WASHINGTON, March 5, 2019 (by Michael Dickens)
Serena Williams hasn’t won a title since her comeback from maternity leave began last year. Is the 2019 BNP Paribas Open, which begins on Wednesday in the California desert, finally her time to win?
Much attention will be focused on Williams, who is back in the Top 10 for the first time giving birth to her daughter Alexis Olympia in September 2017. The former World No. 1 hasn’t played since losing in the Australian Open quarterfinals to No. 5 Karolina Pliskova. Most recently, Williams was seen appearing at last month’s Academy Awards ceremony in Hollywood and also starring in Nike’s latest “Just Do It” commercial.
Williams was placed in the bottom half of the 96-player draw for the first WTA Premier Mandatory tournament of the year, in a crowded third quarter that’s anchored by No. 4 Sloane Stephens, and also includes No. 7 Kiki Bertens, No. 20 Garbiñe Muguruza, No. 35 Dominika Cibulkova and No. 45 Johanna Konta.
After a first-round bye, Williams’ likely opponent will be fellow mom Victoria Azarenka, ranked 48th. It would be a rematch of the 2016 BNP Paribas Open final that Azarenka won 6-4, 6-4. From there, as the Tennis Podcast tweeted on Tuesday, “Serena Williams will need to play like Serena Williams” in order to get through this projected draw:
• First round – bye
• Second round – Azarenka
• Third round – Muguruza
• Fourth round – Bertens
• Quarterfinals – Stephens
• Semifinals – Halep
• Finals – Osaka
“Fairly nightmarish projected draw for Serena,” commented New York Times tennis correspondent Ben Rothenberg, in a tweet he posted on Monday following the draw ceremony.
Which brings us to Naomi Osaka. A year ago, the young Japanese star (just 20 at the time) who lives and trains in Florida, arrived in Indian Wells ranked No. 44 after reaching the fourth round of the 2018 Australian Open, which was her biggest result to date. She wasn’t even among the 32 seeded players in the field. Then, Osaka had a breakthrough fortnight that began with a surprising win over two-time champion Maria Sharapova, continued with a straight-set conquering of Agnieszka Radwanska, and also included impressive victories over a pair of former No. 1 players, Karolina Pliskova and Simona Halep. She went on to beat Daria Kasatkina in the final. By the end of the year, Osaka became a Grand Slam champion when she won the U.S. Open over Williams. Now, she returns to the Coachella Valley as World No. 1 following her Australian Open triumph in January. What a year it’s been for Osaka.
In beginning her title defense, the top-seeded Osaka (9-2 win-loss record this year) should be able to win her opening match against either Zheng Saisai or Kristina Mladenovic. However, it was right after her split with her coach, Sascha Bajin, that she lost in straight sets to Mladenovic in Dubai. Then, Osaka’s path to return to this year’s final gets interesting. She could face No. 25 Danielle Collins in the third round and either No. 13 Caroline Wozniacki or No. 23 Belinda Bencic in the fourth round. If she’s still around for the second week, Osaka could meet Pliskova in the quarterfinals, then either No. 3 Petra Kvitova or No. 8 Angelique Kerber in the semifinals.
A big question many are asking is: Can Osaka win with a new coach? Recently, she added Jermaine Jenkins, former hitting partner of Venus Williams, to her team as coach. “(Osaka) has an amazing game, so she has that going for her whoever is coaching her,” said Tennis Channel analyst Jimmy Arias during a recent “Tennis Channel Live” studio show. “It’s a little strange she got rid of Sascha because they did do pretty well together.
“She’s moved up to No. 1 in the rankings and won two majors. We’ll see if she comes to regret it. I think she will continue to win quite a few matches. She’s a great player.”
Meanwhile, besides Serena Williams, anchoring the bottom half of the draw is Simona Halep. Her path to the winning this year’s BNP Paribas Open title could include matchups with either No. 14 Daria Kasatkina or No. 22 Jelena Ostapenko in the fourth round, and either No. 6 Elina Svitolina or No. 12 Ashleigh Barty in the quarterfinals.
Projected R16 @BNPPARIBASOPEN:
— WTA Insider (@WTA_insider) 4. März 2019
Each of the current top 28 women’s players are entered in this year’s main draw and a couple of hefty prizes – $1,354,010 (U.S. Dollars) and 1,000 points – will be awarded to the champion. One thing is certain about the largest international tennis tournament outside of the Grand Slams. Every day between now and March 17 will be another great day in tennis paradise.