Naomi Osaka. Ever heard of her?
This time last year, not many had. Osaka touched down at the BNP Paribas Open in 2018 as the world No. 44, fresh off a breakthrough run at the Australian Open, which saw her reach the fourth round before falling to Simona Halep – her biggest result at the time.
But that breakthrough would pale in comparison to what was to come in the following fortnight. The Japanese kicked off her campaign in the Coachella Valley with a spectacular victory over two-time champion Maria Sharapova, followed by a straight-set demolition of now-retired Agnieszka Radwanska in the second round. Throw in wins over former world No. 1 Karolina Pliskova and then-No. 1 Simona Halep and Osaka found herself in the biggest final of her career.
In the final, an offense-versus-defense battle against fellow 1997’er Daria Kasatkina went the way of Osaka, handing the 20-year-old her first WTA title – but it wouldn’t be long before she’d top it. At the US Open less than seven months later, she became a Grand Slam champion. A few months after that? Australian Open champion and world No. 1.
Osaka’s rise has been as surprising as it has been swift, and it all started here at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden. This week, the top player in the women’s game returns to the site of her first significant success alongside 75 other direct entries, 12 qualifiers and eight wild cards at the first Premier Mandatory event of 2019.
BNPParibasOpen.com takes a deep-dive look at the BNP Paribas Open women’s draw.
1st Quarter: The defending champion and top seed will begin her tournament against either Zheng Saisai, a quarterfinalist last week at the WTA International event in Acapulco, or her most recent conquerer, Kristina Mladenovic. The Frenchwoman overcame an out-of-sorts Osaka in the second round of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships in February, which came just after the world No. 1’s shocking end to a prolific coaching partnership with Sascha Bajin. Australian Open semifinalist Danielle Collins, as feisty as she is flashy, could await in the third round, while an intriguing clash with Caroline Wozniacki, from whom Osaka inherited the Happy Slam crown in January, is slated in the Round of 16 if seedings hold true. Wozniacki’s ranking has taken a tumble after falling in the third round in Melbourne, and could face early resistance from Dubai champ Belinda Bencic, who owns a 4-3 record against the Dane.
On the other half of the quarter, Pliskova, who was on hand at the draw ceremony just outside the tournament’s picturesque Stadium One, was handed a manageable draw, but could have to outfox the crafty Ons Jabeur in her opening match, while an in-form Donna Vekic is a possible third-round opponent. If No. 11 seed Anastasija Sevastova can get past Madison Brengle or Sam Stosur, she could prove to be a roadblock for Pliskova, who will surely be keen for a rematch with Osaka in the quarters after falling to the Japanese in a tight three-setter in the Australian Open semis.
Our pick: Karolina Pliskova
2nd Quarter: Much like her approach to winning points, Petra Kvitova’s start to 2019 has been anything but subtle. Since her early exit at the Brisbane International to start the season, the Czech star’s season has been a supernova, blasting her way to the title at the Sydney International before posting runner-up finishes at the Australian Open and in Dubai just the other week. She’ll have her work cut out for her in the southern California desert, however, as she’s drawn the winner of a popcorn first-rounder between Venus Williams and Andrea Petkovic. On the other side of the quarter, Angelique Kerber could face either Yulia Putintseva or Timea Babos – two players packed with personality – in her debut match this year, while hard-hitting Aryna Sabalenka and Madison Keys are prospective opponents in the third and fourth rounds, respectively.
Our pick: Petra Kvitova
3rd Quarter: The third quarter sees No. 4 seed Sloane Stephens on track for a WTA Finals rematch with No. 7 Kiki Bertens, but all eyes are on Serena Williams in this section of the draw. Back in the Top 10 for the first time since giving birth to daughter Alexis Olympia, Serena has a potential opener against fellow mom Victoria Azarenka, who has to get past compatriot Vera Lapko to set a rematch of the 2016 BNP Paribas Open final. Fierce rivals for a large part of the early 2010’s, their lives have changed significantly since their last meeting, which saw Azarenka claim – not lift (too heavy) – the BNP Paribas trophy in a 6-4, 6-4 final. Both are moms and both are back on the rise… but only one can make it to the third round this week, where Garbiñe Muguruza could wait.
Elsewhere, fast-rising and ferociously versatile Canadian Bianca Andreescu potentially has a mouthwatering clash with 2016 WTA Finals champ Dominika Cibulkova in the second round with Stephens drawn to play the winner, while the inimitable Hsieh Su-Wei will look to outfox Bertens in the third round if she can get past a potential Round-of-64 clash with Johanna Konta.
Our pick: Serena Williams.
4th Quarter: Rounding out the draw is a colorful fourth quarter, featuring a compelling mélange of styles with no clear-cut favorite to choose from. No. 2 seed and 2015 champ Halep has a relatively safe opening round against either a qualifier or Barbora Strycova, who she hasn’t lost to since 2010. If the smooth-hitting and ever-popular Romanian can get past Aliaksandra Sasnovich in the third round, she might have to face the winner of a possible Kasatkina versus Jelena Ostapenko clash. The two have a complex history as rivals and defending finalist Kasatkina will look to cool the volcanic hitting of her Latvian adversary with the court craft that saw her defeat the likes of Wozniacki, Stephens and Venus en route to the final here last year.
On the other side, all eyes will be on a possible fourth round matchup between Elina Svitolina and Ashleigh Barty. Svitolina, last season’s year-ending champion at the WTA Finals, has continued her consistency at the big events this season, while Barty’s steady climb up the rankings got a boost with a quarterfinal finish at her home Slam in January. If they are to meet in the last 16, could Barty’s slicing and netplay carve a hole in Svitolina’s fortified defensive game for the first time in five attempts – or will a different contender emerge from their section?
Our pick: Simona Halep.
Eugenie Bouchard vs. Kirsten Flipkens (🌱🍓)
Venus Williams vs. Andrea Petkovic (🥇💃🏿)
Yulia Putintseva vs. Timea Babos (🌪🔥)
Wang Yafan vs. Sofia Kenin (🏆🇲🇽)