Iga Swiatek still the one to beat at Indian Wells but challengers lining up.

Pole is world No 1 but Aryna Sabalenka won the Australian Open and Barbora Krejcikova beat Swiatek in Dubai.

At the last stage of the WTA’s Middle East swing two weeks ago, Iga Swiatek arrived in the final of the Dubai Duty Free Championships having fully re-established her imperious form. She had first destroyed all in her path in Doha, losing just five games in her three matches en route to the title, and she remained untouchable a week later on the way to another final.

Iga Swiatek

Most players understandably cower against the WTA’s dominant star in such form, but Barbora Krejcikova has consistently proved her toughness and quality in the biggest moments of her career. With an exhibition of daring, early ball-striking and her deep toolbox of variety, the Czech toppled Swiatek in straight sets. She is the only player since 2019 to defeat Swiatek in a final, a distinction she has now achieved twice.
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The results in the Middle East left the tour in an interesting position before Indian Wells, the biggest non-grand slam event on the calendar. At the beginning of this season, the most pertinent questions were exactly how Swiatek would follow up her first season as No 1 and who ould possibly keep up with her?

Swiatek’s recent performances underlined her continued dominance. She does not only outplay her opponents, she destroys them. She overpowers them with her greater weaponry, dominating off both wings from inside the baseline with her spin, angles and weight of shot. She is also a significantly better athlete than almost every opponent.

During her run in the Middle East, Swiatek demonstrated improvements to her serve, a reminder that despite being the best player in the world, at 21 she is still improving. Swiatek was dealing with an infection in Dubai, so she remained satisfied with her level of play despite the defeat.

In the first two months of the year there has also been a response from the tour. Swiatek does not always enjoy facing the bigger hitters, who can land the first strike and rush her strokes. After their brutal, instant-classic Australian Open final, Aryna Sabalenka and Elena Rybakina positioned themselves as contenders.

On the notoriously slow courts of Indian Wells, however, they face their own challenges. Sabalenka, who lost in three sets against Krejcikova in Dubai, will look to build her form again in the bottom half of the draw. Rybakina, seeded 10th, can only face Swiatek in the quarter-final.

Krejcikova, meanwhile, offers a completely different challenge. Her immaculate timing and soft hands allow her to redirect from any part of the court and generate wicked angles, her heavy forehand is one of the best in the world and she possesses a complete game refined on the doubles court. Her talent is undeniable.

Krejcikova, now 27, initially followed up her shock 2021 French Open triumph well but an elbow injury forced her out for four months in 2022 and broke down her confidence. Only now has she re-established her form and her status as one of the biggest threats.

As the players begin in Indian Wells, the tour has shifted off the court. On Tuesday, the WTA announced long-awaited confirmation of its new $150m (£125m) partnership with CVC Capital Partners, a private equity firm that will take a 20% stake in the WTA. CVC previously invested in Formula One and it currently holds stakes in La Liga, Six Nations Rugby and Premiership Rugby.

The partnership is necessary for the WTA after its significant financial struggles since the beginning of the pandemic and its subsequent decision to suspend its tournaments in China and Hong Kong. That was due to concerns about Peng Shuai’s wellbeing after her social media post alleging sexual assault against China’s former vice-premier, Zhang Gaoli. Peng later said the post was “an enormous misunderstanding”.

In 2020 alone, the WTA suffered an operating loss of $16.5m. Over the past few years, prize money has dropped at its tournaments, there has been a dearth of playing opportunities for professionals at all levels and the financial gap between the ATP and WTA has widened. The WTA has announced that “critical changes” to the calendar will follow and it has entered the partnership with the aim of growing the sport.

Meanwhile, Emma Raducanu will compete for the first time since the Australian Open as she looks to gain some momentum after another period affected by injury and illness. After ankle issues in Melbourne, Raducanu, 20, contracted tonsillitis before an appearance in Austin, Texas. She
will face Danka Kovinic of Montenegro in the first round.

In the absence of Novak Djokovic, the world No 1, who was unable to secure a visa to enter the US because he is not vaccinated against Covid-19, Daniil Medvedev will begin as the men’s favourite after compiling a 14-match winning streak with titles in Rotterdam, Doha and Dubai.

After encouraging performances in February, with a first ATP 500 clay-court title in Rio and a final in Doha respectively, Cameron Norrie and Andy Murray will look to push on in the Californian desert.

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