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MARCH MADNESS TENNIS-STYLE: WTA DRAW GUARANTEES CHAOS

by

Matt Zemek

Brackets don’t guarantee that tournaments will be easy — or difficult — for certain players. To that extent, “the draw” is overrated as a predictor of what will happen in a tennis tournament or any bracketed tournament.

March is a month in America when most of this nation’s sports fans focus on a bracketed tournament in the realm of college basketball. The NCAA Tournament leads to office pools around the country. On some occasions, the office secretaries who like the colorful nature of the 68 teams’ nicknames — picking teams to advance for purely aesthetic reasons completely removed from basketball prowess — win the pool.

Yes, the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament is that chaotic.

Yet, while one form of “March Madness” unfolds in the United States, the WTA Tour’s Indian Wells bracket promises just as much insanity.

This is the under appreciated aspect of a bracket: “The draw” — as much as it doesn’t guarantee many realities, can just as surely guarantee others. Brackets don’t assure players of safe passage through a tournament, but they often DO make it certain that some players will lose at a certain stage of the proceedings. THAT is the value (the newsworthy component) of a draw, and it is fully on display in the Southern California desert for the distaff half of the 2018 BNP Paribas Open.

With Serena Williams, Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova all unseeded, it was highly likely that a few high-end matchups would occur in the first few rounds of the tournament, but even the most wild fever dreams of a chaos-heavy bracket could not have anticipated the confrontational cocktail created by this draw.

This bracket won’t guarantee certain outcomes, but it will guarantee these:

Serena or Venus Williams will be out before the fourth round.

Serena or Venus or Julia Goerges will be out before the quarterfinals.

Three of five players — Garbine Muguruza, Eugenie Bouchard, Maria Sharapova, Naomi Osaka, and Agnieszka Radwanska — will be out before the third round.

Sloane Stephens or Victoria Azarenka will be out before the third round.

Fans will want their favorites to advance, but at a tournament whose bracket contains a one-of-a-kind composition due to childbirth (Serena), a custody battle (Azarenka), and the use of a banned substance (Sharapova), it is unreasonable to place lofty expectations on the unseeded superstar trio. It is similarly unreasonable to hold the same expectations toward other players who — while needing a big week in the desert — have the great misfortune of drawing elite opponents much earlier than they hoped to.

Evaluating players at this tournament will be more a matter of assessing quality of play and how they handle pressure-packed moments. Saying “Player X should make this round” can often be used as a reasonable measuring stick heading into a tournament, but that’s when a draw is something which can be viewed as “normal.” There is very little in this draw which is “normal.”

If this tournament means more for certain players relative to others, few examples exist. Jelena Ostapenko could certainly use a big run in Southern California, but she is very young. It would represent a double standard for me to urge caution about Alexander Zverev but then not do the same with Alona, who also deserves (and by all appearances, needs) space and time to evolve in her own right.

Karolina Pliskova could also use a championship in Indian Wells to cross a threshold and gain the level of belief she displayed at the 2016 U.S. Open and last year’s WTA Finals. Yet, her lack of an extra gear against higher-end players suggests that her evolution is a longer-term process than many hoped when she began her 2017 campaign. Assigning a “win or bust” urgency to this tournament seems excessive for her.

Angelique Kerber, with her strong start to the 2018 season, doesn’t come to Indian Wells “needing” to prove herself. She has already done that. She has an opportunity to do something special, but this event does not contain “make or break” desperation for her — not even close.

If a single player DOES carry the burden of needing to do something here and now, it is probably Goerges, who can get hot — and has gotten hot — at third-tier tournaments but is still waiting for a career breakthrough at a tournament of considerable significance. Goerges has never made a quarterfinal at a major tournament, or at either Indian Wells or Miami. With Serena being rusty and Venus — also in her section — not delivering a crackling start to the 2018 season, this is the time for Goerges to step through the door. Yet, if either Serena or Venus flip the switch (which they have been known to do from time to time), Goerges can’t be too hard on herself. If she loses because a Williams sister plays great tennis, the German must shrug her shoulders and calmly move on. If, however, she takes a set-and-a-break lead and fails to close down that match (should she arrive at such a scenario), then she would have reason to be mad.

Ah, yes — mad. It is the month for March Madness… and not just in basketball. WTA tennis should deliver the same.

It is noteworthy that the WTA Finals have delivered very unexpected champions the past three years — Aga Radwanska, then Dominika Cibulkova, then Caroline Wozniacki last autumn. The BNP Paribas Open laughs, noting that since 2009, the California desert has produced Vera Zvonareva, Jelena Jankovic, Flavia Pennetta, and Elena Vesnina as champions, with a Vesnina-Svetlana Kuznetsova final marking the end of last year’s tournament.

Indian Wells has become a home for WTA chaos. This year’s bracket has guaranteed that on many levels, March will continue to be mad in the world of women’s tennis.

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