For the first time in more than two years, Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka will play at the same tournament this fortnight at Indian Wells.
They form an illustrious trio; all are multiple Grand Slam champions and former world No.1s with a collective six titles in the Californian desert.
And in 2018, they’re all unseeded.
How will they fare? Our Tennismash team of Piers Newbery, Vivienne Christie, Matt Trollope and Leigh Rogers agree to disagree…
Piers: It’s always dangerous to bet against Serena but I’m going to go for Vika. Maria has a horrible draw and I see her going out before Muguruza in round three; Serena’s serving in Tie Break Tens on Tuesday was encouraging but I think there’s a way to go with her movement; I expect Vika to be super-fit, brimming with positivity and ready to cause an upset or two.
Vivienne: With her comeback no longer a “comeback” it’s time for Maria to shine. And where better than in sunny Indian Wells, where she has triumphed twice? The world No.41 might struggle to challenge for the trophy again but I do see her progressing further than Serena and Vika, who in some ways can claim a victory in simply being back on tour. The pressure is most on Maria and I sense she’ll use it to advantage.
Matt: This is a really tough question. But I’m leaning towards Maria. I think she’ll get past Osaka – who’s incredibly erratic – and an out-of-form Radwanska. Muguruza seems like too big a barrier in round three, but I would be extremely surprised if Serena or Vika outperformed Maria by getting to the last 16.
Leigh: Serena. I’m not convinced either Vika or Maria will survive the first round.
Vivienne: Aside from the obvious – the hype of their return, the lack of matches and (for Serena and Vika) adjusting to a new reality as tennis-playing mums – the biggest obstacle could be the heights that each of these former No.1s have already scaled. It builds expectation and pressure while adding to incentive for many opponents. Who among the rising stars wouldn’t love a win against any of these names?
Matt: For Serena and Vika, it’s rust. Both are significantly lacking in match play and may take some time to find their groove. For Maria, it’s confidence. Her comeback has been less successful than I think anyone could have imagined, and her opponents are emboldened when they face her. She’s also landed in an extremely tough section of the draw, meaning she’ll need all the belief she can muster.
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Leigh: For me, there is a big question each need to answer. Does Serena have the patience to work herself back into form? She’s used to being able to rely on her dominant serve under pressure – but after a caesarean and a year off tour, it’s understandable it won’t be quite the same weapon yet and adds to her vulnerability. The off-court struggles Vika is experiencing are sure to play a factor in her performance. She hasn’t been able to travel or compete since Wimbledon so she’s going to have a point to prove now she is back, but could she want it too much? This could prove a more mental test than physical one for her. As for Maria, is she going to lift? Yes, she has had challenges in her return but the reality is she has been back on tour for 10 months and simply needs to play better to improve her ranking. At her current level, she does not deserve to be considered one of the game’s best players.
Piers: Fitness will be key for all three. Maria’s comeback has been repeatedly interrupted by injury and she needs a clear run of tournaments to get her ranking back up, so she can avoid the big names early on. For Serena and Vika, it’s about converting all the training we’ve seen them doing into match sharpness as quickly as possible. That means getting some wins on the board.
Matt: It’s great. There are enough top-seeded women – Halep, Wozniacki, Svitolina, Kerber, Kvitova et al – who are playing consistently good tennis right now and who would be expected to progress to the later rounds. So a little early-round intrigue won’t hurt at all.
Leigh: I can’t recall ever being so excited to see how a Premier Mandatory draw would unfold, so I think it is great for women’s tennis. There’s so many storylines to follow and having such big names in round one action helps create extra interest. This is a great chance for women’s tennis to really shine from the early rounds.
Piers: I think it’s great. It’s a huge boost for the women’s game that they are playing at all, and on the back of a start to the year that has seen Wozniacki, Halep and Kvitova all provide great stories and drama, having three former number ones playing from the first round just ensures the interest should last from day one to the final in Indian Wells.
Vivienne: In the chaos of women’s tennis in recent seasons, does it even matter? At the Australian Open, Wozniacki and Halep were the first top two seeds to contest a final, of any level, in three years. With draws so rarely unfolding according to seedings, any potential disruption from the likes of Serena, Vika or Maria would hardly be a negative.
Leigh: There’s no denying each has the talent to return to the top – but a lot has changed since they were last in such positions. I think we’re more likely to see all three play limited schedules this season (and most likely for the remainder of their careers), which won’t help their rankings return to such heights.
Piers: Major titles are likely to feature higher on all three women’s wish-lists than rankings, and although it’s easy to assume that Serena will resume her dominance over the tour, the women who have been vying for top spot in the American’s absence should not be underestimated. The likes of Wozniacki, Halep, Muguruza and Svitolina are well used to life at the top, and it will be tough for the ‘old guard’ to battle through them all.
Vivienne: Unlikely. Age, physicality and other priorities (whether that be motherhood or business interests) are all a factor and younger players have had a chance to catch up. I suspect their respective returns will have a part-time feel to them – that said, it was little more than a year ago that I’d have said the same about Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Who are now reigning champions of every Grand Slam and reinstated in the world’s top two.
Matt: Slim. I’m not convinced Maria will ever make it back to the top three – at this stage of her career I hardly see her improving her mobility, power and injury resistance. Vika is only playing this tournament because it’s in California – who knows how long her custody battle will drag on and stymie her in her prime playing years? She’s unwilling to travel without her son. Serena, however, I’m more confident about. It’s just a shame they probably won’t all be there at the same time ever again – they’re an exceptional trio.
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