The time has come for Naomi Osaka to finally defend a title, and the question, how will she react?
Osaka made a stunning run a year ago at Indian Wells clobbering good friend Daria Kasatkina not just for her then-biggest career title, but only title. That was her first.
Twelve months later, Osaka improbably stands atop the tennis world having claimed the last two Grand Slams, beating Serena Williams in New York and then backing it up with a 3-set win in Melbourne over Petra Kvitova five weeks ago.
Now, with a new coach and the spotlight on her brighter and bigger than ever, the 21-year-old begins her pressure-packed first title defense against a stacked field which boasts every player in the Top 25.
And among the subplots, the No. 1 ranking is back on the line with four women – Simona Halep, Petra Kvitova, Sloane Stephens, and Karolina Pliskova – all in the hunt and after Osaka’s perch.
Here’s the draw:
Top 4 Seeds: 1 Osaka, 6 Ka Pliskova, 11 Sevastova, 13 Wozniacki
Floaters: Bouchard, Stosur, Puig
Notes: Osaka is trying to become the first player since Navratilova in 1991 to defend the Indian Wells title… Osaka’s road could take her through three Australian Open semifinalists. She could meet Danielle Collins in the third round (with Dubai champion Belinda Bencic in the fourth), then her semifinalist and finalist opponents in Melbourne, Karolina Pliskova and Kvitova in the SFs. And in Osaka’s first match, she could collide with her conqueror from Dubai, Kristina Mladenovic. If form holds, it’s a very difficult half for her…. Former No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki is also a potential fourth round foe for Osaka. The Dane won Indian Wells in 2011 and reached the final two other times… Pliskova has a terrific draw out to the quarters with Vekic and Sevastova as her formidable seeds.
Top 4 Seeds: 3 Kvitova, 8 Kerber, 9 Sabalenka, 15 Goerges
Floaters: Venus, Cornet, Putintseva
Notes: A blockbuster second round could take shape with Kvitova drawing Venus Williams in the Czech’s opening match… Kvitova must reach the semifinals to have a shot at No. 1, though she has never made it that far in the desert… Venus plays Petkovic in a good first round tussle… Kerber is a 2-time Indian Wells semifinalist, but hasn’t made it that far since 2013… Madison Keys is always tough on the hard courts, but is yet to reach the last eight at the event… Three really big hitters in this section with Kvitova, Keys and Aryna Sabalenka… No player in this quarter has made the Indian Wells final.
Top 4 Seeds: 4 Stephens, 7 Bertens, 10 Serena, 16 Mertens
Floaters: Azarenka, Anisimova, Konta, Andreescu
Notes: Serena returns for her second event of 2019 following a quarterfinal loss in Australia to Pliskova. She is the last American woman to win the desert title, claiming her second crown in 2001. To win a third, she’ll have to navigate through a potential showdown with 2-time champion Victoria Azarenka in her opener, then 2-time Slam winner Garbine Muguruza, with Kiki Bertens and then Sloane Stephens to make the semifinals. Not an easy path for anyone no less a 37-year-old… Muguruza’s been a mess of late, she could fall in her opener to Lauren Davis… Stephens continues to be mercurial, she has Dominika Cibulkova as her first seed and then Mertens in the fourth… Teens Amanda Anisimova and Bianca Andreescu could make some noise.
Top 4 Seeds: 2 Halep, 6 Svitolina, 12 Barty, 14 Kasatkina
Floaters: Kenin, Yastremska, Vondrousova, Rybarikova
Notes: 2015 champion Halep leads this sneaky section. On the surface, it looks like a Halep-Svitolina quarter, but youngsters like Sofia Kenin, Marketa Vondousova and Dayana Yastremska have proven their worth as well as 2018 finalist Daria Kasatkina who will be facing the pressure of defending those runner-up points… Ash Barty also looms as a potential upset pick in the fourth over Svitolina.
Matches begin on Wednesday.
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