Who's going to win the BNP Paribas Open this year - Li Na, Agnieszka Radwanska, Victoria Azarenka, Maria Sharapova...? Ravi Ubha tells wtatennis.com what he thinks.
WTA Staff

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A Williams sister surged leading into the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells but it wasn't Serena Williams.

Instead, Venus Williams extended her winning streak at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships and walked away with her most significant title since bagging the same tournament four years ago.

Alas, the siblings continue to give Indian Wells a miss, which means Australian Open champion Li Na features as the top seed rather than Serena.

But Li, Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova might not be automatic picks to reach the final four.

Here's a closer look at the draw, with predictions in tow.

First quarter: Li's roadblocks
As a top seed this year, results have been mixed for Li.

She triumphed on home soil in Shenzhen and then fell in the third round in Doha to Petra Cetkovska. Cetkovska was no ordinary qualifier, mind you, only dipping in the rankings because of a foot injury, and it was Li's first event since the euphoria of Melbourne.

The alarm bells thus shouldn't be ringing just yet - although another early exit could spark fears of a Li slump during this part of the calendar a la 2011.

Her section overflows with dangerous foes, the types capable of losing their opening matches - or beating anyone in the draw: Petra Kvitova, Ekaterina Makarova, Sabine Lisicki and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova.

Even before a potential rematch with Dominika Cibulkova - her final victim in Melbourne - in the quarterfinals, Li could tangle with countrywoman Zheng Jie in the second round; Florianopolis titlist Klara Zakopalova in the third; and Paris winner Pavlyuchenkova in the fourth.

Prediction: Pavlyuchenkova

Second quarter: Extreme weather for Maria
Talk about extremes for Sharapova. She switches from the snow of Sochi - the Russian served as a television correspondent for NBC during the Winter Olympics - to the California desert.

Her recent globetrotting might lead some to forget it's been an eventful last few months for Sharapova. Another serious shoulder injury surfaced and a coaching shuffle eventually resulted in the hiring of the highly respected Sven Groeneveld.

In what would be an intriguing battle of the tall versus the tall, Sharapova may start with Julia Goerges, the German attempting to rebuild her ranking following a health problem of her own - a problematic wrist.

Lower down in the quarter lies Samantha Stosur, whose kick serve and heavy forehand seem tailor made for Indian Wells, and a 20-year-old with momentum.

The latter isn't Sloane Stephens but Spain's Garbiñe Muguruza, who was unable to close out Zakopalova in Brazil. The flat-hitting Muguruza landed, too, in the fourth round last year - as a qualifier.

Prediction: Muguruza

Third quarter: Return of Vika
Having Azarenka in the draw is a bonus, though trying to overcome a foot injury means the two-time Australian Open winner will likely be more preoccupied with leaving the tournament healthy instead of lifting the trophy.

Indian Wells, in that respect, hasn't been particularly kind to the World No.4, given she retired in 2011 and was a walkover last year in the quarterfinals.

When was the last time she lost a completed match in Indian Wells, you wonder? In 2010.

A potential third round opponent is Daniela Hantuchova, twice the champion in Indian Wells but 1-5 in her last six there.

Simona Halep and Eugenie Bouchard prospered at the Australian Open, but it's the former who has done better since.

Halep's title in Doha - albeit sandwiched between a pair of first round defeats - means she is third in the Road To Singapore leaderboard, behind Li and Cibulkova.

Prediction: Halep

Fourth quarter: Aga and Alizé
Alizé Cornet has yet to figure out Indian Wells, never advancing past the third round.

But this might be the season that changes as the Frenchwoman creeps ever closer to a return inside the Top 20.

Cornet bonded with the locals as part of an uplifting week indoors in Paris, surely the springboard for an even better week in Dubai when she upended Serena Williams en route to the finale.

A mentally draining Fed Cup weekend against Switzerland, coupled with illness, no doubt contributed to a first round departure in Doha (to a Swiss, by the way).

Still on the subject of the Swiss, Belinda Bencic proved to be the individual star of that Fed Cup series in Paris and the highly touted 16-year-old (she turns 17 in less than a week) might encounter second seed Agnieszka Radwanska in the second round.

The formbook suggests Radwanska and Cornet are on a fourth round collision course.

Prediction: Radwanska

Champion: Radwanska.

~ Ravi Ubha (@raviubha) has written for ESPN.com, CNN.com, the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, and is also a tennis broadcaster. He is based in London.