Indian Wells: Serena Williams' return, top spot on the line and more talking points

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The last time Serena and Azarenka were in Indian Wells, this happened.

INDIAN WELLS, CA — The tennis tour heads to the California desert this fortnight where Serena Williams will be making her long-awaited return from maternity leave.

Russia’s Elena Vesnina is the defending champion and is seeded 24 in the draw while last year’s runner-up Svetlana Kuznetsova will be playing her first tournament since last October having been sidelined with a left wrist surgery.

Indian Wells really is a tennis paradise and the players, fans, and journalists just love coming back here each season.

With 1,000 ranking points awarded to the winner, along with a $1,340860 cheque, the stakes are high and the field is class.

These are some of the main talking points surrounding the women’s draw these next two weeks.

THE COMEBACK QUEENS

Serena, Victoria Azarenka and Kuznetsova will all be making their returns to the circuit at Indian Wells this week.

Serena, a champion here in 1999 and 2001, will be playing her first WTA tournament since January 2017. The American 23-time Grand Slam champion had her first child last September and made her first competitive appearance playing a doubles match alongside her sister Venus in Fed Cup last month.

She played the Tie Break Tens exhibition event in New York on Monday where she beat Marion Bartoli in a 10-point tiebreak before losing to Zhang Shuai.

The 36-year-old Serena faces Kazakhstan’s Zarina Diyas in her first round and if she wins, she takes on No. 29 seed Kiki Bertens in her second match. If she gets past both, a possible third round against the eighth-seeded Venus awaits.

Azarenka, an Indian Wells champion in 2012 and 2016, will be playing her first tournament since Wimbledon last year, and just her third since having her baby boy Leo in December 2016.

The Belarusian saw her return from maternity leave cut short due to a custody dispute with the father of her child that prevents her from leaving the state of California with Leo and has only played two events (Mallorca and Wimbledon) in the last 21 months.

The two-time Grand Slam winner begins her Indian Wells campaign against Great Britain’s Heather Watson. If she gets past her, Azarenka plays reigning US Open champion Sloane Stephens.

Kuznetsova, who spent a few weeks preparing for her return to tennis in Dubai, is contesting her first event since Beijing last fall. She went under the knife to fix two injuries in her left wrist and as the No. 19 seed, plays her first match against either Aryna Sabalenka or Varvara Lepchenko.

TOP SPOT ON THE LINE

Simona Halep will extend her stay at summit of the rankings this fortnight at Indian Wells to a total of 19 weeks. Second-ranked Caroline Wozniacki has a chance of unseating Halep after the tournament. The Dane reached the semi-finals here last year (defending 215 points) while Halep lost in the third round (defending 65 points).

These are the possible scenarios:

– Wozniacki will have to at least reach the final to have a chance of dethroning Halep.

– If Halep wins her first match, Wozniacki would have to claim the title to unseat her.

– Halep would guarantee keeping the No. 1 ranking if she reaches the final.

Wozniacki has a tricky potential opener in her second round (has a bye in the first) with freshly-crowned Acapulco champion Lesia Tsurenko being one of her possible opponents.

Halep has either a qualifier or Kristyna Pliskova.

THE LOADED SECTION

While the entire draw features plenty of mouth-watering encounters, there is one particular part that stands out the most, with Maria Sharapova, Garbine Muguruza, Agnieszka Radwanska, Naomi Osaka and Eugenie Bouchard all bunched up in one section.

Sharapova and Osaka square off in the first round in the day session on Wednesday with the winner taking on the 31st-seeded Radwanska. The winner of that clash could play No. 3 seed Muguruza in the third round. But the Spaniard might first have to move past Canadian wildcard Bouchard, who opens against a qualifier.

On set with @headtennis_official and…. Zverev 🤷🏻‍♂️🤔

A post shared by Maria Sharapova (@mariasharapova) on


STAR-STUDDED DOUBLES FIELD

The doubles draw is usually fun here at Indian Wells but this year, there’s even more incentive for players to play both singles and doubles. The tournament is offering a $1 million bonus to any player who wins both the singles and doubles titles.

The feat has only been accomplished six times in tournament history – Roscoe Tanner in 1978, (w/Raymond Moore), Boris Becker in 1988 (w/Guy Forget), Jim Courier in 1991 (w/Javier Sanchez), Lindsay Davenport in 1997 (w/Natasha Zvereva) and 2000 (w/Corina Morariu), and Vera Zvonareva in 2009 (w/Victoria Azarenka).

Some intriguing women’s doubles teams this fortnight include Halep and Irina-Camelia Begu (who practiced together on centre court on Tuesday), Belarusian duo Azarenka and Sabalenka, Latvian pair Jelena Ostapenko and Anastasija Sevastova, Czech twins Karolina and Kristyna Pliskova, Russians Daria Kasatkina and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova.

KVITOVA’S STREAK

Ninth-seeded Petra Kvitova is on a 13-match winning streak heading into Indian Wells. The Czech two-time Wimbledon champion has won titles in St. Petersburg and Doha along with two Fed Cup matches in between last month.

She is 14-2 in 2018, a record that includes a 6-0 mark against top-10 opponents.

She is in the same quarter as Muguruza and Karolina Pliskova and plays either Yulia Putintseva or Alison van Uytvanck in the second round.

Kvitova will be looking to extend her streak this fortnight, in her first appearance at Indian Wells since 2016. Her best showing here is making the quarters in 2013 and 2016.

