Serena Williams' absence has opened up a big opportunity in the Miami draw, but who will take advantage to emerge with the title in the second Premier Mandatory event of the season?
WTA Miami Open tennis is live from Miami from 20 March - 2 April, 2017.
When Victoria Azarenka won the Miami Open in 2016 to become just the third woman to complete the rare Indian Wells-Miami double, it appeared the former world number one had overcome her injury problems, and would once again become a regular fixture at the business ends of the big tournaments. But her resurgence was short-lived. Her clay-court season was plagued by injuries, and pregnancy ultimately brought a conclusion to her 2016 campaign. Azarenka has since had her baby, but the 2017 Miami Open has come too soon for the three-time champion.
Azarenka is not the only major absentee at Crandon Park this year, as the tournament's winningnest player, Serena Williams misses out of her home event with the knee problem that had also forced her out of Indian Wells. Serena (with a record eight titles), and Azarenka have won the Miami Open eleven times between them. They will be massively missed.
Before Serena Williams opened her Miami account in 2002, elder sister Venus had already claimed three titles at the tournament, including the 1999 edition when she beat Serena in the final. Venus has not won since then, but given the form she showed at the Australian Open, where she lost to Serena in the final, and an encouraging quarter final showing at Indian Wells, a deep Venus run in Miami is not out of the question.
Venus Williams is the only multiple Miami champion in the women's draw. (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)
Venus remains one of only three active former champions left in the draw, with the others being Svetlana Kuznetsova and Agnieszka Radwanska. 2006 champion, Kuznetsova was the woman that ended Serena's three-year reign as Miami champion with her fourth round victory in 2016. The Russian went on to reach the final in a resurgent season that saw her qualify for the season-ending WTA Finals, and break back into the top ten. She wasn't quite at the races at the start of the new campaign, with an abdominal injury injury holding her down, but she sprang to life at Indian Wells, where she reached her first final of the season. With that sort of form, and her useful record in Miami, Kuznetsova will be eyeing more progress at the tournament.
The only other former champion left in the draw is Agnieszka Radwanska, but the 2012 winner has not quite been at her best this year. She started fairly well, reaching the final in her second tournament in Sydney, but she has not won back-to-back matches since then. Radwanska's chances of a 2012 encore do not look good.
One woman that certainly looks good for a Miami run is world number three, Karolina Pliskova, whose terrific start to the season has already yielded titles in Brisbane and Doha; and a career-best quarter final at the Australian Open. She would have been disappointed with her loss to Mirjana Lucic-Baroni in that Melbourne quarter-final. Pliskova is now firmly entrenched in the top echelon of the sport, and until she cools off, if she cools off, the powerful Czech goes into every tournament, particularly on the quicker courts as one of the favourite. Such is the ability the young woman possesses. She did not play her best tennis at Indian Wells, but she still got to the semi-finals, where she was taken out by Kuznetsova in two tie breaks. Pliskova has now reached the semi-finals or better in three of her five tournaments this season.
Serena's absence from Indian Wells paved the way for Angelique Kerber to return to the top of the rankings. The German enters Miami on top of the world rankings, despite throwing in another below par performance at Indian Wells. There were signs of a resurgence when she reached the semi-final in Dubai, but she sank back into her mediocre season with a fourth round loss to Elena Vesnina. Kerber said after the match that she was not moving as well as she might have liked, hinting that the knee injury that troubled her against Elina Svitolina in Dubai may not be completely healed, raising questions over her title credentials in Miami. Kerber's problems have been well-documented. She was dismissed by CoCo Vandeweghe in the fourth round of the Australian Open either side of opening round exits in Sydney and Doha. She finally got going in Dubai before a knee injury compromised her progress in the semi-final against Svitolina. Kerber does have good memories of her last trip to Miami. She reached the semi-finals in 2016- her best ever result in Florida- but she hasn't been in the sort of form to suggest that she can do a repeat performance in 2017.
Angelique Kerber. (Photo by Tom Dulat/Getty Images)
Looking through the rest of the top ten, Simona Halep's 2017 struggles look set to continue after she was easily dispatched by Kristina Mladenovic in the third round at Indian Wells, Dominika Cibulkova remains very capable but uncertain. Garbine Muguruza, who entered Indian Wells on a bit of a lull, played well to get to the quarter finals in California, and run Pliskova very close in that last eight, but the Spaniard has not been the best in backing up results, which makes her difficult to back.
Elina Svitolina, who had her 13-match winning streak snapped by Muguruza in the fourth round at Indian Wells, possesses the consistency to put together another solid run in Miami. Madison Keys looked decent in her first tournament of the season after undergoing wrist surgery. She was well-beaten by Caroline Wozniacki in the third round, but with a few matches under her belt, she could be ready to make her mark in an unpredictable Miami field.
Outside the top ten, Caroline Wozniacki and her Indian Wells conqueror, Kristina Mladenovic look very good shouts, while we wait for Johanna Konta to rediscover the form that made her such a title threat at the start of the season. Nothing is guaranteed in a WTA field that has already thrown up Vesnina as an Indian Wells finalist.
Catch all the excitement from Miami, as the second Premier Mandatory Tournament of the season holds from March 20 to April 2, 2017.