Commentary

Field must contend with Serena

Despite an ordinary season so far, world No. 1 owns the Sony Open

Updated: March 18, 2014, 5:51 PM ET
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

"If you want to win in Miami, I always say you have to go through Serena," said Adam Barrett, the tournament director of the Sony Open Tennis event. And then he laughed.

"Historically, Serena wins Miami. It's what she does," Barrett continued Sunday night. "She has a huge fan base here, tennis fans as well as celebrities. That gets her excited. She's comfortable, and as a result, she plays well here.

"You would have to say, based on her performance here, not only is she the No. 1 player in world, but the one to beat. And she comes in rested."

While the top seeds were flailing away in Indian Wells, Calif., Williams, who plays her first match in Thursday's day session, was practicing at home in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., continuing her Indian Wells boycott that goes back a dozen years. This is Serena's hometown tournament and, as Barrett noted, she's pretty much owned it over the years. Serena has won the title six times, most recently last year.

Based on what we saw at Indian Wells, there could be only modest opposition for a seventh victory.

On Sunday, Flavia Pennetta, a 32-year-old Italian, won the title of her life, beating the No. 2 and No. 3 players in the world, Li Na and Agnieszka Radwanska, along the way.

With Radwanska iffy with a left knee injury and No. 4 Victoria Azarenka already out with an ailing foot, someone will have to step up if Serena is to be challenged.

How do things shape up on the women's side going into Miami? A quick, trending snapshot of who's up and who's down:

Williams

Serena Williams: The rest of the top players were hacking away in the desert air while the No. 1-ranked player was at home just outside Miami, getting ready for the Sony Open. There are many questions. She's 32 years old and has been inconsistent. Momentum could be an issue. After a nearly monthlong layoff, how will she rebound after losing two of her past four matches -- to Alize Cornet and Ana Ivanovic, of all people? No. 5 seed Angelique Kerber is in her quarter, and No. 5 Maria Sharapova would theoretically meet her in the semifinals.

Li

Li Na: Normally, a semifinals berth in a Masters tournament would warrant an up arrow, but the No. 2-ranked Li did not especially distinguish herself at Indian Wells. True, she won four matches, but her opponents were Jie Zheng, Karolina Pliskova, Aleksandra Wozniak and Dominika Cibulkova. In a rematch of the Australian Open final, Li's confidence leaked away and she was lucky to survive the quarters against Cibulkova. In the semifinals, No. 20 seed Pennetta took her down in three sets. The past two years at Miami, Li reached the quarterfinals, losing to Williams and Sharapova. No. 7 seed Jelena Jankovic and No. 17 Sloane Stephens could see her in the quarters.

Radwanska

Agnieszka Radwanska: The Indian Wells final was tough to watch. Radwanska has been nursing a sore shoulder for a year or so, but the knee injury was something new. She couldn't run after the ball against Pennetta, and her status for Miami is unknown. The crafty No. 3 likes the conditions in Miami; she was the champion in 2012, beating Sharapova in the final, and a year ago, she lost to Williams in the semifinals. Radwanska had a nice semifinals win over Simona Halep and already has won 15 matches this year, but it might be time to take a break from the game. She could meet Halep again in the quarters.

Azarenka

Victoria Azarenka: The No. 4-ranked Azarenka flamed out in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open, losing the decisive third set 6-0 to Radwanska. In the nearly two intervening months she has played exactly one match. That was a stunning loss to 20-year-old Boca Raton, Fla., resident Lauren Davis in her first match at Indian Wells. Miami has provided her with two of her 17 career titles, but there won't be a third -- at least not this year. Last week, she announced a lingering foot injury would take her out of play.

Sharapova

Maria Sharapova: Likewise, Sharapova, now ranked No. 7, has been spotty. After going out in the semifinals at Brisbane (to Williams) and Paris (to Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova), Sharapova lost to Italian Camila Giorgi in her second match at Indian Wells. That is strange, since she's a two-time champion and the defending titleholder. She's usually money in Miami, where she has reached the final five times but never lifted the crown. Her quarter might be the easiest of the four. Sharapoba begins her quest Thursday night.

Stephens

Sloane Stephens: After a patchy 3-3 start to 2014 that included one-and-dones in Doha and Dubai, the No. 16-ranked Stephens found some traction in the desert. She put together a modest string of three victories before losing to Pennetta in the quarterfinals. Stephens, who turns 21 on Thursday, needs to continue her consistency in nonmajor events. She will probably have to get through Caroline Wozniacki and Jankovic to reach the quarters.

Williams

Venus Williams: Hard to believe that the venerable one turns 34 in June. The good news? Despite an ongoing autoimmune issue, Venus already has played in four tournaments this year and won nine of 12 matches. She is coming off a terrific tournament in Dubai where she defeated five players ranked among the top 35, including Ivanovic and Wozniacki. Venus is a three-time champion, but those victories came from 1998 to 2001. If her health holds, she seems destined to play more than the 26 matches of a year ago. She could see Halep in the third round.

Halep

Simona Halep: Now a career-best No. 5 among WTA players, Halep continues to be a revelation. After a quarterfinals appearance in Melbourne (falling to Cibulkova), she won at Doha. The 22-year-old Romanian got through to the semifinals at Indian Wells before losing to Radwanska. Halep has been defeated in the third round the past two years in Miami and will be challenged again in 2014. Venus Williams and Cibulkova could await in the third and fourth rounds.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.

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