Badosa Wins Historic Indian Wells Final Over Azarenka

Paula Badosa and Victoria Azarenka (photo: WTA video)

INDIAN WELLS/WASHINGTON, October 18, 2021 (by Michael Dickens)

Regardless of who won Sunday’s BNP Paribas Open women’s singles title match, between two-time champion Victoria Azarenka and first-time WTA 1000 finalist Paula Badosa, it was going to be historic.

In Badosa’s breakthrough year on the WTA tour, the 21st-seed from Spain beat No. 27 seed Azarenka of Belarus, 7-6 (5), 2-6, 7-6 (2), in three hours and four minutes, the longest women’s final on the WTA tour this year. It was arguably the best women’s match this year regardless of the length.

It’s already been a strange year for the BNP Paribas Open, normally held in early March. It was cancelled on the eve of the 2020 event and this year’s edition was postponed to October because of the coronavirus pandemic. Crowds for this year’s tournament have been about half the usual size. That’s because there’s been a ban on unvaccinated fans during the tournament, which includes children under 13, who are not yet eligible to receive COVID-19 vaccine shots. Plus, there usually aren’t as many tourists coming to Indian Wells in October as there are in March. Also, factor in the absence of big-name players like men’s No. 1 Novak Djokovic, women’s No. 1 Ashleigh Barty, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams for a variety of reasons, and that likely dampened interest and enthusiasm for many fans.

Still, as they say in show business, “the show must go on,” and on it did with the former No. 1 Azarenka and former junior prodigy Badosa, both ranked outside the Top 25 – Azarenka 32nd and Badosa 27th – meeting in this year’s final. Both have excelled on hard courts this year and on an 86-degree sunny afternoon in the desert, both felt at home and dug in to do battle.

In their first head-to-head confrontation, Azarenka aimed to become the first three-time Indian Wells women’s champion, while Badosa was attempting to become the third woman after Serena Williams in 1999 and Bianca Andreescu in 2019 to win a top-tier final in her debut in the southern California palm desert.

While many stars have already shut down their seasons, whether by injury or fatigue – Federer, Nadal, Dominic Thiem and possibly Barty and Naomi Osaka – both Azarenka and Badosa thrived during the Indian Wells fortnight. Both proved resilient. Both found the energy to cope and each defeated a series of high-ranked players to get to Sunday’s title match.

Azarenka, 32, a two-time major champion who won the title twice (2012, 2016) at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden and looking to become the first woman to win Indian Wells three times, was appearing in her first final of the season, while the 23-year-old Badosa won her first WTA title earlier this year at Belgrade in what has been her coming-of-age season. While the Belarusian came back from a set and a break down to beat Jelena Ostapenko in her semifinal – hitting plenty of effective flat returns – Badosa has had a clean sheet since losing a set in her first match of the tournament to Dayana Yastremska, relying on her topspin forehand power to win matches.

After beating No. 12 seed Ons Jabeur in Friday night’s semifinal round for her fourth straight Top 20 victory – her others came against Coco Gauff, Barbora Krejcikova and Angelique Kerber – Badosa told New York Times tennis correspondent Christopher Clarey, “I can’t wait to have a few days’ rest, to go home, to be honest. But I love to compete. I love tennis. Every time I’m on court, I’m enjoying, even though I’m suffering, but I know that’s part of the game. I forget everything: that I’m tired, all those things, because I love to be here.”

So, whomever could play with the greatest conviction and controlled power would prosper. But which player would it be? Well, it turned out to be Badosa – but it just as easily could have been Azarenka. Both were deserving to win the champion’s trophy.

Badosa showed great determination in saving three break points during her very first service game, which lasted 16 points, for 1-all. Then, in another long service game, Azarenka saved three break points of her own and held to conclude a 14-point game for a 2-1 lead. Throughout, many of the service games were lasting five minutes or more.

At 3-all, Badosa broke to go ahead 4-3 but was immediately broken back by Azarenka. Then, at 5-all, Badosa got two break points, but wasn’t able to convert either of those opportunities. However, on her third try she took advantage of one too many mistakes by Azarenka and it gave her a chance to serve out the first set. The Belarusian wasn’t quite ready to give in and she broke back with incredible defense to send the set to a tie break.

After Badosa raced to a 4-0 lead, Azarenka roared back and narrowed the lead to 4-3. Later, Badosa gained a set point at 6-5 on her serve and, converted it. Finally, she broke Azarenka’s serve for the fourth time with a blistering backhand winner that concluded a spectacular 28-shot rally as the match reached an hour and 20 minutes. Points were even at 55-all.

Next, Azarenka wasted no time in gaining a double-break, 3-0 lead on Badosa to start the second set with some wonderful shotmaking and energy. Soon, she increased her lead to 4-1 after breaking a low-energy Badosa for a third time in the set and consolidated it for a 5-1 advantage. Then, serving for the set and to level the championship final, Azarenka closed it out with a superb effort on her serve to win 6-2 in 33 minutes. After an hour and 52 minutes, it was a set each and anyone’s guess how this would turn out.

