Will Williamses master Miami again?

Originally Published: March 24, 2009
By Kamakshi Tandon | Special to

Serena WilliamsChris McGrath/Getty ImagesSerena Williams is the two-time defending champion at the Sony Ericsson Open.

With Indian Wells scarcely in the rearview mirror, the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour crosses the country to Key Biscayne, Fla., for the Sony Ericsson Open. Here are five story lines to follow in what many consider the fifth major:

A sisterly showdown

There might not be one dominant player on the tour at the moment, but put Serena Williams and Venus Williams together, and it's a pretty fair imitation. Between the two of them, they hold three of the four Slams, the year-end championships and an Olympic gold medal (OK, in doubles -- but we're putting the two of them together).

They have been similarly dominant in Miami -- the Williams name has been carved on the women's trophy in eight of the past 11 years.

Returning to competition after their annual absence from the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, Calif., the sisters again are likely to be one another's toughest opposition. This year's draw calls for a semifinal showdown between the two, and in that case, the outcome would be anyone's guess. Each of their five meetings since the beginning of 2008 has been excruciatingly close, with Venus edging ahead 3-2.

Against the field as a whole, however, Serena is the favorite. The younger sister is a five-time Miami champ (including 2007 and 2008) as well as the toughest competitor on the women's tour. While just as formidable at her best, Venus' strokes have a greater tendency to break down under pressure, and the three-time Miami champ hasn't been past the semifinals since 2001.

Ivanovic's first round

Ana Ivanovic's run to the Indian Wells final last week was encouraging rather than convincing. Yes, she shook off her post-French Open troubles to make a decent show of defending her title. But she rarely displayed her best tennis -- and rarely had to, given the so-so level of the opposition. A wind-ravaged final was a further disruption, with neither Ivanovic nor eventual champion Vera Zvonareva able to establish any rhythm or timing.

So the Serb now heads to Miami hoping to prove that Indian Wells was no fluke and that her slump really is behind her. First and foremost, this means getting through the first few rounds.

"That's my main goal at the moment," said Ivanovic, who lost her second match in Miami last year after winning Indian Wells. "Looking back through last year, even the first half when I was doing well, there was something missing in my game: consistency."

Jankovic's first step

Jelena Jankovic has been blaming this year's woes on her offseason training, saying extra muscle has cost her the quickness her counterpunching game relies on. Of course, it's also possible that the sluggishness is the result of chronic overplaying and not taking a proper break this winter.

The normally bubbly Serb was fighting back tears after losing her opening match at Indian Wells, bitterly disappointed at her quick slide from year-end No. 1 to early round fodder. But Jankovic also knows how to make a quick turnaround -- she contemplated retirement after losing 10 straight matches in 2006 but then went on to finish the season in the top 20.

Miami will be no easy place to begin a rebound, because both Williams sisters loom in her half of the draw. But getting back the spring in her step -- literally -- would be a start.

[+] EnlargeVera Zvonareva
Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty ImagesBy winning Indian Wells, Vera Zvonareva augmented her status as a legitimate threat on the WTA Tour.
Vera's visibility

Zvonareva gets far less attention than fellow Russians Dinara Safina and Elena Dementieva (or even the injured Maria Sharapova). To an extent, this is natural -- Zvonereva has achieved less during her career and has less upside than her aforementioned compatriots.

But a surprise victory at Indian Wells last week makes her harder to ignore. She comes into Miami having earned more ranking points than anyone else this season, save Serena Williams. Over the past six months, Zvonareva has reached the final of the Sony Ericsson year-end championships and the semifinals of the Australian Open, has won Pattaya City and now is the Indian Wells champion.

"It feels great that I was able to win every single match. I think it will help a lot in the future to be able to know what it takes to win those long, like, two-week events," Zvonareva said shortly after lifting the Indian Wells trophy.

Zvonareva's moment in the spotlight might turn out to be brief. In Miami, she has landed in the same half of the draw as the Williams sisters, while Safina and Dementieva are on the opposite side with Ivanovic.

Still, the other two Russians also have more to prove. Dementieva isn't feeling the hunger right now, and Safina is struggling to gather herself after falling flat in the Australian Open final and wasting multiple opportunities to take No. 1.

"I just think my mind wasn't there. I was not really excited about playing this match," Dementieva said, shrugging, following her opening-round loss at Indian Wells.

After being ousted by the rising young Victoria Azarenka in the quarterfinals, Safina said, "I just want for the next tournament I finally play my game and play like I've been playing like last year. Since Australia, I'm playing defensive, and it's not me."

Players coming up, coming back

Two of the tour's teens came up big at Indian Wells -- both 19-year-old Azarenka and 17-year-old Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova reached the semifinals. There will be no repeat of that in Miami, because the two are slated to meet in the second round this week.

Also at Indian Wells, 19-year-old Caroline Wozniacki was solid if not spectacular in reaching the quarterfinals, and 18-year-old Urszula Radwanska cracked the top 100 with a run to the fourth round. Radwanska is playing Miami qualifying, while Wozniacki faces a tougher draw than she had last week.

Miami-loving 16-year-old Michelle Larcher de Brito fell in qualifying this year, but 17-year-old American Coco Vandeweghe is back in the main draw as a wild card.

Meanwhile, there's a host of players attempting to revive their careers. Former No. 1 Amelie Mauresmo will try to rediscover her initially promising form at Indian Wells, while former prodigy Jelena Dokic is one win away from a yet another encounter with Wozniacki (the two played an epic at the Australian Open and met again in the opening round of Memphis). Daniela Hantuchova, Nadia Petrova, Agnes Szavay and Sania Mirza are some of the mid-career pros still slowly trudging back from injury.

There's little order at the top of the game but plenty of jostling in the trenches.

Kamakshi Tandon is a freelance tennis writer for