Of all the stops on the women's tennis tour, of all the international destinations that German-born Angelique Kerber visits each year, the BNP Paribas Open at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden is one of her favorite events.
"I love this tournament because I really like the location. I like that it's really quiet and on center court and all the practice courts out there you can practice actually all day," said Kerber, who is ranked No. 2 in the world. "And the fans are there also during the practice, filling the practice courts. This tournament is good also for the fans, I think. You are so near to them and they are watching you and it's nice for us and for the fans too."
There's only one problem: the tournament — at least the past three years — hasn't loved her in return.
Last year, soon after she had won her first Grand Slam title by upsetting Serena Williams at the Australian Open, Kerber lost her first match at Indian Wells to Denisa Allertova in straight sets. In 2015 she lost her first Indian Wells match to Sloane Stephens, also in straight sets, and she lost her first match in 2014 to Maria Teresa Torro Flor in three sets. "I reached once the semis there one year, so that's the best memory so far from this tournament," Kerber said, laughing during a phone conversation from her training base in Poland.
She actually reached the semifinals twice, in 2012 and 2013. To go that far or beyond this year would be progress for Kerber, who has made some surprisingly quick exits in early-season tournaments. Qualifying will take place Monday and Tuesday. Women's first-round matches will begin Wednesday and men's first-round matches start Thursday. The top 10-ranked men and women are scheduled to compete.
Kerber ended 2016 as No. 1 after winning at Australia, reaching the Wimbledon final, and winning the U.S. Open. However, the left-hander with the powerful baseline game slid to No. 2 after she was beaten by CoCo Vandeweghe in the round of 16 at this year's Australian Open and Williams won her 23rd Grand Slam to regain the top spot. A good performance at Indian Wells would be a mental boost for Kerber.
"I'm feeling good, actually. I know I have nothing to lose," she said. "I lost last year in the first round, but I know that I can just play better this year. I can go there and enjoy the two weeks and hope that it will be better than the last years."
Kerber said she has recovered from a right knee injury that began to bother her on the slippery, wet courts in her last tournament, in Dubai, and contributed to her semifinal loss to Elina Svitolina. "After Dubai I had my two days off and I rested a little bit so the knee is OK," she said. "I feel it still a little bit, but I have my treatments and they are helping me so it is not a big deal."
Had Kerber won at Dubai, she would have regained the No. 1 ranking. But for now, she's focusing only on how she's playing.
"I know this from the last year: If you play good and you play consistent, you will get your result and then you will be the No. 1 automatically. So this is in my mind," she said. "I'm not thinking about the rankings and the points. Now it's like more to find my game again and finding my rhythm and going out there and playing good tennis."
The stress and demands of being No. 1 required some adjustment for her. She learned the importance of getting away for a while, if only for a coffee or shopping or a visit to the beach.
"Of course, if you are No. 1 you have more things to do, and people, they are looking up. It's different and I know the feeling already," she said. "To be No. 2 is actually the same. The pressure is there. It's not that I can be like two years ago that I just walk in there and nobody knows me. The people recognize me much more than the years before.
"I think that I've gotten used to it now. At the beginning it was a little bit different and difficult for me because it was a completely new situation and new challenge. But I think right now I know how to handle this and also how to handle my day schedule, also taking a few hours for myself, so I think that now I'm OK with everything around."
The Indian Wells field, as always, will be formidable. That's another reason it's one of Kerber's favorite places. "Everybody is playing there. It's almost like a Grand Slam, I think," she said. "This is actually a good thing because if you go there I know I have to play from the first round my best tennis. I like to compete with the other players, the best ones, so this is always good to go there and to see how good my preparation was in the last few weeks and how I'm feeling on the court again. It's a good challenge."
What: BNP Paribas Open
Where: Indian Wells Tennis Garden
When: Monday-Tuesday qualifying. Wednesday-March 19 main competition. Men's and women's finals on March 19.
Who: The field features the top-10 ranked women and top-10 ranked men in the world.
How much: Prize money will exceed $14 million. The men's and women's winners will each receive $1 million.
Defending champions: Men—Novak Djokovic. Women—Victoria Azarenka.