INDIAN WELLS, USA - The BNP Paribas Open will see a pair of emotional returns in the first week while also serving as a fierce but picturesque battleground in a season that has seen notable stability amongst the tour's elite. With former No.1s Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka set to play their first competitive matches of the season and the majority of the current Top 10 sizzling, the stage is set for a dramatic first Premier Mandatory event of the 2018 season.
Check out the WTA Insider Heat Index to see who are the hot hands coming into Indian Wells.
Top eight seeds: No.1 Simona Halep, No.2 Caroline Wozniacki, No.3 Garbiñe Muguruza, No.4 Elina Svitolina, No.5 Karolina Pliskova, No.6 Jelena Ostapenko, No.7 Caroline Garcia, No.8 Venus Williams
Top half: Halep, Muguruza, Pliskova, Ostapenko
Bottom half: Wozniacki, Svitolina, Garcia, Venus
Potential quarterfinals: Halep vs. Ostapenko, Muguruza vs. Pliskova, Wozniacki vs. Garcia, Svitolina vs. Venus.
Last year's final: Elena Vesnina d. Svetlana Kuznetsova, 6-7, 7-5, 6-4.
Storylines to Watch:
Unseeded and back: Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka set to return
The first week of the tournament will get a major injection of drama, as Serena Williams is set to play her first competitive singles match since winning the 2017 Australian Open and taking leave to give birth to her daughter. The last time we saw Serena on court in Indian Wells was in the 2016 final, where she faced off against another champion who is making her competitive return this week, Victoria Azarenka. The Belarusian, who won the title here by beating Serena in that 2016 final, is playing her first match since Wimbledon last year.
As if their mere presence in the draw wasn't enough to send fans into a frenzy, Monday's draw further amplified the intrigue. An all-Williams third round looms, as Serena will open against No.53 Zarina Diyas in the first round, with the winner playing No.29 Kiki Bertens, and then potentially Venus Williams. If Serena and Venus can keep their third-round appointment, we'll be seeing a rematch of the 2017 Australian Open final.
Azarenka, who has been sidelined since Wimbledon due to family issues, will play her first match against Britain's Heather Watson, a rematch of their dramatic third-round showdown in SW19 last year, which saw Azarenka edge out the win 3-6, 6-1, 6-4. The winner of that match would take on reigning US Open champion Sloane Stephens.
No.1 in play, but Simona Halep could increase her lead over Caroline Wozniacki.
Having retaken the No.1 ranking after Dubai last week, Halep comes into Indian Wells as the top seed for the first time in eight appearances. Both Halep and Wozniacki are former champions in the California desert, with Wozniacki winning the title in 2011 and Halep in 2015. Halep has fewer points to defend over the next four weeks on the North American hard courts. The Romanian made the third round in Indian Wells last year (65 points), while Wozniacki advanced to the semifinals (215 points).
Halep is in a good position to hold on to the No.1 ranking after Indian Wells, though she comes into the tournament under an injury cloud after withdrawing ahead of the Doha semifinals due to an ongoing foot injury. Whether she has had sufficient time to heal up is a big question ahead of the tournament.
Wozniacki will need to reach the final to have a chance over overtaking her, and if Halep wins her opening match against either Kristyna Pliskova or a qualifier, Wozniacki will need to win the title. If the two face off in the final, Halep will extend her stay at No.1 regardless of the outcome of the match.
Wozniacki opens her tournament against either Acapulco champion Lesia Tsurenko or a qualifier.
First-round Blockbuster: Maria Sharapova vs. Naomi Osaka
Along with Serena and Azarenka, Sharapova is another big-name champion who comes into Indian Wells unseeded. Currently ranked at No.41, Sharapova will open against one of the brightest talents of the 20-and-under set, No.44 Naomi Osaka. It will be the first meeting between the two.
Sharapova comes into the match with a 5-3 record on the season, after a disappointing turn in the Middle East, where she lost in the first round of Doha to Monica Niculescu. Osaka comes in with an 8-4 record, most recently making her first quarterfinal of the year in Dubai.
Things get no easier for the winner of this match, as Agnieszka Radwanska looms in the second round and Garbiñe Muguruza potentially waiting in the third round.
Which brings us to the next point...
Garbiñe Muguruza headlines the 'Group of Death'.
If there was a draw "loser" after Monday's draw, it was No.3 Muguruza, whose quarter is full of dangerous seeded and non-seeded players. The Spaniard comes into Indian Wells with a good head of steam after adding Conchita Martinez to her team and subsequently making the Doha final and Dubai semifinals.
Muguruza anchors the second quarter of the draw along with No.5 Karolina Pliskova, who made the semifinals last year. Muguruza's path to the final could include Canadian wildcard Eugenie Bouchard, either Sharapova/Osaka/Radwanska, with one of Kvitova/Pliskova/Barty/Vandeweghe waiting in the quarterfinals, and top-seed Halep in the semifinals. But this is precisely the type of draw in which Muguruza excels. Put her against the marquee names early and often and her focus narrows.
Petra Kvitova aims to break her "Sunshine" curse.
Currently riding an incredible 13-match win streak, No.9 Kvitova is looking to keep her good thing going. Indian Wells and Miami have not been particularly fertile ground for the big-hitting Czech, who can struggle to control the ball in Indian Wells' tricky conditions. Her best result in either the dry desert heat of Indian Wells or the heat and humidity of Miami is the quarterfinals. That could end this year.
Kvitova opens against either Yulia Putintseva or Budapest champion Alison Van Uytvanck. She could face her Fed Cup teammate Pliskova in the Round of 16 and face a Doha final rematch against Muguruza in the quarterfinals.
Notable first-round matches: Maria Sharapova vs. Naomi Osaka (winner plays Agnieszka Radwanska), Serena Williams vs. Zarina Diyas (winner plays Kiki Bertens), Victoria Azarenka vs. Heather Watson (winner plays Sloane Stephens), Timea Bacsinszky vs. Wang Qiang (winner plays Elise Mertens), Samantha Stosur vs. Lauren Davis (winner plays Kristina Mladenovic), Belinda Bencic vs. Timea Babos (winner plays Jelena Ostapenko), Donna Vekic vs. Maria Sakkari (winner plays Ashleigh Barty).
The BNP Paribas Open kicks off on Wednesday, March 7th.
Subscribe and stream all the action on WTA TV at www.wtatv.com.