Indian Wells women's preview
With Serena Williams again absent, which player will deliver in the desert?
We are, as 21-time Grand Slam doubles champion Pam Shriver says, coming out of that "murky" phase of the tennis calendar.
"Everybody rushes to get ready for the Australian Open, and then there's quite the gap," the ESPN analyst said last week from her California home. "Let's face it, you don't have to be at your best until the end of May.
"Everybody's trying to get positioned. The top players aren't worried about rankings, but the rest of the women are. There's a lot of question marks out there. In the next month, order will be restored. When we're done with Indian Wells and Miami we'll have a better idea of who's going to be looking strongest at the end of 2014."
Justin Gimelstob, a Tennis Channel analyst, has been watching the smaller tournaments for the past month as part of the network's "Center Court" coverage.
"I enjoyed following the success of Simona Halep," Gimelstob said. "A new star, with an aggressive brand of tennis, is emerging. And Venus Williams played great in Dubai and looks to be back in the mix. She and Serena will be raring to go in Miami."
In the meantime, here are how the top eight are trending right now, with arrows indicating their up-or-down fortunes, heading into the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, which begins play this week. For a while, it looked like Serena Williams would be back after an absence of a dozen years. But ...
No. 1 Serena Williams
"It was a nice little fantasy for a week," Shriver said of Serena's coy gamesmanship. "But she's not playing." So, for the 13th straight year, Serena won't be at Indian Wells. She'll lose the chance to redeem her sketchy early season. It has been a relatively rough go for the 32-year-old, who has looked her age, losing in the fourth round of the Australian Open and then to Alize Cornet in the Dubai semifinal last week. Those defeats in two of the past four matches equal to her total last year between July and October. "When she hits her stride," Shriver said, "it will suddenly feel uncompetitive again. She'll have her ups and downs. Women's tennis will be bounced around for the next few years, domination by Serena and opportunities when she's not on top of her game."
No. 2 Li Na
One thing Shriver is interested in learning: "How is Li Na going to wear her second major? Tennis keeps getting older. Athletes have their best years as they get older. Serena has given the rest of the field hope that they can win multiple majors." Last week Li turned 32 -- the same age as Roger Federer. She opened the season by running the table in Shenzhen, China and Melbourne. A second-round loss in Doha (to qualifier Petra Cetkovska) means she's only 13-1 to start the season, the best record in women's tennis.
No. 3 Agnieszka Radwanska
As Gimelstob noted, "This is an important time in Radwanska's career." She has finished in the top eight for the past three years, but we're still waiting for the major breakthrough. She turns 25 this week, so this is as good a time as any. Radwanska is No. 3 right now, ahead of Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova. She beat Azarenka in the quarters of the Aussie, but fell to Dominika Cibulkova in the semifinals. Then she made the semis at Doha (losing to Simona Halep) and fell in the first round at Dubai.
No. 4 Victoria Azarenka
See sentence No. 5 above. Azarenka lost the third set of their Australian Open quarters 6-0. This from the two-time defending champion and a player with a seven-win streak against Radwanska. Where does the 24-year-old go from here? History says she'll be fine; she has won Indian Wells (2012) and Miami (2011) in the past.
No. 5 Maria Sharapova
Born in Siberia, the local lady was everywhere at the Olympics in Sochi, Russia. She carried the torch (literally) and did some television work. Now the party's over and it's time to get back to work. What will we see from Sharapova in March? Better results than the first two months, when she lost to Serena in Brisbane, Cibulkova in Melbourne and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, of all people, in Paris. Indian Wells is one of her favorite tournaments; she's the defending champion and also won in 2006.
No. 6 Angelique Kerber
The 26-year-old German has already won 16 matches this year and is coming off an appearance in the finals at Doha, where she lost to Simona Halep. She also reached the Sydney final, where she fell to Tsvetana Pironkova. Kerber likes the desert air of Indian Wells. She was a semifinalist last year, falling to Caroline Wozniacki.
No. 7 Simona Halep
She won six titles last year (in six finals appearances), the second-best total after Serena Williams. The 22-year-old Romanian has continued the momentum, winning at Doha with some wonderfully aggressive tennis. She also reached the Aussie quarters, losing there to Cibulkova. Halep seems poised to improve her recent results at Indian Wells, where she has won four matches over the past three years.
No. 8 Jelena Jankovic
After two seasons outside the top 10, Jankovic came back to finish a year-end No. 8. She has won 11 matches this year and has gone deep into tournaments. She was a semifinalist in Brisbane and Doha, losing there to Azarenka and Kerber. Jankovic, who turned 29 last week, was taken out in the fourth round at Melbourne by Halep. She won the title last year at Bogota, her first since ... Indian Wells in 2010.