Last weekend, women's No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki silenced some of her critics by winning the Indian Wells title. No matter how badly she does at Miami, she's guaranteed the No. 1 ranking for another few weeks.
The "fifth" major in Miami is well under way, and it's time to take a look at the favourites. Kim Clijsters is the defending champion, beating both Justine Henin and Venus Williams en route to the title.
First Quarter: Wozniacki and Jankovic
If Wozniacki isn't fatigued by winning matches all the time (she's 19-3 in 2011), she should get through this section. She's facing Daniela Hantuchova in the third round and has won each of their previous two matches convincingly.
However, Caroline's coach and father has just complained that there are too many responsibilities and his daughter gets mentally drained by it. Nevertheless, the Dane almost always finds a way to win and hardly ever loses before the semis these days.
Next up would likely be Andrea Petkovic, who impressed at the Australian Open. On a near perfect day, she does have the weapons to upset the No. 1, but can she keep it up long enough to win the match? As Wozniacki said last week, you need to be willing to be out there all day to beat her. Petkovic's mobility may not be good enough to counter the relentless Dane.
In the bottom half of the section, I expect Jelena Jankovic through. She did lose to Ana Ivanovic in Indian Wells, but if she plays near her capability, neither Klara Zakopalova nor Elena Vesnina/Anabel Medina Garrigues should trouble her.
Jankovic leads Wozniacki 4-1 in their head-to-head, but Wozniacki won the last match they played in Dubai in February in straights. These days, Wozniacki is essentially a better version of Jankovic. Jankovic is 13-6 for 2011, but the Dane is full of confidence. The Serb has the tools to upset the Dane, but if both play to their standard levels, I would expect Wozniacki's consistency to prevail.
Semifinalist: Caroline Wozniacki
Second Quarter: Stosur, Kuznetsova, Sharapova and Li
This section is a lot more open with at least three of the remaining players having a likely chance of getting to the semis. Na Li is already out, losing her first match and continuing her post-Australian Open slump. In the top half, we find Samantha Stosur, Maria Sharapova and Sabine Lisicki as a floater.
It is about time that Stosur finds her game, but Sharapova eyes an opportunity to get back to the top 10 for the first time in more than two years. Both of them won their first match in convincing fashion, and I could see them making it past Lucie Safarova and Lisicki to clash in the fourth round.
Sharapova has won each and every one of their six previous matches, losing only two sets. But to be fair to Stosur, five of those losses came when Sharapova was in the top 15 and Stosur floated between top 50 and top 100. Stosur is 7-7 for 2011, whereas Sharapova is 9-4. Who can hit the lines, who can serve better and who can keep the errors in check?
My money would be on Sharapova. Despite the dismal loss to Wozniacki a week ago, where she only scored three games, she's the in-form player of the two and should prevail to the quarters.
In the bottom half, Svetlana Kuznetsova and Shuai Peng reached their third-round clash with identical 6-0, 6-4 wins. At her best, Kuznetsova is capable of beating anyone, but at her worst, she can lose very winnable matches. She's 12-7 for 2011, losing to Peng in Auckland and getting to the finals in Dubai.
Two weeks ago, she lost her opening round in Indian Wells to Christina McHale—which means she'll do great this week? You never know with Svetlana, but I do see her getting through to the quarters.
Sharapova leads their head-to-head 5-4, but what the match will come down to is who can dominate the rallies and keep the unforced errors in check. Both play aggressive baseline tennis. It's close to 50-50. I pick Sharapova, but Kuznetsova is more than capable of getting through.
Semifinalist: Maria Sharapova
Third Quarter: Schiavone, Zvonareva, Bartoli and Radwanska
Indian Wells finalist Marion Bartoli won many fans with her performance in California. Can she carry the momentum and make it through this section of the draw? Can Vera Zvonareva regroup after her early Indian Wells exit? The top half hosts Francesca Schiavone, Maria Kirilenko and Agnieszka Radwanska.
I would go with Radwanska in the top half. She's only lost four matches this year and primarily to in-form players (Clijsters in Melbourne, finalist Kuznetsova in Dubai and Victoria Azarenka in Indian Wells after squandering several match points).
French Open champion Schiavone hasn't been herself since her epic battle against Svetlana down under, and Kirilenko isn't at her best either.
