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Tough road for Azarenka in Indian Wells

Could Victoria Azarenka duplicate Novak Djokovic's impressive start to a season?

If Azarenka, 17-0 to begin 2012, can finally win in Indian Wells, it wouldn't be strange to see the new world No. 1 enter the clay court swing unblemished given her fine record in Miami. The double would boost her record to 29-0, allowing her to move closer to the Serb's 41-0 start last year. (He actually won 43 straight dating back to the culmination of 2010.)

Azarenka, the substantial favorite in the California desert, doesn't have the easiest path, however.

Here are five takeaways from the draw, which also features defending champion Caroline Wozniacki, a returning Petra Kvitova -- but neither Serena nor Venus Williams, again.

Tests for Vika

Azarenka's opener, likely against Mona Barthel, might be interesting. Barthel's year-end ranking has improved every year since she turned pro in 2007, and she's up to 37th now, barely missing out on a seeding.

Another solid German on the women's tour.

Yes, Azarenka thumped Barthel 6-1, 6-0 in Doha last month, but Barthel had to be a little tired. The week before, she played six matches in Paris. Overall, she's already contested 24 matches in 2012.

Benefiting from a nice break post-Dubai, Barthel -- who pushed Azarenka in the second set of their affair in Melbourne -- figures to be refreshed.

In the third round, it's potentially the enigmatic Svetlana Kuznetsova (4-1 versus Azarenka); barring a major upset, Dubai finalist Julia Goerges (another German) surfaces in the fourth round; and Agnieszka Radwanska, who usually plays Vika tough and is on a roll, figures to be her quarterfinal foe.

What would the handshake be like this time?

Petra's back

Kvitova, in Azarenka's half, needs matches to get into a rhythm, and she hasn't competed in about a month because of an Achilles injury and illness.

That, coupled with her poor record in Indian Wells, could spell trouble for the Wimbledon champion and Azarenka's major rival (ignore the rankings, which have Maria Sharapova as the No. 2.)

Further, her first opponent might be fellow Czech Barbora Zahlavova Strycova -- who downed Kvitova in her Indian Wells opener in 2011.

If she advances to the third round, Christina McHale, the highest-ranked American woman in Indian Wells, is her probable foe. McHale is the type of player, a scrapper with a bit of oomph (on the forehand), who can trouble the lefty on an off day.

Kvitova's quarter features two slumping Russians, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Vera Zvonareva, back from a hip injury, while Li Na, another returning from injury, and Zheng Jie could square off in an all-Chinese battle in the third round.

Despite losing four in a row, Zheng has the edge.

She's 4-0 against Li, which would no doubt play on Li's mind even if their last encounter was in 2006.

Pressure on Caro

The pressure is on Wozniacki.

She has maximum points to defend in Indian Wells, and instead of looking up in the rankings, she should be wary of what's behind her: Radwanska, her pal, is charging.

Wozniacki, mind you, got some good news this week when boyfriend Rory McIlroy became the new No. 1 in golf, so there's still a No. 1 in the relationship.

Wozniacki tuned up for Indian Wells with a light-hearted exhibition at Madison Square Garden, and her early-round draw should fill her with more cheer. On paper, anyway.

Things only appear to get tough in the quarterfinals, where Wozniacki could tangle with Lucie Safarova or Kaia Kanepi. Kanepi beat Wozniacki last fall on hard courts, and Safarova edged Wozniacki in Doha.

Then again, the consistent Marion Bartoli is the most likely contender to show up in the quarterfinals, and Wozniacki is 5-2 against the Frenchwoman.

What next for Sharapova?

Glancing at her results, Sharapova's past 10 months have been good. She reached the semis at the French Open, the final at Wimbledon and the final at this year's Australian Open.

But following shoulder surgery, she hasn't been able to win the big match against the top players: Li, Kvitova and Azarenka ousted Sharapova in straight sets in Paris, London and Melbourne, respectively. The matches against Azarenka and Kvitova, the two women to beat on the tour, weren't close.

So even if Sharapova goes deep in Indian Wells, which would outwardly be positive, it won't mean much if she doesn't topple Azarenka, Kvitova or even Wozniacki.

The one player who might prevent Sharapova from reaching the quarters is Dominika Cibulkova, yet the Slovak began the season poorly and retired in her last tournament with a hamstring injury.

Sharapova holds a 9-1 record against her potential quarterfinal challenger, Sam Stosur, and when the Aussie defeated Sharapova in Turkey last fall, it was largely down to Sharapova's bum ankle.

Then it could be Wozniacki.

Slim pickings

The days of Americans littering the draw are gone.

Indian Wells gives us more proof.

Although there's some talent in the pipeline, only three -- McHale, Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Vania King -- received direct acceptance (not including Williams, who continues to sit out the tournament).

But why no wild card for Varvara Lepchenko, the U.S. No. 5, who's ranked 82nd? Lepchenko was forced to go through qualifying.


London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com. You can follow him on Twitter.