Well, Badosa came out with more intensity and fired a 122 mile-per-hour ace – her fourth of the match – to hold her serve at the start of the 73-minute third set. It’s a set in which Badosa had won 15 times in 21 matches this season. Then, she broke Azarenka on her second break-point opportunity for a 2-0 lead. The Spaniard was plenty fired up after hitting a winner on game point, but wasn’t able to consolidate the break and Azarenka broke back on her third opportunity to end an exciting 14-point game. She held her serve and the final set was dead even at 2-all as Azarenka had risen to the challenge. Who could control the momentum best would have an inside track to winning the title.

In the fifth game, Badosa saved a break point with a solid backhand winner, her 33rd winner of the match, then held serve for 3-2 when she fired her fifth ace to conclude another 14-point game. However, on her next service game, she faced another battle before finally holding with a forehand passing shot winner for a 4-3 edge. Azarenka countered with an important hold from 15-30 for 4-all, then broke to push ahead 5-4 after Badosa facing a break point in the eight point of the game hit the seventh shot wide. It left Azarenka serving for the championship. Soon, she was two points from winning it, ahead 30-0. However, Badosa’s willpower kept her hopes alive and she broke Azarenka for the fifth time in 13 tries to level the final set at 5-all. Then, Badosa had an easy hold for 6-5, but Azarenka returned the favor by handling the pressure well and her hold forced a decisive third-set tie break.

Badosa jumped ahead 3-0, then increased the lead to 5-1 with a forehand winner and a took advantage of a wide backhand return by Azarenka. Soon, Badosa found herself with a championship point and serving at 6-2. On her third shot, she confidently cracked a forehand winner – her 44th winner of the match that more than made up for her 50 unforced errors – and it was over: game, set, match, championship for the New York City-born Spaniard.

She immediately collapsed onto the Stadium 1 the baseline – happy but no doubt exhausted – and visibly cried tears of joy for a moment before getting up. Azarenka, who came around the net, shared a hug with the new champion. Badosa’s triumph provided her with a second WTA title of the year and also of her career.

Looking back, both Badosa and Azarenka showed plenty of grit and resolve – Azarenka saved eight of the 13 break points she faced and Badosa fought off 10 of 17. While Azarenka managed four more winners – 48 to 44 – and eight fewer unforced errors, it all came down to the third-set tie break and Badosa’s final five winners of the match were all difference makers.

During her trophy acceptance speech, Badosa gave props to Azarenka. She said: “When I was 14, 15 years old, I was seeing you winning Grand Slams, and I remember saying ‘I hope one day I can play like her.’ Thank you for inspiring me so much.”

Later, Badosa reflected on her accomplishment, saying: “This is a dream come true.” She walked off with the biggest trophy of her career looking and feeling happy – and ready to compete some more.

By the numbers

• Plenty of money and rankings points were at stake in Sunday’s final: The winner, Paula Badosa, received $1,209,730 in prize money plus 1,000 points. The runner-up, Victoria Azarenka, earned $640,000 plus 650 points.

• By reaching the Sunday’s final, Victoria Azarenka had the third most match wins in Indian Wells at 33 behind Lindsay Davenport (47) and Maria Sharapova (38). She became the eighth woman to appear in three or more finals in Indian Wells: Davenport (6), Steffi Graf (3), Martina Hingis (3), Kim Clijsters (3), Sharapova (3), Serena Williams (3) and Svetlana Kuznetsova (3).

Paula Badosa will break new ground and reach a new career high on Monday based on her Indian Wells title run. She will crack into the Top 20 at No.13 by winning the title. Her previous career high was No. 26, which she achieved earlier this season on August 23. Her 1,000 ranking points for winning lifts her into the No. 8 position in the Porsche Race to the WTA Finals and puts her in contention for a berth in the year-ending Akron WTA Finals in Guadalajara, Mexico, with two weeks to go before the start of the event.

• Here’s how the WTA Top 10 shakes out after Indian Wells as the tour heads to the VTB Kremlin Cup in Moscow and to the Tenerife Ladies Open in Tenerife, Spain:

1. Ashleigh Barty, 2. Aryna Sabalenka, 3. Karolina Pliskova, 4. Barbora Krejcikova, 5. Garbiñe Muguruza, 6. Elina Svitolina, 7. Maria Sakkari, 8. Ons Jabeur, 9. Belinda Bencic, 10. Naomi Osaka.

“Quotable …”

“I wasn’t even thinking about WTA Finals at the beginning of the week. I started doing this probably when I was in the quarterfinals.”

Paula Badosa of Spain, during her post-match press conference after winning the BNP Paribas Open. The 1,000 points she earned puts her in eighth place in the Porsche Race to the WTA Finals.