The bottom half has an interesting third-round clash between former world No. 1 Dinara Safina and aspiring world No. 1 Vera Zvonareva. Safina had her best run in recent memory before a fourth-round beating by Sharapova. Safina is up 6-5 in their head-to-head, but you would have to give the edge to Zvonareva if she can find her game.
Bartoli and Alisa Kleybanova, the two women who came closest to defeating Wozniacki at Indian Wells, seem posed for a fourth-round clash for the right to meet Zvonareva in the quarters. Bartoli is 4-0 in their head-to-head, has never lost a set and just beat Kleybanova in Dubai. Her versatility should see her through against the less than well-moving Kleybanova.
The quarters would thus be Zvonareva versus Bartoli, the Russian leading the Frenchman 8-2. At her best, Zvonareva is capable of beating everyone, as we've seen in her two victories over Wozniacki this season (first one being an exhibition match). Which Zvonareva will turn up? Can Bartoli carry the momentum, or will she be fatigued? I could see the match going both ways, but I'm picking the safe bet.
Semifinalist: Vera Zvonareva
Fourth Quarter: Azarenka, Pavlyuchenkova, Kvitova and Clijsters
This quarter is loaded with big hitters. Luckily for Clijsters, the three names mentioned above are all in the top half. Azarenka has been the upcoming star along with Wozniacki for a few years now but has so far lacked the stability to get to top five and consistently go deep in the Slams. Now, she finds herself in the top half with other upcoming stars such as Petra Kvitova and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova.
Azarenka was doing fine before she had to withdraw against Wozniacki in IW. Is she fit again? If not, Dominika Cibulkova, Pavlyuchenkova and Kvitova are all capable of taking her out before the quarters.
Kvitova has had a storming start to 2011, winning in Brisbane and Paris (indoors) and having some big wins along the way, most notably against Clijsters in the Paris final. However, since then, she's lost two opening matches and withdrew from Doha.
She's an extremely streaky player, capable of winning and losing against everyone. She almost double-bagelled Caroline Wozniacki at last year's Wimbledon yet lost to a qualifier at Indian Wells. Which Kvitova will show up? The one who beat Clijsters, Stosur and Wozniacki? Or the one who makes error after error?
It's time for a rebound, but it is a tough road to go through Pavlyuchenkova and Azarenka. Nevertheless, here's hoping for a rematch between Clijsters and Kvitova.
The bottom half hosts Clijsters and Ivanovic. The latter performed well at Indian Wells, whereas Clijsters withdrew with injury. The defending Belgian champion has a ton of points to defend but seems to prefer being in the top 20 rather than the top two, where you have to travel away from Europe and disrupt Jada's schooling all the time.
Nevertheless, she's proven she's the best on HC when it matters, and if she's fit again and reasonably motivated, she's a safe bet for the quarters—and then I expect her to go through to the semis too.
Semifinalist: Kim Clijsters
Semifinal: Wozniacki versus Sharapova
Unless Sharapova finds her serve from five years back or hits all the lines, I can't see her beating Wozniacki at the moment. Wozniacki is just too consistent and too good at forcing the error from the frustrated Sharapova. Sharapova is not at her best on the run, and Wozniacki is eminent at getting her on the run. So, yet another final for the 20-year-old.
Semifinal: Zvonareva versus Clijsters
Clijsters is up 7-3 in their head-to-head, but Zvonareva is leading 3-2 post-Clijsters' comeback. If Zvonareva gets this far in the tournament (what are the odds of three of the top four seeds making it to the semis in the women's draw?), she should be in form and ready to challenge Clijsters.
Nevertheless, mother Kim has had her number in their biggest hard-court meetings recently (US and Australian Opens), and I expect she likes to prove she's the best despite of all her talk about not really being that committed to tennis.
Final: Wozniacki versus Clijsters
Top two meeting in a final on the women's tour? I must be joking. It can happen though, and these are the two best hard-court players at the moment. It would be a huge match for Wozniacki, who has never beaten Clijsters. A win should silence the last skeptics, but a loss would spark more criticism, especially if it came at the hand of Clijsters, whom quite a few consider the true No. 1 in Serena Williams' absence.
One might argue that making another big final should be enough for the 20-year-old, but I bet the critics will be quick to hail Kim as the true No. 1 if she beats Wozniacki in the final. As I said, it's a huge match.
Can Wozniacki make the double? She's certainly a better player now with more weapons than when she fell to Clijsters last fall. But can she go on winning tournament after tournament? The physical and mental fatigue must come at some point. Clijsters in three, but it could go either way.