TENNIS analyst Gavin Mair (@gavinnightmair) takes a look at Tuesday's action at the US Open from Flushing Meadows.
Indian Wells | 4th -17th March 2019 | BT Sport
This time last year Naomi Osaka entered Indian Wells as an unseeded player. The world number one was viewed at that time as a talent with a powerful playing style, but with consistency issues.
Twelve months later Osaka returns to California as defending champion and with a serious claim to being the best hard court player on the planet having landed back-to-back Grand Slam titles in New York and Melbourne.
Osaka starts this year’s edition of Indian Wells as the second favourite outright – best price 17/2 with Bet365. I doubt that Osaka will be able to repeat her triumph of 12 months ago for several reasons.
Leading lights can be opposed
Firstly, history is against back-to-back success as no player has retained the Indian Wells title since Martina Navratilova in 1991. Secondly, Osaka is untested at defending a title and ranking points. Thirdly – and perhaps most important of all – she recently split from Sascha Bajin; the coach that was by her side as she emerged to the top of the world rankings. It is yet unclear as to how much of a factor Bajin played in her rise to the top.
The only player leading the Japanese star in the betting markets is Serena Williams, who looked in strong form at the Australian Open before injury curtailed her campaign against Kristina Pliskova. Williams is a 13/2 shot with Betfair to win Indian Wells.
If Serena has the motivation to win this event, and can stay injury free, then she is the player to beat. The veteran American – who turns 38 this September – is in my opinion only playing these days to become the player to have won the most Grand Slam championships. Currently, Serena stands one behind Margaret Court, who leads the way with 24.
There has been plenty of indication over the past two seasons that Serena struggles to stay fit – even over the course of a tournament – and now that she is ranked in the top 10 there is no obvious incentive for her to chase ranking points that would guarantee her a higher seeding at the big events, and in theory an easier route to Grand Slam glory.
Therefore, my theory is that if Serena requires to be at the top of her game to get through this tournament she won’t be interested.
It’s a scenario that seems plausible when you analyse her draw. First up will be Victoria Azarenka – who has struggled for form since coming back to the tennis tour following the birth of her child. The Belarusian has shown in spells that she can still be a top level player, and in the past she has had a share of success in meetings with Williams.
Serena’s third round doesn’t get much easier as Garbine Muguruza lies in wait. The Spaniard is another with a competitive head-to-head record, and will surely be motivated to boost her ranking back towards the top 10. Should Williams hurdle Azarenka and Muguruza then next will be Kiki Bertens who has shown considerable improvement on hard courts this past year.
Have a poke on Pliskova
With doubts over the big two hard court players it is reasonable to look elsewhere for an alternative play. My pick is Karolina Pliskova – available at 19/1 with BetVictor. She is a consistent top 10 player, who I would consider a second tier talent when considering some of the names situated around her in the top 20.
However, what I like about Pliskova is that she is very good at ‘getting on base’ to paraphrase a baseball expression. She regularly gives herself a chance at contesting for titles by still being in the draw at the latter stages.
Furthermore, Pliskova appears to have mastered unique playing conditions in Indian Wells that can vary from one extreme to the other as day turns to night. Pliskova has made the quarter finals or better in her last three visits to this event.
Meanwhile, Pliskova has started the season strongly. The Czech made the semifinal at the Australian Open – losing a close encounter with Naomi Osaka – and also won a title in Brisbane at the start of the year.
Pliskova is forecast to meet Osaka again in the semi-final. They are tied at two wins apiece in their career meetings to date, and before the start of the tournament I feel that Pliskova offers better value for money.
Emerging youngster can make a splash
In the past five years, a top 10 player has only once won this tournament. Last year I backed Daria Kasatkina to go deep, and she landed a 10/1 bet to advance from her quarter of the draw.
This year I am taking a chance on another emerging talent who I feel has a playing style that can suit the desert conditions. Marketa Vondrousova is a left-handed attacking player who hits with a lot of high-bouncing topspin, which has proven in the past to be a good fit for the Indian Wells courts.
Vondrousova is ranked outside the top 50 at the moment, but she is a player that is on an upward career trajectory. Indian Wells comes at a good time for her as she made the final of Budapest two weeks ago.
It is not the easiest of draws for Vondrousova as she is scheduled to play Daria Kasatkina and Simona Halep in the early rounds. However, I feel that if Vondrousova plays to her potential she can make an impact. I will have a small play on her at 40/1 to win her quarter with Betfair.
Indian Wells – Karolina Pliskova to win outright (19/1BetVictor)
Indian Wells – Marketa Vondrousova win Quarter 4 (40/1 Betfair)