PROJECTED QUARTER-FINALS (BY SEED)

Simona Halep (ROU) [1] v Jelena Ostapenko (LAT) [6]

Garbine Muguruza (ESP) [3] v Karolina Pliskova (CZE) [5]

Venus Williams (USA) [8] v Elina Svitolina (UKR) [4]

Caroline Garcia (FRA) [7] v Carolina Wozniacki (DEN) [2]

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Kyle Edmund humbled by overtaking Andy Murray as British No. 1

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A passing of the baton?

Kyle Edmund says he is humbled at having become the British number one, a position he took up on Monday as the latest ATP rankings were released.

Andy Murray‘s nine-month absence due to injury has allowed rising star Edmund to take up the domestic crown, becoming only the 12th player in the Open Era to be British No. 1.

“It is humbling to become the British number one,” Edmund said on Sunday night, adding that he achieved the milestone “perhaps unwittingly, as Andy has dropped down in rankings due to his injury”.

“Proud as I am, I would have been much happier had Andy stayed healthy and occupied his place at the very top where he belongs.

“I wish Andy a speedy recovery and I hope to battle it out with him in a more legitimate fashion in years to come.”

British tennis has not had a serious battle for supremacy since the days of Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski in the early 2000s, as Murray has reigned ever since his rise to prominence, but Edmund’s emergence raises the prospects of a true rivalry – and perhaps one with a partisan flavour, considering Edmund’s status a true blue Englishman and Murray’s Scottish roots.

Edmund, who has been out for the past fortnight himself with a flu, added, “I’ll continue to work hard and represent Great Britain as best as I can. A bad dose of the flu virus kept me out in Buenos Aires and in Rio but I am back on track and excited to get back to it. I’m ready to play in Indian Wells [which starts on Monday] and Miami [19 March].”

The latest rankings sees Edmund move up one place to 24th, while Murray has slipped to 29th, his lowest ranking in eight years. However, the Scot has beaten his counterpart on the two occasions they’ve met on the ATP tour.

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Things learned from the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships men's week

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Two weeks of world-class tennis have wrapped up in Dubai with Roberto Bautista Agut reigning supreme over Lucas Pouille in the men’s final on Saturday.

For a tournament that was missing its usual stars, it still managed to deliver quality and excitement.

From an Arab surprise run to a teenage breakthrough to the desert rain that played mind tricks on the players, there was no shortage of action at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships.

Here are five things learned from the 26th edition of the ATP tournament.

IT’S NEVER TOO LATE

Making his sixth consecutive main draw appearance in Dubai, the 34-year-old Malek Jaziri stole home hearts by upsetting world No. 4 Grigor Dimitrov in his opening round to claim the first top-10 victory of his career, then marched to the semi-finals to become the first Arab to make it that far at the tournament since Younes El Aynaoui in 2002.

It was Jaziri’s first ATP 500 semi-final and it catapulted the Tunisian 33 spots up the rankings to get back to 84 in the world.

Jaziri is a late bloomer who hit his career-high ranking of 47 last year, aged 33. On a tour that has a 36-year-old Roger Federer winning Slams and getting to No. 1, and a 33-year-old Gilles Muller capturing a maiden ATP title last year, it really is never too late to hit new heights in the world of tennis. Jaziri, who was 0-10 against top-10 opposition prior to his win over Dimitrov, is yet another example of that.

THREE CHEERS FOR THE CROWD

Roger Federer didn’t come, only two from the top-10 showed up and one of them lost in the first round and it rained… but guess what? It didn’t matter in the end. The last few days of the tournament witnessed great crowds that even prompted the umpire in the final to commend them on their Mexican wave.

“Thank you ladies and gentlemen, that was amazing, players are ready!” is not something you hear every day from a match official.

Tunisian fans turned up in scores to support Jaziri but the stadium was also buzzing during the final between Bautista Agut and Pouille.

Dubai loves its tennis. And while there’s no debating the unmatchable popularity of Federer, this week showed us that even if the stars aren’t in town, there is genuine passion for the sport and the event.

MIXED VIEWS ON DAVIS CUP OVERHAUL

The ITF’s proposal to completely revamp the Davis Cup in partnership with a company headed by footballer Gerard Pique was of course a hot topic in the Dubai press centre this past week and it’s clear players are not united in their views on the matter.

Bautista Agut said he welcomes the idea of a big money investment in tennis while Pouille described the proposal as a “death sentence” to the Davis Cup. The two Dubai finalists aren’t the only people on opposite ends of this debate. It’ll be interesting to see how this all pans out when the plan is voted on at the ITF’s Annual General Meeting in August.

TSITSIPAS LOVES THE MIDDLE EAST

I’m not just guessing that because he made the quarter-finals in both Doha and Dubai this season. He actually told me so.

The 19-year-old Greek wildcard Stefanos Tsitsipas reached his first ATP 500 quarter-final in the Emirates, taking out Mikhail Kukushkin and Philipp Kohlschreiber before losing to Jaziri. He hits a new career-high ranking of 71 on Monday. Keep an eye out for this Next Gen star this season.

POUILLE’S MATURING

Pouille played one match in January, and he lost it. It was his fifth consecutive Australian Open first round defeat. He is 0-5 in Melbourne. He then got injured and didn’t play Davis Cup. Instead of wallowing, he decided to snap out of it.

The Frenchman gave himself a pep talk, acknowledged he was putting needless pressure on his shoulders and tried to get rid of it. The result was reaching three finals in four weeks and winning one of them. He was outplayed by Bautista Agut in the final but can still take lots of confidence from his past month.

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