Victoria Azarenka will mount her title defence at the BNP Paribas Open as top seed in the $5 million tournament that will feature virtually all of the WTA's star players apart from its newly crowned number one Serena Williams.
The world number two enters two week jamboree carrying the Tour's only unbeaten record and the confidence of snapping a nine game losing streak to her American rival. However, a hoped-for rematch between Azarenka and Williams, whom the Belarusian toppled three weeks ago at the Qatar Total Open in Doha, remains elusive as she and her family continue their self-imposed boycott of the Indian Wells, California event for a 12th consecutive year. Williams, her sister Venus and her father Richard claimed to have been subject to racial slurs and verbal abuse from the crown after the elder Venus withdrew at the last minute from a semi-final clash with Serena in 2001.
Even with the absence of the Tour's top player - as well as world number five Lia Na of China - the WTA Premier Mandatory Event still promises much in the way of headline match-ups with top-ten players Maria Sharapova, Agnieszka Radwanska, Petra Kvitova, Sara Errani, Angelique Kerber, Samantha Stosur and Caroline Wozniacki peppered across the 32-seeded draw.
Azarenka's path the to the final will likely require a fascinating match-up with rising American teenager Sloane Stephens, who scored the upset of the year in Melbourne when she knocked out Williams in the Australian Open quarter-final. She'll likely first have to face, however, Slovakia's Daniela Hantuchova, the only active two-time winner of the Indian Wells event. Another potential clash in Azarenka's bracket could involve former world number one Wozniacki against one of the many promising German women on the WTA Tour, Julia Goerges.
On the opposite side of the "top half" draw sits two more German stars: world number six Angelique Kerber and one of the year's most interesting surprises, the powerful 22-year old Mona Barthel, who won her second Tour event in Paris last month with a dramatic victory over Errani of Italy in the GDF Suez Open. Anna Ivanovic and the dangerous but inconsistent Stosur round out the biggest names on the top half.
Big names in the bottom half that could meet this week include Klara Zakapalova of the Czech Republic and Dominika Cibulkova of Slovkia. Sharapova could be tested early by the always tricky Caral Suarez-Navarro of Spain if both are able to advance to the third round while France's Marion Bartoli will face her upset-minded countrywoman Kristina Mladenovic who is fresh from a doubles victory in Memphis with Kazakhstan's Galina Voskoboeva.
Briton's Heather Watson and Laura Robson find themselves on opposite sides of the top half draw with Watson facing Romania's Irina-Camelia Begu and Robson facing the more difficult match in the form of Sweden's Sofia Arvidsson.
Qualifying play continues today with the main draw commencing at 10:00 pacific time (18:00 GMT) on Wednesday.
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