Angelique Kerber will be the top-ranked player on Monday, supplanting Serena Williams after the American withdrew from Indian Wells pre-tournament. However, Kerber could be called an off-form high-ranked player right now. She may be the World No. 1 again as of Monday, but that’s due to old results in the last 52 weeks as opposed to anything recent. Since originally becoming the World No. 1 following the 2016 US Open, Kerber has not won a tournament. The span of time now covers 10 events, including Indian Wells, and that kind of form probably won’t support her top ranking for much longer.
That said, she doesn’t have a major ranking-point defense coming up until Wimbledon, where she was runner-up in 2016. Ahead of that, she does have a title defense in Stuttgart, but that’s a lower-tiered tournament that might not hurt her that much to lose in provided she doesn’t go out very early in the draw.
Over the long term, it may not be Serena Williams that replaces Kerber at the top of the women’s rankings. The American has the Australian Open and Wimbledon bagged, but she just doesn’t participate in enough of the smaller events. With Serena’s participation questionable in upcoming tournaments Karolina Pliskova is the player that looks like she could be taking Kerber out of top spot. The Czech player is into the Indian Wells semifinals with a very reasonable draw to the title this weekend.
Pliskova eliminated Garbine Muguruza on Wednesday, knocking out the Spaniard in straight sets 7-6, 7-6. That gives the World No. 3 a semifinal against Svetlana Kuznetsova in California and then maybe a final against Caroline Wozniacki. If Pliskova can survive that she’ll have her second Premier 5 or Premier Mandatory title following her win from Cincinnati last year. If she does win Indian Wells this weekend then she’ll have a ranking-points total of 6250. She’ll be about 1000 points back of Serena Williams and 1300 points back of Kerber. The results from Miami could close those gaps, however, it will be hard to the Czech to go back to back (she’s no Vika).
Looking ahead passed Miami, Pliskova could gain a lot during the upcoming clay-court tournaments. She won just one match in all of Madrid, Rome, and the French Open last year. The clay does slow down the big servers a bit so we can’t get too excited about Pliskova’s chances on that surface. However, she’s a much better player now than she was this time a year ago. If she can put together just one deep run in one of the big clay-court events then it might be enough to see her claim top spot. If she puts together two deep runs then it would be hard to picture her as anything but No. 1 heading into Wimbledon, a tournament that she should do well in.
There aren’t really any other clear contenders for top spot right now. But the player that is lurking very deep in the background is Victoria Azarenka. She gave birth three months ago now and she’s still on the comeback trail following her maternity leave. Having missed nearly a year of events, it will take a long time for her to climb back into top-five contention. If she’s anything like what she was in Indian Wells and Miami last year, where she won two titles, none of Pliskova, Kerber, or a 35-year old Serena Williams will stop her. It’s very telling that Azarenka hasn’t played since the French Open, where she withdrew from her first-round match (she was pregnant at the time), and yet she’s still ranked 17th.
As I see it, Pliskova has a narrow window to claim No. 1. She needs Indian Wells, a good result in Miami, and then a good clay-court season. If she doesn’t claim the top spot before the US Open, then I won’t be surprised to see Azarenka or even Petra Kvitova keeping her out of some major finals.