2014 is starting to look like a big year for the WTA. The days when Serena, Azarenka and Sharapova would win regularly have not been happening at the start of 2014 with all three players suffering some surprising losses. I am not accustomed yet to the likes of Simona Halep and Dominika Cibulkova as reliable players who you can depend on to beat lower ranked players. The four female quarter-finalists in action on Thursday all made the last 16 at the Australian Open and are guaranteed more big points at this Premier Mandatory event.
1. Li Na v Dominika Cibulkova (WTA, IW QF)
A rematch of this year’s Australian Open final will highlight the schedule on day 9 of the BNP Paribas Open. Dominika Cibulkova has sailed through the draw and rather handily took out Petra Kvitova in the fourth round, 6-3 6-2. Li Na is yet to drop a set in Indian Wells, but has not been convincing in any three of her matches this week. In the 4th round, she needed an astonishing 11 match points (all in the same game) to get past Aleksandra Wozniak, 6-1 6-4. The draw has opened up for Li much like in Melbourne with the likes of Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka falling early.
Li has never lost to Cibulkova in five previous meetings and won the Australian Open final in straight sets, 7-6(3) 6-0. Cibulkova’s recent form through Acapulco and Indian Wells cannot be overlooked and there is no doubt she is playing the most clean and consistent tennis of her whole career. This will be a facinating match-up because Cibulkova is playing the better tennis, but Li holds the edge in this match-up. I fancy Cibulkova will get at least a set, but Li will squeak into the semi-finals.
Prediction: Li d. Cibulkova in 3 sets
2. Sloane Stephens v Flavia Pennetta (WTA, IW QF)
The exits of Maria Sharapova and Angelique Kerber have opened the door for Sloane Stephens and Flavia Pennetta to rack up some big ranking points. Stephens has suddenly come into form this week with impressive victories over Ana Ivanovic in the third round and Alisa Kleybanova in the fourth round. A heads up to Alisa, who had a great tournament and continues to improve her ranking. Stephens has done great this week, but I will always remain sceptical at whether she’s going to be able to produce performances like this on a consistent basis after her struggles in the Middle East and generally, most tournaments away from the Grand Slams.
Much like Stephens, Pennetta has started to peak for the big events after reaching the latter stages of the last two Grand Slams. I am annoyed with myself because I originally went for Pennetta over Sharapova in the 4th round before I got cold feet… always go with your instinct! The Italian player continued her dominance over Sam Stosur in the third round and then beat Sharapova’s conqueror, Camila Giorgi, 6-2 6-1. Both are playing well and I would say both have quite similar games. Sloane has the ability to go that extra level with her shots, but Pennetta is a gritty player and one that is tough to shake off. Not much will separate these two… i’m going for Flav.
Prediction: Pennetta d. Stephens in 2 tight sets