INDIAN WELLS (Calif): Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka arrives for her title defence at Indian Wells seeking another victory to take her closer to regaining the World No 1 ranking.
A title repeat on the hard courts of the California desert won't send Victoria back to the top of the heap, but it could set the stage for a showdown with current No 1 Serena Williams later in March in Miami.
Once again, Serena and her sister Venus are skipping the BNP Paribas Open, where other notable absentees include China's Li Na.
World No 5 Li Na is still battling the nagging effects of the left ankle injury she suffered in losing the Australian Open final to Victoria.
Women's main draw play in the combined WTA and ATP Masters tournament began late yesterday, although the top 32 seeds all enjoy first-round byes.
World No 3 Maria Sharapova, routed in straight sets by Victoria in last year's final, is seeded second ahead of Poland's Agnieszka Radwanska and Germany's Angelique Kerber.
Roger Federer is the defending men's champion, and seeded second behind World No 1 Novak Djokovic.
Federer's hold on the No 2 ranking could be in jeopardy with Scotland's Andy Murray in position to overtake him by reaching the final of the first Masters event of the season.
If Murray wins the tournament, he is assured of moving to No 2. If he finishes runner-up, Federer must reach the semi-finals or better to retain the second spot.
The men's field also features Rafael Nadal, who ended a seven-month injury absence with a Latin American swing of three clay-court tournaments that yielded a runner-up finish in Vina del Mar, Chile, and titles in Sao Paulo and Acapulco.
He's hoping Indian Wells will prove his left knee is up to the rigours of a hard-court tournament.
Victoria, 23, could face a tricky second-round opener against two-time former champion Daniela Hantuchova. The Slovakian faces a qualifier in the first round.
Victoria could face American Sloane Stephens in the fourth round. The two last met in the Australian Open semi-finals, when Victoria squandered five match points, took a medical timeout and returned to triumph.
Some commentators viewed it as gamesmanship, although Victoria insisted she had a genuine health issue.
Also in the top quarter of the draw is World No 10 and 2011 champion Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark.
In the bottom half of the draw, Maria faces a tough opener against one of two former top-10 Italians, Francesca Schiavone and Flavia Pennetta. AFP