Women’s Preview – Sharapova Looks for Title No. 3

Can one of the seven former champions win again at the BNP Paribas Open? The women’s singles draw was made Monday and all seven have a fair shot, along with the 89 other players slated for action at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden.

World No. 2 Li Na, the reigning Australian Open champion, makes her return to the Coachella Desert after missing the tournament a year ago. The Chinese star is the top seed.

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Defending champion Maria Sharapova, a four-time Grand Slam winner, shares the top half of the draw with Li. The Russian 26-year-old, ranked No. 5, has won here twice: first in 2006 and again last year. 2008 winner Ana Ivanovic, seeded 11th, is also on the top half.

World No. 3 Agnieszka Radwanska is the second seed and leads the bottom half of the draw, which she shares with 2012 winnerVictoria Azarenka. The lower half of the draw also includes former champions Vera Zvonareva (2009), Daniela Hantuchova(2002 and 2007), Jelena Jankovic (2010) and Caroline Wozniacki (2011).

Wozniacki was a finalist here a year ago, losing to Sharapova. She and Jankovic could meet as early as the fourth round. The two former world No. 1s have faced off nine times in their careers, Wozniacki with five victories to four.

Battles Down the Road
As the No. 1 seed, Li Na has a fairly easy path to the fourth round, where she could meet 15th-seeded Sabine Lisicki, the German who was Wimbledon runner-up last year. Petra Kvitova, the No. 8 seed, and Dominika Cibulkova, the Australian Open finalist, are also in that quarter of the draw, the two Europeans slated to meet in the fourth round to potentially meet the winner of Li-Lisicki.

Read more of who could face whom late in the tournament and which first-round encounters we’re keeping our eyes on AFTER THE JUMP.

(PHOTO: Li Na)

In the lower quarter of the top half of the draw, Sharapova could face 2011 US Open champion Sam Stosur in the fourth round. The Australian Stosur made the quarterfinals here last year only to pull out with an injury. Sharapova owns a safe 12-2 record against the 29-year-old.

The bottom part of that section is most intriguing with Ivanovic slated to face up-and-coming American Sloane Stephens in the third round. If one of those two stars makes it through to the round of 16 she could potentially meet No. 5 seed Angelique Kerber, a semifinalist from a year ago.

In the top part of the bottom half of the draw, No. 6 seed Simona Halep, who has had a banner year with seven titles in 12 months, could meet Australian Open semifinalist Eugenie Bouchard in the third round. Gutsy Italian Sara Errani, seeded ninth, is also in that portion of the draw.

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Lower down, former champion Hantuchova, seeded 29th, could meet Azarenka in the third round, an early battle of two former champions. The Belarusian, a two-time Australian Open winner, leads their head-to-head 3-2.

It’s in the bottom quarter of the lower half of the draw that Jankovic and Wozniacki could clash in the fourth round. If they do and seeds hold up, the winner would faces No. 2 Radwanska, who has a relatively seamless pass into week two.

First Round Sizzlers
Of the 32 first round matches slated for Wednesday and Thursday, there are a handful that are must-watch.

Dynamic American Bethanie Mattek-Sands plays Frenchwoman Caroline Garcia in a powerful opening encounter. The two have never met and the winner gets Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, the No. 21 seed.

Veteran Francesca Schiavone will do battle with Mona Barthel, the German, in their first round. Stosur is waiting in the wings for the victor there.

American wildcard Victoria Duval, just 18, will take on Alisa Kleybanova, the Russian, who has continued her comeback from a battle with cancer. Duval made waves when she upset Stosur at the US Open last summer, but has a steep wall to climb against the elder Kleybanova.

Another comeback story includes Zvonareva, the 2009 winner here returning from a shoulder injury that kept her out for over a year. She faces China’s Peng Shuai in the first round, the winner taking on Bouchard.

Madison Keys, the 19-year-old from the U.S. will face Tsvetana Pironkova in her first match, the Bulgarian known for her quick, strong game.

Alison Riske, a 23-year-old American who has launched herself into the top 50, will get Serbian Bojana Jovanovski to start in what could be a thrilling affair. The winner faces Wozniacki in the second round.