Before a ball has even been served, this year’s BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells has given tennis fans plenty to talk about. It’s been 14 years since Serena Williams was booed on court during and after her final against Kim Clijsters and she hasn’t been back since – until now.

Despite declaring in 2009 that: “I don’t care if they fine me a million dollars, I will not play there again,” the world No. 1 now feels that the time is right to end the boycott so passionately observed by herself and her sister Venus.

So can the 2015 Aussie Open champion return to the desert in style with victory at the BNP Paribas Open?

Serena will take her place in the top half of the draw and at first glance, it looks like an easy ride until at least the fourth round. At that point the American is likely to encounter either Svetlana Kuznetsova, a former two-time finalist here in 2007 and 2008; or Angelique Kerber, who – despite a recent win over Kuznetsova in Dubai – has had a mixed season so far.

As a result of her indifferent form, Kerber dropped out of the world’s top ten and recently parted company with her coach Benjamin Ebrahimzadeh. Williams will be aware of the dangers posed by both players having suffered two previous defeats against the Russian and one against the German.

There are plenty of in-form players to watch out for in the top half of the women’s draw including Lucie Safarova, who recently rose to No. 11 in the world; and Timea Bacsinszky, who is at a career-high 26th place in the rankings. However, a potential meeting between these two is likely to be scuppered by World No. 9 Ekaterina Makarova.

Other players in the top half that stand out are last year’s semi-finalist and current World No. 3 Simona Halep; 21-year-old Spanish rising star Garbiñe Muguruza; and Dubai finalist Karolina Pliskova.

Halep beat Pliskova in the Dubai final but was unable to defend her Doha crown after suffering a rib injury. If the Romanian is back to her best, she should be able to make it past a potentially difficult fourth round match, where she is likely to face the tricky Czech Republic player once again; or the in-form Muguruza.

Muguruza and Pliskova last met at the Dubai semi-finals where the Czech player came through a difficult three set match. Both players are looking to further stamp their mark on the women’s game this year and could produce one of the early standout games of the tournament.

Top half picks: Simona Halep and Serena Williams

The bottom half of the draw features three-times finalist and one-time champion Caroline Wozniacki as well as former champions Maria Sharapova, Daniela Hantuchova, Victoria Azarenka, Jelena Janković; and reigning champion Flavia Pennetta.

Caroline Wozniacki has good record here and at times last season she looked back to her best. During her recent victory in Kuala Lumpur she did not face a single player from within the top 80, but she still looks in good shape to make a challenge here.

She has a tricky draw to navigate and could come up against the likes of Madison Keys or former champs Jelena Jankovic and Daniela Hantuchova in the fourth round. At just 20 years of age and with a Grand Slam semi-final under her belt this year, Keys could cause problems for any of the top players.

Maria Sharapova will be recovering from illness when she takes to the hard courts in a few days and may have to take on Victoria Azarenka in the third round. The Russian has only defeated the Belarusian once on hard court and that win came in their last meeting on the surface back in the 2012. Azaranka looked impressive on her way to the final in Doha and could be the one to deny the veteran a third title.

Another player worth watching in the lower half of the draw will be Eugenie Bouchard. The Canadian has played very little tennis since the Australian Open, so this tournament might just be a chance to regain some fitness after her injury. However, if she can get through some potentially tricky early round matches unscathed, she may just have a chance of pushing to the quarter-finals.

Bottom half tips: Victoria Azarenka and Madison Keys

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