Wednesday, October 6, 2021 - Sloane Stephens plays Heather Watson in Round 1 on day 4 of the 2021 BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells Tennis Garden in Indian Wells, CA. (Michael Cummo/BNP Paribas Open)
With the first round of WTA action wrapped following two days of delectable tennis in the Palm Desert, it’s time for the seeds to kick off their BNP Paribas Open campaigns – but it’s safe to say that none of them have it easy.
There are lots of great champions in action, but here are a few under-the-radar match-ups you’re going to want to keep an eye on.
The casual fan might be surprised to find out that Kazakhstan is secretly a tennis powerhouse, but for those following the women’s game over the past decade, it’s no surprise. The Caspian Sea-adjacent former Soviet republic has steadily amassed a roster of talented players that week-in, week-out made deep runs at the top events. Among those players are Elena Rybakina and Yulia Putinsteva, who face off in the second round on Friday in the desert.
Rybakina has been a revelation since the start of 2020, where her massive first-strike tennis – in contrast with her cool-and-composed on-court demeanor – saw her reach five finals, four of which came in the first two months of the season. She posted career-best results at the Grand Slams this year and has cemented herself as a reliable Top 20 player.
Putintseva, on the other hand, couldn’t be a more polar opposite player to her compatriot. Playing nimble, all-court defensive tennis, what the former junior No. 1 lacks in firepower she makes up for in compete level. Though her on-court temperament can be her own worst enemy at times, it’s also the fuel to her fire and has allowed her to be a consistent threat at all levels in her near decade-long career.
‘Kazakh Bowl 2021’ isn’t interesting purely because they represent the same country, but because there couldn’t be a greater contrast in styles. Their last match was a 4-6, 7-6, 6-2 thriller that went the way of Putinsteva, and it would be safe to expect more of the same quality this time around.
Pegula’s breakthrough this season has been nothing short of remarkable. The American World No. 24 posted an out-of-nowhere run to the Australian Open quarter-finals to kick off her 2021 campaign, and since then has posted multiple wins at all WTA 1000 events she’s played, including a semifinal in Montreal and a quarterfinal in both Rome and Dubai.
— sloanestephens (@SloaneStephens) October 7, 2021
For her part, Stephens hasn’t had a career-best year by any means, but has pieced together a resurgent 2021 after a couple years of up-and-down results. Both she and Pegula have credited strong seasons to new coaching set ups, though their big forehand shots and steady backhands are enough to trouble any opponent on any given day.
Against each other, this one is a toss-up. They’ve never played each other, so expect a few games of each player warming into their tactics – and if they settle in to their best tennis, it could be a mouth-watering encounter.
Who said the one-handed backhand was dead in the women’s game? Following the retirement of legendary modern one-handers such as Justine Henin, Roberta Vinci and Carla Suarez Navarro, it would be understandable for fans to be writing the eulogy on tennis’ most elegant swing.
Enter Viktorija Golubic, who is piecing together her own breakthrough season, reaching the Wimbledon quarter-finals and two WTA finals in 2021. She downed Olympic silver medalist Marketa Vondrousova in the first round of the BNP Paribas Open and is slated to face Greece’s Maria Sakkari, seeded 6th this year in the Coachella Valley.
Sakkari, perennially known for being one of the most in-shape players on tour, is into the Top 10 for the first time this month following semi-finals at both Roland-Garros and the US Open. A threat on all surfaces, her laser-like backhand and commanding forehand represent a more conventional brand of modern women’s tennis, making for a compelling stylistic contrast to Golubic in their first-round encounter.
You want all-court tennis? You’ve got all-court tennis.
These two players are magicians with a tennis racquet and possess all the shots. Ons Jabeur, Tunisia’s breakout star for women’s tennis in the middle east, can rip a winner from miles behind the baseline, or punish her opponents with feathered dropshot winners off either wing.
Anastasija Sevastova, a Latvian veteran who returned from a mid-career hiatus to career-best results and a No. 11 ranking back in 2018, has much of the same but relies more on her defensive abilities than dictating play to win points.
Both are guilty of mental walkabouts for periods of their matches, but expect a few highlight reel rallies in this third career meeting between the two. And if they play well throughout? Well, there could be more than a few.