Champions rise again: Ostapenko, Azarenka move into BNP Paribas Open semifinals

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Black Friday

This week both the men and women have struggled to hold in equal measure on these atypically slow courts at the BNP Paribas Open. The gritty surfaces have favored those with stamina and the ability to power thru the court. Wednesday’s WTA quarterfinals at Indian Wells were no exception.

Victoria Azarenka 2021 BNP Paribas Open

No.27 seed Victoria Azarenka [BLR] d. No.19 seed Jessica Pegula [USA] 6-4 6-2

One thing is for sure in Victorian Azarenka’s mind. While on-court decision-making matters, her best decision ever was to have her son, Leo. She spoke on court today about how Leo inspires her, as he sent a photo watching her match and meditating like mommy. Calm focus was key for Azarenka in today’s BNP Paribas Open quarterfinals.

Victoria Azarenka BNP Paribas Open 2021

First set

Both women played aggressive tennis, fighting for everything. The 24th-ranked Pegula started strong with a hold of serve, followed by a break up 2-0. The two-time Australian Open champion Azarenka stepped up with a breaking, a holding and another (love) break to lead 3-2.

With Pegula’s efforts erased, you could sense trouble brewing for the American at the BNP Paribas Open. She pressed hard on Azarenka’s next service game to several deuce points, but she could not break the Belarusian blockade. After an 11-point rally, Azarenka held. This would be her last “hard” service hold.

Undeterred, Pegula struck back with a love hold, score now 4-3. She could not overtake the veteran. Pegula’s last hold was another marathon 15-point game. Minutes later, Azarenka closed the set, holding to 6-4.

Victoria Azarenka 2021 BNP Paribas Open

Second set

With the experience of many big stages, the former world No.1 Azarenka knew how important the first strike would be to attempt to close out the match in straight sets. She wasted no time breaking her opponent’s first game.

But as we’ve seen all week long, holding serve is not easy either. Pegula broke right back to 1-1 and that continued to 2-2. Azarenka struck again after a 19-point game. Pegula defended well, but could not fend off the last point, break to Azarenka, 3-2.

The 32-year-old Azarenka was holding more easily in general and now she stepped up to a 5-2 lead. A frustrated Jesse held herself together, fighting till the end in a 11-point service hold for Azarenka, game, set, match, 6-2.

Jessica Pegula Victoria Azarenka 2021 BNP Paribas Open

What had to be frustration for Pegula, her serve percentages were superior, but she was not winning those points. Azarenka struck five aces and converted five break points compared to two for Pegula. Both players had outbursts chiding their own mistakes. No doubt Azarenka earned respect for the American who fought her well till the very end.

The two-time BNP Paribas Open singles and also doubles champion is looking very much in form as she advances to the semifinals of an event she knows well. Perhaps it is less a comeback and more an evolved version of herself.

Jelena Ostapenko BNP Paribas Open 2021

No.24 seed Jelena Ostapenko [LAT] d. Shelby Rogers [USA] 6-4 4-6 6-3

First set

This match at first appeared to be a runaway. Ostapenko was literally hitting Rogers off the court. It was an all out (per usual) power play that brought the 2017 Roland Garros champion a 5-1 lead.

Like the wind, a turning point came and Rogers got the break to 5-2. She worked her way back in 5-3, 5-4, much to her opponent’s frustration. We know frustration has sent her spirally downward many times. Ostapenko reeled herself back in, breaking for the set in seven points.

Shelby Rogers BNP Paribas Open 2021

Second set

Rogers saw some cracks and broke Ostapenko right away. A trade of breaks continued to 2-2, then holds to 3-3. The two tied at 4-4, with a clean hold by Rogers. A fierce Ostapenko used all her might to stop Rogers from closing to no avail. She was well on her way to 5-5 with 0-40 on her racquet. Her precision was dropping in part due to mindset. Rogers worked her way back into the game, closing on her second set point opportunity, 6-4.

Third set

The battle continued in the third, along the same story line. Ostapenko rocketing returns and Rogers finding ways to scramble, mix it up and find winners.

Ostapenko’s double faults were an issue. Yet, some of the longer service games belonged to her. Still, she held more often than not. Once she broke to 3-3, there was not looking back.

Shelby Rogers Jelena Ostapenko BNP Paribas Open 2021

The last three games were clean and Ostapenko kept the earlier errors at bay to close. Her second service percentage was massive at 93% and her ability to defend break points was 57%, compared with Rogers at 36%.

Upcoming BNP Paribas Open semifinal: Azarenka vs. Ostapenko

Two former Grand Slam champions will meet in the semifinals at Indian Wells. Both are extremely hard-hitters, aggressive in their approach to the game and fearless in heart. So who gets the edge?

I believe composure will be critical. In today’s quarterfinals, we saw Ostapenko fighting with non-existent lines-people and showing mental cracks that may not hold up on court against the former BNP Paribas Open champion. It may also depend on who makes friends with the wind. Ask Ajla Tomljanovic about that strategy. In tennis there are boxing matching and there are title fights, I expect this semifinal to be the latter.

The second pair of quarterfinals is scheduled for Thursday, as Ons Jabeur faces Anett Kontaveit and Angelique Kerber plays against Paula Badosa.

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