Ubha: Miami Expert Predictions
Published March 18, 2014 12:15
It's still early in the 2014 season, but if anyone would have told you heading into the Sony Open Tennis that Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka wouldn't feature in the Top 8 of the Road To Singapore leaderboard, you'd have received a response like this: "Did you get too much sun in Indian Wells?"
Speaking of surprises, did anyone think Flavia Pennetta would be crowned Queen of the Desert? Probably not, but those veteran Italians have shown us in the past never to count them out.
Can Pennetta do the rare double in Miami, or will Williams cruise to the title since Victoria Azarenka isn't around?
Here's a look at the draw, with, of course, predictions.
First quarter: Danger for Serena?
Motivation won't be lacking for Williams. The Sony Open Tennis is virtually the World No.1's hometown event, she is the defending champion and Williams suffered an unexpected loss to Alizé Cornet in the semifinals at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships.
A pumped up Williams will be difficult to stop as she tries for a seventh title in Miami, but that's not to say she sits in an easy section.
Four fellow seeds - Klara Zakopalova, Samantha Stosur, Ekaterina Makarova and Angelique Kerber - have all toppled Williams.
Stosur, who has beaten Williams three times, faces a potentially intriguing encounter against US wildcard Victoria Duval in the second round. Duval, you might remember, upset Stosur last year in the opening round of the US Open.
The Aussie is yet to get going in 2014, although a third round loss in Indian Wells now doesn't look so bad given that Pennetta inflicted the damage.
Second quarter: Maria's recovery?
Sharapova is still finding her way back following last year's shoulder injury. That, coupled with some recent inactivity on the tennis court - she was busy at the Winter Olympics in Sochi working for US television - wouldn't have aided the Russian in Indian Wells.
Sharapova lost, and the slugfest wasn't one for the purists, to Camila Giorgi in the third round. It was indeed a worrying result for Sharapova fans, and not only because the Italian was a qualifier. (Note that Giorgi fell in qualifying in Miami.)
Previously untouchable in third sets, Sharapova - one of the game's best competitors and a five-time finalist in Miami - dropped to 1-3 in her last four matches that have gone the distance.
Kvitova and Kuznetsova are a combined 8-8 this season, while Ivanovic is 3-3 since reaching the quarterfinals at the Australian Open.
Third quarter: Aga, Venus & Simona
Simona Halep keeps on rolling: After reaching the semifinals in Indian Wells, she became the first Romanian to make the Top 5.
But glancing at Halep's results this season, you'll no doubt notice that she hasn't succeeded in venturing to the business end of tournaments twice in a row. (A foot injury, however, hindered Halep in Dubai.)
If things go as expected, Halep meets Venus Williams in the third round. Like her younger sister, Venus knows how to win in Miami - she's a three-time champion - triumphed in Dubai and would be the heavy crowd favorite.
Agnieszka Radwanska couldn't offer her best against Pennetta on Sunday because of a knee injury and one wonders if the Pole will recover in time physically to go deep in Miami.
A particularly tough one to call.
Fourth quarter: Another chance for Li
Li Na's solitary title in North America came in Cincinnati two years ago. But fresh off an uplifting stay in Indian Wells - it was the Chinese baseliner's second semifinal there and first in seven years - she must be confident on the eve of her Miami campaign.
The first seed Li could battle with is Daniela Hantuchova, but there are no guarantees the Slovakian will advance to the third round since she's lost four in a row.
Some would say that the ever dangerous Kaia Kanepi is due for a big win after losing tight matches to good opposition in 2014, so don't be surprised if the Estonian tangles with Li in the fourth round.
The bigger the tournament, it seems the better Sloane Stephens performs. She did it again in Indian Wells before losing to Pennetta in a close, three set quarterfinal.
Champion: Serena Williams
~ 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.