It is hard to compute just how much has happened to the young superstar, Naomi Osaka, in the space of under a year.
The quietly spoken Japanese/Haitian woman arrived in India Wells 12 months back barely inside the top 50, and that itself had been a surge since the start of 2018 as she very quickly began to show herself as a player of huge potential.
A first fourth-round at the Australian Open was followed an extraordinary run in the purple-tinged oasis fringed by mountains that is Indian Wells. Osaka swept aside Maria Sharapova, Agnieszka Radwanska, Karolina Pliskova and Simona Halep, before handing out the same straight-sets defeat to Daria Kasatkina and claim her first tour title.
She was still just 20, but certainly proved herself as a performer for the big stage. Decent results through clay and grass edged her into the top 20, but it was back on the biggest stage of all, at the US Open, that she performed again, and again dropped only one set in the process, to claim the Major title. She seemed more bewildered than anyone else, especially as she had left a distressed Serena Williams in her wake.
More match-wins through Tokyo and Beijing took her inside the top five by year’s end, and then she did what the eight previous Major champions had been able to do—won back-to-back titles at the highest level with arguably her best performance of all, at the Australian Open.
In Melbourne, she dismissed four top-12 seeds on the bounce, including one who aspired to reach No1 for the first time, Petra Kvitova. Instead, Osaka pocketed the No1 for herself.
For one so young, the kind of exposure, fame and fortune that follow such results test both mind and body. So after a disappointing first-round loss in Dubai, hers will perhaps be the top storyline back in Indian Wells: Can she maintain the power, skill and, most importantly, the consistency, to repeat the feat?
Three was a spree—can Osaka score four?
Osaka, then, has won all three of her titles in the last 12 months, and each of them on the tour’s biggest hard-court stages. Now she faces the huge 96-woman draw of the first Premier Mandatory of the year to try her luck again.
The draw has decreed that it will, as last year, be a big test, with either Saisai Zheng, at a career-high 37, or Kristina Mladenovic, who beat her in her last match in Dubai. Her first seed is Australian Open semi-finalist, Danielle Collins, with former champion Caroline Wozniacki or one of the performers of the season, Dubai champion Belinda Bencic, just to reach the quarters.
Wozniacki continues to work to maintain her form in the face of rheumatoid arthritis, but also here unseeded Eugenie Bouchard and Kirtsen Flipkens and also fighting for a place in Round 4.
Osaka’s final hurdle in the quarters should be Pliskova, though Donna Vekic, at a career-high 24 after making two semis and a further final this season, is a dangerous alternative.
The No1 ranking—four in chase for the top
Pliskova lost to Osaka in the Australian Open semis, and is one of four women who could take over the No1 rank by the end of the fortnight—though she will have to win the title—so there is plenty at stake for the Czech, just as there is for another Czech, Kvitova.
The popular leftie, who has made such a notable return to the top after an attack in her home almost ended her career, missed out on the title and No1 ranking by small margins in Melbourne, and has put together an outstanding year: the Sydney title and Dubai runner-up combine for the biggest win-tally on the tour.
Kvitova could face Osaka in the semis this time, though is scheduled to meet Venus Williams in the second round and either the charismatic Aryna Sabelenka or fellow Major champion Angelique Kerber in the quarters. And she will need at least a semi run to stand a chance of No1.
The other two women in contention for the top spot lead the quarters in the bottom half of the draw, and each needs to reach the final to keep alive their hopes. Halep, the second seed, is one of the most consistent players of the last few years, and once she reached the top in October 2017, she accumulated 64 weeks there.
She too has a tough draw packed with some of the young stars to emerge in the last year, notably last year’s finalist Kasatkina, Jelena Ostapenko, and Ashleigh Barty, with No6 Elina Svitolina the highest other seed here, and the winner of four titles last year including the WTA Finals.
No4 seed Sloane Stephens is the other woman to challenge for No1, but is in a particularly loaded quarter…
Who will emerge from quarter of champions?
Stephens may be the highest seed in the third quarter, but it is hard to see her as the favourite to make it the semis. Here is a quarter boasting four Major champions, two of them former multiple Indian Wells champions—and what is more, Serena Williams and the unseeded Victoria Azarenka, could meet in the second round.
Williams is back in the top 10 for the first time since giving birth to her daughter, and it is now more than two decades since, as a teenager, she won the first of two titles in the desert in 1999. Had it not been for 13 years of boycott following racial slurs by some spectators, who knows how many she would have won, but following her return in 2015, she is now 25-4 in Indian Wells.
Meanwhile Azarenka, also now a mother, has a 27-7 record and two titles, and she went on to claim Miami both times—the ‘sunshine double’. She and Williams have played one another only twice at these two tournaments, and Azarenka has won both: in Indian Wells in 2016, and in Miami in 2009.
The winner may have to play Garbine Muguruza in the third round, the in-form Kiki Bertens in the fourth, and then Stephens or the always dangerous Dominika Cibulkova, in the quarters.
In this quarter too, however, are the talented youngsters of Bianca Andreescu and Amanda Anisimova, plus Suwei Hseih and the unseeded Johanna Konta.
Draw overview, top half
Osaka vs Pliskova: also here, Bencic, Wozniacki, Vekic, Bouchard
Kerber vs Kvitova: also here, Venus Williams, Maria Sakkari, Madison Keys, Sabalenka
Draw overview, bottom half
Halep vs Svitolina: also here, Mihaela Buzarnescu, Caroline Garcia, Barty, Kasatkina
Bertens vs Stephens: also here, Konta, Muguruza, Azarenka, Serena Williams, Andreescu, Mertens
Former champions in draw: Osaka (one and defending), Serena Williams (two), Azarenka (two), Halep (one), Wozniacki (one)
Former finalists in draw: Serena Williams (+ one), Kasatkina (one), Wozniacki (+ one)
2018 semi-finalists: Osaka beat Halep, Kasatkina beat Venus Williams
Potential seeds missing: Sharapova, Camila Giorgi
Indian Wells/Miami ‘Sunshine Double’: Azarenka (two)
Career highs this week in main draw
Qiang Wang (17)
Anett Kontaveit (19)
Viktoria Kuzmova (40)
Yafan Wang (48)
Ons Jabeur (53)
Ekaterina Alexandrova (58)
Evgeniya Rodina (67)
Champions on hard courts this season
Julia Goerges (Auckland)
Sofia Kenin (Hobart)
Osaka (Australian Open)
Bencic (Dubai, + ITF Hopman Cup)
Yafan Wang (Acapulco)
Bertens (St Petersburg)
Dayana Yastremska (Hua Hin)
Alison van Uytvanck (Budapest)
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