The best male and female tennis players descend this week, once again, upon Indian Wells, California for one of the best tournaments of the year. The BNP Paribas Open at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden has grown at an incredible rate in recent memory, becoming the pre-eminent Masters 1000 level tournament in the world, and much to the chagrin of the Grand Slam Committee, is also known as the “Fifth Major.” The tournament treats fans and players alike as well, or better than any other tournament, and the perfect weather, along with the perfect facilities, creates some of the most dramatic matches of the year.
There are many story lines entering the 2016 BNP Paribas Open, but two are clearly generating more buzz than all the rest. The first, and most shocking, is not only Maria Sharapova’s withdrawal from the event, but the announcement that came just this morning that she failed a drug test at the Australian Open for a drug she has been taking for a decade that was recently added to the banned substances list. Sharapova has been at or near the top of the women’s game since her breakthrough at Wimbledon as a 17 year old. She has always been a star, and a fighter, and if anyone can bounce back from this, it is her. Though she took full responsibility for her major error, her penalty potentially carries a two year suspension from the game. She will be sorely missed at the BNP and every event where she typically takes the court. Though we will not see her play, there will certainly be much talk of this during the course of the event.
As far as players actually contending to win the event, it is no surprise that Serena will steal many of the headlines. She returned to the BNP last year after a long absence, and all eyes will be on her as she tries to improve on last years’ result. She was making a run only to have to retire with a knee injury in the semifinals. Her performance at this event is even more interesting as she hopes to forget about her recent disappointments at the Australian Open and US Open. She is joined this year by her sister Venus, who will make her return this year after her 15 year boycott.
Dark Horse(s) to Watch
It is hard to imagine that Vika could be considered a dark horse in any event, but with her injury struggles over the past few years, she has fallen out of tennis’ elite. But make no mistake, healthy again, Vika will be a top contender for the title despite her ranking of #15. With booming groundstrokes on both sides, she will be a threat.
Over the past few years, if there was an American dark horse, it was usually Sloane Stephens. Though Stephens is still ranked above Keys (22 vs. 24), Keys has proven recently that she has the mental toughness to stand up in the tight matches. Her massive groundstrokes are a perfect fit for the fast conditions, and you can bet that she will have the support of the crowd every time she steps on the court. Save for an unlucky draw with Serena in the early rounds, look for Keys to make a deep run.
Early Upset Watch
With her maiden Slam victory in the rear-view mirror, and her ascent to the #2 ranking, many experts are high on Angelique Kerber. Though her game is battle-proven on the biggest stages, it would come as no surprise for her to have a hiccup in her first big event since winning down under. Don’t look for her to lose in the very early stages, but come the third round, a mental lapse could prove to be her downfall. With the women’s game as deep as ever, nobody will blame her.
Halep broke through here last year, winning the biggest title of her career. However, she seems to constantly ride a roller coaster of results. Expectations are high for her at every event she plays, and it is hard to predict which Halep will show up. She has fallen to #5 in the world, lost in the first round 3 times in 2016, including at the Australian Open, and has admitted that she has been struggling with injuries, including needing surgery for an ongoing nasal issue. Coming in as the defending champion, it would not be unheard of for her to rise to the occasion and make a deep run, but we just don’t see it. Look for her to lose in the first three rounds this year.
Champion: Serena Williams
Admittedly, we are not really going out on a limb here with this one, but Serena is simply too great to ignore. It is the perfect storm here, and it seemingly only has one outcome. With a 14 year boycott of the event, followed up with a disappointing withdrawal before the semifinals last year, and her recent upsets at the last two Slams, look for Serena to come in to this years’ event hungrier than ever. No matter who she faces in the final, or along the way, she will be the favorite on paper, and with the crowd. The tennis world is yearning for a Serena victory, and this year she will bring it home.