Indian Wells 2021: Brilliant Badosa beats Azarenka in memorable three-hour title bout
Her biggest title moves Badosa to No8 in Race to WTA Finals
After two and a half years away, the players were finally back at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden, albeit without some of its favourite daughters.
World No1 Ash Barty, No8 Sofia Kenin, No10 Belinda Bencic and both Williams sisters were all absent.
The woman destined to be the top seed, No2 Aryna Sabalenka, fell victim to the virus that had closed down this most prestigious tournament since 2019, Covid 19.
And perhaps the highest profile player in women’s tennis this year, four-time Major champion and former Indian Wells champion Naomi Osaka, withdrew to focus on her personal well-being.
Step up, then, a clutch of other recent Major champions who looked as though they would be vying for this season-ending 1,000 boost to their WTA Finals campaign. For there is just one WTA500 left, and time for one additional WTA250 after Indian Wells to add the points for qualification among the top eight.
Would it be the newest Major champion, Emma Raducanu, playing for the first time since her remarkable US Open run? She lost in her opener.
What about defending champion Bianca Andreescu, who won the US Open title in that same year, but had since struggled to stave off injuries? Round 3.
It was the same story for many more: Garbine Muguruza, Round 2; Simona Halep and Petra Kvitova, Round 3; Iga Swiatek and Barbora Krejcikova, Round 4.
There were strong runs from a strong former finalist and multiple Major champion Angelique Kerber, adding a quarter-final finish to the semi run she made in Cincinnati. But the 33-year-old German has yet to win at one of the top-tier tour tournaments.
The unpredictable Jelena Ostapenko made an even better run to the semis, but amid so many exits by title hopefuls, one very familiar Indian Wells name cruised through the draw dropping only one set—to Ostapenko in the semis.
Victoria Azarenka has won the BNP Paribas Open not once but twice, and the last time, in 2016, she went on to win in Miami too for the Sunshine Double.
Here is a woman, now 32 years old, who early proved her fondness for the hot hard courts of North America—and Australia, come to that. Before turning 20 she had won the first of three Miami titles, won the first of two Australian Opens in 2012/13 age 22, went on to win two Cincinnati titles, the latter in a sizzling return to form following the coronavirus lockdown.
One can only wonder how many more big titles, including Majors, she might have won had she not faced Serena Williams so often in her earlier years on the tour, had she not faced long and draining custody battles with her son’s father, had she not suffered more than her share of injuries to foot, leg and hamstring.
As it is, even this year, she suffered back problems at the start of the season, and as recently as Chicago Fall little more than a fortnight ago, she had to pull out of her third-round match against Muguruza.
Yet, when Azarenka is fit, she has the kind of rangy, big-strike, punishing game to test the very best, and she did just that this fortnight in the desert: She beat Kvitova, No19 seed Jessica Pegula and Ostapenko, and has found herself within touching distance of a third Indian Wells trophy.
Yet there was one hurdle to overcome, Paula Badosa, ranked 27 and almost a decade younger than Azarenka, with only one title to the Belarusian’s 21, but building some serious credentials on the slow Indian Wells courts.
The Spaniard’s biggest successes this season—and she was ranked 70 at the start of the year—came on clay, including the 250 title in Belgrade. She also made the semis in Charleston and Madrid, and the quarters at the French Open, and while she reached the fourth round at Wimbledon, if there was a cause for concern, it was two retirements since, at the Olympics and Cincinnati—though not before taking some significant scalps such as Swiatek and Sabalenka.
In Indian Wells, hers proved to be a truly impressive run via No15 seed Coco Gauff, No3 seed Krejcikova, No10 Kerber, and No12 Ons Jabeur, each in straight sets. How would she fare in her first contest against the experience of Azarenka?
She had an early taste of the intensity and depth of the Belarusian ball striking in a nine-minute second game where she had to fend off her first break points.
It was, though, a similar story in the third game with Badosa pummelling her returns and working breaks of her own. The former champion held, but it had taken more than 20 minutes to get to 2-1.
It continued in a similar vein: more break chances, more gutsy holds, the Azarenka backhand and ability to change direction full of familiar potency, Badosa’s big serve, heavy forehand and ability to pinpoint both wings producing long and taxing exchanges. But it was the Spaniard’s full-blooded return of serve in the seventh game that got the breakthrough, too hot to handle by Azarenka.
However, Azarenka replied in kind: a blistering forehand return of serve winner to break straight back, 4-4. Yet the Spaniard had a chance on the next two Azarenka serves, too, punishing the second serve with pounding returns, and finally got her reward, another break to serve for the set.
It was still not enough: Azarenka simply lifted her level, and the Centre Court erupted with her winners. Perhaps appropriately, it would take a tie-break after nearly 70 minutes of no-holds-barred tennis.
Badosa went 4-0 up but Azarenka levelled to 5-5. But now the Spaniard got set point, and converted courtesy of the rally of the tie-break, 7-6(5).
It seemed only to fire up Azarenka, who stormed to a break in the first game of the next set, striding about the court, punching her fist, urging herself on. She broke again to love, so full of energy, upping the pace to another level, and Badosa looked dazed.
The Spaniard did break for one game, then held for the first time, 2-5, but Azarenka’s body language was as intimidating as it could be, as was her tennis: she served out the set, 6-2, having made just two errors in the set.
Now it was the Spaniard who found more, broke and had points for 3-0, but Azarenka broke back, and Badosa had to dig very deep to hold off the attack in the fifth, 3-2.
And so it went, no quarter given, until some superb defence from Azaranka forced just enough errors to hussle a break. The Badosa serve was letting her down, too many second serves and the occasional double fault, and there was just too little between them to concede such points. Azarenka, then, served for the match, but it was into the sun, and she wavered for the break: 5-5.
So it went to a deciding tie-break, and as before, Badosa raced to a lead with some blistering winners, 5-1. Another brought up match point, and with three hours three minutes on the board, Indian Wells celebrated a brand new champion.
Badosa fell to the court in tears, Azarenka walked the length of the arena to embrace her. One can only admire the Belarusian, whose passion and determination were palpable. But Badosa had just one more winner in the tank—and rises to No8 in qualification for the WTA Finals.
Current WTA Finals Leader Board
1. Ash Barty 6,411
2. Aryna Sabalenka 4,669 [Moscow 500]
3. Barbora Krejcikova 4,518
4. Karolina Pliskova 4,036
5. Iga Swiatek 3,226
6. Maria Sakkari 3,157 [Moscow 500, Courmayeur 250]
7. Garbiñe Muguruza 3,151 [Moscow 500]
8. Paula Badosa 3,112 [Cluj-Napoca 250]
9. Ons Jabeur 3,020 [Moscow 500, Courmayeur 250]
10. Naomi Osaka 2,771
11. Elina Svitolina 2,501 [Tenerife 250]
12. Jessica Pegula 2,500