WTA Indian Wells third round preview: Venus Williams vs Lucie Safarova

Former world number one Venus Williams ended her boycott at the BNP Paribas Open last year. The seven-time Grand Slam singles champion followed in the footsteps of her sister Serena, who ended her boycott the year previous. Unfortunately, Venus lost her first match at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden to Japanese qualifier Kurumi Nara. However, Williams is looking to make amends at this year's tournament, and the 36-year-old has had a good start to 2017. The American reached her first Grand Slam singles final at the Australian Open since Wimbledon in 2009. Williams came up short to her sister but if she can continue that form, she could go all the way and win the title here in Indian Wells.

Before the 12th seed can think about winning the title, she has to navigate a tough third round encounter with world number 40 Lucie Safarova. Safarova was the 12th seed in California last year but she missed the first part of the 2016 season due to suffering a bacterial infection. The infection hospitalized the Czech and she didn't win a match until she won the title in her native Prague in April. The 2015 French Open finalist's ranking slid due to being unable to defend her points at the following edition losing to Sam Stosur in the third round. Furthermore, the former Czech number one was unseeded at the US Open and Australian Open this year losing to Simona Halep and eventual champion Serena Williams in the second round of both. Nevertheless, Safarova gave a good account of herself in those matches and you can assure if the Czech is fully fit and healthy, she will rapidly rise up those rankings again.

How they got here

The 12th seed received a bye into the second round, due to being one of the top 32 seeds. However, she was dealt a tough second round encounter with fellow former world number one and 2010 champion Jelena Jankovic. The Serb-led Williams 7-6 in their head-to-head and it was increasingly likely, that she would extend her record over the American. Furthermore, the 36-year-old was heavily strapped which hampered her serving. Williams never gave up, and she overturned the deficit by defeating Jankovic, 1-6, 7-6 (5), 6-1, saving three match points en route to victory. It was Williams' first victory at Indian Wells since thrashing two-time Slam finalist Elena Dementieva, 6-0, 6-3 in 2001.

Safarova didn't have the privilege of receiving a bye into the second round. However, that didn't faze the multiple-time Grand Slam doubles winner. The 29-year-old eased past Spain's Lara Arruabarrena, 6-3, 6-2 and in the second round, Safarova was up against Williams' compatriot and 20th seed Coco Vandeweghe. The American reached the semifinals of the Australian Open this year, and the Czech halted any chances of a reunion between the Americans. The former world number five recorded a confidence-boosting win over Vandeweghe, 4-6, 6-4, 6-1 to set up this intriguing third round meeting with Williams.

Safarova is looking to rediscover her best form in California (Photo by Matthew Stockman / Getty Images)
Safarova is looking to rediscover her best form in California (Photo by Matthew Stockman / Getty Images)

Their history

Williams and Safarova have met on six occasions and the veteran American leads 4-2 in their head-to-head series. The 12th seed leads 3-0 on clay courts but the Czech leads 2-1 on hard courts which are significant heading into this mouth-watering third round clash. 

The seven-time Grand Slam singles winner defeated Safarova when the Czech was a teenager in their first meeting on the clay courts in Rome, 6-1, 6-4 in 2006. Three years later it was a closer contest but once again Williams was victorious in Rome, 6-2, 4-6, 6-2. One of their closest meetings to date took place in the second round of the French Open in 2009 when the 2002 finalist recovered from a set down to oust Safarova, 6-7 (5), 6-2, 7-5. Williams extended her winning run over the former world number five in their first meetings on hard courts at the Australian Open in 2010. The American comprehensively dispatched Safarova, 6-2, 6-2 in the first round in Melbourne. However, that would be Williams' last victory over Safarova as the duo would do battle four years later at the Western and Southern Open in Cincinnati in 2014. It was a tough first round match for both players but the Czech recovered from a set down to inflict Williams' first defeat against her, 6-7 (2), 6-3, 6-4. They would meet a year later in 2015 in Dubai with Safarova ending Williams' 16 matches unbeaten run in the Middle East, 6-4, 6-2.

Williams' heavily strapped elbow could be the decisive factor in this contest (Photo by Harry How / Getty Images)
Williams' heavily strapped elbow could be the decisive factor in this contest (Photo by Harry How / Getty Images)

Who wins?

With Venus' sister Serena withdrawing from the tournament due to suffering a knee injury, and not playing a competitive match since winning the Australian Open. The draw has opened up and only Caroline Wozniacki and Simona Halep remain as the only two former champions in the draw. Therefore, there is a strong opportunity for a new champion to be crowned. Both players will fancy their chances of making a deep run at the first Premier Mandatory event of the year with Garbine Muguruza, Dominika Cibulkova and Karolina Pliskova not looking at their best but digging deep to win matches.

The main question is will Williams be fit enough to challenge Safarova? The 12th seed had a physical battle with Jankovic in the previous round, and her elbow will no doubt be feeling the effects of a long match. On the other hand, the American is a fighter, and she will not give up without a fight. It was vital for the seven-time Grand Slam singles champion to serve well, which she struggled to do at times in her match with Jankovic. Safarova is a formidable returner, and she will punish Williams' serves if they are not strong enough to cause Williams any issues.

Both players have established players at the net as both players are doubles medalists at the Olympics and both are multiple Grand Slam doubles champions. The world number 40's lefty serve can be tricky to read, and Safarova will be aiming to serve to Williams' body and not in her striking zone. If Safarova can remain calm and composed, there is no reason why she cannot register her third consecutive victory over the Australian Open runner-up.

This will be the third match scheduled in Stadium 1 following the third round men's encounter between 29th seed Mischa Zverev and eight seed Dominic Thiem. The winner of this match will face the winner of the match between Chinese qualifier Peng Shuai and 2014 runner-up, the sixth seed Agnieszka Radwanska for a place in the quarterfinals. This match promises to be hard-hitting with both players looking to dictate play from the baseline.

Prediction: Safarova in straight sets