Indian Wells 2022: Swiatek will face Halep, Sakkari takes on Badosa in final four in the desert

Three women, led by No3 seed Swiatek, could rise to career-high No2 ranking with victory on Sunday

Simona Halep
Simona Halep (Photo: Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships)

First to pass the quarter-final test in Indian Wells was the only former champion among the last eight women standing.

Simona Halep, a former No1 and two-time Major champion, was seeded down at 24, despite already having a title this year in Melbourne and a semi run in Dubai. She faced a formidable draw in Indian Wells, too, but having dropped a set in her opening match, she had cruised through the likes of Coco Gauff and Sorana Cirstea to face Petra Martic in the quarters.

And she went from strength to strength, winning that match, 6-1, 6-1, in just 53 minutes.

Arguably, she would now face one of the biggest challenges in tennis this season, No3 seed Iga Swiatek, only 20 years old and with a Major title to her credit. The young Pole scored her ninth straight match-win of 2022, beating Madison Keys in only 56 minutes, 6-1, 6-0.

All nine wins of her wins have been at WTA1000 level, after she picked up the Doha title a fortnight ago, and that after a semi run at the Australian Open and Adelaide 500.

Swiatek is now the year’s leader in match-wins, with 18 to date. If she wins two more, she will rise to No2 in the world rankings for the first time.

But then two more women could beat her to No2 if they beat her to the Indian Wells title. They both played in the Thursday semi-finals: first No6 seed Maria Sakkari, who took on the 22-year-old No17 seed Elena Rybakina; and second, the defending champion and No5 seed Paul Badosa, who would play No21 seed Veronika Kudermotova.

In the first, the bundle of intensity and athleticism that is Sakkari has a huge following in homeland Greece, but she was picking up fans wherever she played for her explosive tennis.

She had worked her way up the ranks in the last 12 months after making impressive runs to the semis at the French and US Opens.

This season, she made the final in St Petersburg, and the semis in Doha, and had beaten Petra Kvitova on her way to the Indian Wells quarters—with the bonus of a curtailed match against Daria Saville, who retired after five games in the quarters.

And after a shaky start, in which Rybakina opened with her signature big-strike tennis to break and take a 3-0 lead, Sakkari broke back in the seventh game, helped by a double fault on break point, and they headed to 5-5.

Rybakina, who suffered foot problems plus a positive Covid test earlier this season, may have been the taller and younger of the two women, but she did not have a fraction of Sakkari’s intensity. She lost her serve, and the Greek needed no second invitation: Sakkari served out the set, 7-5.

The young Kazakh regrouped to try and repeat the opening of the first set, holding firm and then working 0-40 against Sakkari. She could not handle the swinging delivery from the Greek, and would let two more break chances come and go and, with them, her chance to steal an early break.

Instead, Sakkari broke and then held for a 3-1 lead, and it was an advantage she did not lose, though Rybakina came close to upsetting the Greek in the last game with some vicious power winners. But instead, Sakkari, roaring on every point she won, converted her third set point, 6-4, to reach her third straight semi-final this season.

So with her chances of the No2 ranking still alive, who would she face next?

Here was an intriguing quarter-final between two women both age 24, both making their breakthrough to a first title last season, but now separated by 17 places in the rankings. Badosa’s form took off with the Indian Wells title last autumn to help her qualify for the WTA Finals, where she made the semis.

She already had a title this season, too, in Sydney, and was yet to drop a set, even against US Open runner-up, Leylah Fernandez. Yet she had been beaten in all three previous meetings by Kudermetova, one of the players this fortnight playing under neutral conditions following Russia’s invasion into Ukraine.

The Russian had scored multiple successes in doubles, too, including the Dubai title and Doha runner-up trophies last month. What is more, she had reached two singles finals in 2022, and beat Naomi Osaka in Round 2 here.

Badosa this time drew first blood, a break in the fourth game and a hold for 4-1. By the time Kudermetova served to stay in the first set, Badosa was still 12-12 on first serve, with not a break point in sight. But the Russian would make the Spaniard serve it out, and all at once, Kudermetova unleased some great winners to win four points in a row from 40-0 down. At the fourth time of asking, however, Badosa converted set point, 6-3.

The Russian left court for a medical time-out, apparently to her back, but both women began the second set at full tilt, with two long and grueling games. Badosa, though, got the edge with an opening break, and it seemed to boost her confidence still more: Three aces in an easy hold, 3-1.

The Spaniard’s concentration and consistency combined with her powerful athleticism made the pressure relentless, no matter the variety Kudermetova brought to the match. Badosa broke again in a long, 13-point game, 4-1, and went on to serve it out, 6-2, in under an hour and a half.

Badosa and Sakkari have played just once before, and not that long ago. The Spaniard beat the Greek at the WTA Finals just four months ago. One will keep alive her chances of the No2 ranking, one will be out of contention. A lot to play for, then, but first and foremost, one big and very heavy crystal trophy.

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