To join the list of BNP Paribas Open champions is to join an elite roster of WTA legends, including the likes of Serena Williams, Steffi Graf, Monica Seles and more. Only the best of the best play the event, but only the best of the best of the best end up winning.
Sure, the field is as wide open as ever with a WTA talent pool as deep as the desert is hot, but there are three women remaining in the field at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden who are hoping to stop the contenders hoping to join the prestigious catalogue of champs here.
They are, of course, our former champions. And here’s who stands in the way of them and getting their hands back on the BNP Paribas Open’s coveted crystal trophy.
The reigning queen of Tennis Paradise has probably had the longest title defence in tennis history. After blitzing her way through the 2019 draw in spectacular fashion as a wild card entrant, Bianca Andreescu has been able to hang on to her title (and points) for over two years following the cancellation of the 2020 event and 2021’s postponement to October.
Sure, her championship run is the most recent, but it’s impossible to forget for more reasons than just that. The then-unheralded Canadian stormed quality opponent after quality opponent, changing up spins and pace to throw off a WTA field unfamiliar with her stylistic idiosyncrasies. Her final two matches showed not only is she in control of her tennis, but in control of the crowd too, willing herself to be the main character in each match and dragging herself over the finish line in a high-quality, three-set final against Angelique Kerber.
In 2021, she returns a different player. Not only is she better known by her colleagues, she’s coming in off an up-and-down season where she’s struggled to live up to her 2019 standards and keep her mind in the present. Standing between her and a successful title defence – possibly the first since 1992 (Martina Navratilova) – is Alison Riske in the first round, and a section with  Anett Kontaveit and top seed Karolina Pliskova.
A possible rematch with either her Montreal conqueror  Ons Jabeur or her US Open conqueror  Maria Sakkari looms in the quarter-finals, a great opportunity to test herself in her recent faces of adversity in a season where she’s still searching for her best.
Speaking of her best – if she can find it in Indian Wells this year, the title could very well be hers once again.
There was a time when former World No. 1, Wimbledon and Roland-Garros champion Simona Halep’s biggest claim to fame was her 2015 title in Indian Wells. In one of the most competitive fields in recent memory that featured Serena Williams’ return to the tournament after over a decade of absence, Halep, high on confidence after a strong to the season, navigated a tricky draw to emerge victorious.
The Romanian star battled through three-set thrillers against Daria Gavrilova and Varvara Lepchenko before sweeping aside then soon-to-be rival Karolina Pliskova to reach the quarters. After defeating Carla Suarez Navarro in the quarters, she received a walkover from Williams before a lung-busting showdown against Jelena Jankovic in the final, winning it 2-6, 7-5, 6-4.
In one of the funnier BNP Paribas Open moments in recent memory, she struggled to lift the trophy in press after the match, a light finish to one of the most challenging fortnights of tennis in her career to that point.
In the Palm Desert this year, a newly married, much more experienced Halep survived a slow start to find her best tennis and defeat Marta Kostyuk in her opening round. In the way of of the No. 11 seed repeating her 2015 heroics is Aliaksandra Sasnovich, who ousted US Open champ Emma Raducanu, then a familiar rival in either  Petra Kvitova or  Victoria Azarenka.
 Elina Svitolina and  Iga Swiatek are her projected quarter and semifinal opponents, but it’s hard to look beyond her tough next two rounds. The court conditions in Indian Wells suit her style, but it’s a long road to go if she’s going lift (or attempt to lift) her second BNPPO trophy.
This tournament has always brought the best out of Victoria Azarenka. It’s hard not to look back on her iconic starts to the 2012 and 2016 seasons and not think of how her titles in Indian Wells were centerpiece moments in those runs.
In 2012, after surviving an epic against Mona Barthel in her opening match, she mowed the field without the loss of a set, including an immaculate 6-2, 6-3 win over frequent 2012 rival Maria Sharapova. And in 2016, she was similarly efficient, surviving a high-quality encounter with Karolina Pliskova before scoring just her fourth win in 22 attempts against Serena Williams in the final, a decisive – and impressive – 6-4, 6-4 triumph.
The one of just two active two-time BNP Paribas Open champions on the WTA Tour (Kim Clijsters the other), Azarenka will have the difficult task of overcoming Kvitova in the third round. It won’t get much easier from there, with Halep looping in the fourth round before the No. 4 and No. 2 seeds awaiting in the later rounds.
At her best, Azarenka is unstoppable, but she’s only been able to show flashes of it from time-to-time this season after a resurgent 2020 saw her reach her first Grand Slam final since 2013 at the US Open.
Will she and other former champs find their desert best? Or is it time to crown a new champion in Tennis Paradise?