s worth an each-way punt too as her nemesis Halep is in the other half of the draw.
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