Victoria Azarenka and Paula Badosa advanced to the 2021 BNP Paribas Open women’s singles final, making it an exciting encounter made for fans of all levels. Those that are entering the market for the first time and those who have yielded annual entertainment dividends will find opportunities to follow the young, the experienced, the powerful, stylish and cunning. Sunday’s title match is set to impress.
No.27 seed Victoria Azarenka [BEL] d. No.24 seed Jelena Ostapenko [LAT] 3-6 6-3 7-5
In this Indian Wells semifinal, Jelena Ostapenko had the chance to prove to herself, and perhaps critics, that she can sustain a high level required to win titles. Victoria Azarenka was likely less concerned about what anyone else thinks and instead wanted to perform to her own high standards.
Both women are former Grand Slam champions, both have fallen off their top form for vastly different reasons. Surely Azarenka was the sentimental favorite, coming back after motherhood and oppressive off-court personal hardships that seem to now be solved. Ostapenko wowed us when she defeated Simona Halep in the 2017 Roland Garros final. Since that time the Latvian has shown flashes of brilliance, moments of saltiness, and delivered inconsistent results. Who knows her truth? Only Jelena. Perhaps she is another mis-managed WTA star.
In Friday’s BNP Paribas Open semifinals, both women had an opportunity to make their own luck and write their next chapter. Here is the match “novella.”
Ostapenko came out in the first set with cannons ablaze. Her power was unrelenting and intense. She drew a fast 3-0 lead. But people also wondered how long could the 24-year-old sustain this level. She does not yet seem to have a throttle on her engine.
Azarenka was trying her best to turn her opponent’s attack around. It just was not working, as Ostapenko was hitting all her spots. She left no option for the Belarusian to work into points, she kept rallies short. A great tactic really.
The 6-3 closure of the first set felt bleak. BUT, in the few error moments, Ostapenko showed the potential for a mental collapse, as she was not kind to herself in those brief moments.
Only description coming to mind is Azarenka was running for her life on almost every point. (Her words in press, she was “running like a rabbit.”) Ostapenko wasn’t missing, except for first serves. Azarenka had to make more of a statement on returning second serves. And she would.
We all should know not to count the former world No.1 Azarenka out, no matter the score.
The second set started wrong, with a break of serve and a highly audible exclamation point from Ostapenko. Despite errors beginning to creep in, Ostapenko held to 2-0, still striking the ball well.
A turning point came as Azarenka held next, with great serve placement and a surge in energy. Classic Vika was seen pumping herself up, come on! The breaks began and Azarenka captured the lead to 4-2. Ostapenko’s self-talk was going south, as her opponent’s level rose. Ostapenko would hold one last time, but her implosion began, which was definitely influenced by Azarenka’s gritty tactics. As Azarenka held for the set, her INTENSITY hit a new high.
Points were longer, both players brought winners to bear and produced errors at critical moments in the third set. As Azarenka took a medical timeout to address an issue with her finger, Ostapenko stood quite literally up against the wall with her back away from her opponent. She was clearly trying to collect herself and reset. With tensions high, they tied at 5-5. So would youthful might trump mentally tough experience? Not this time.
Azarenka pressed and got the break exactly when she had to. Now up 6-5, she would close out the match after defending break point opportunities. Where Victoria was elated, Jelena seemed furious with herself. That is a true opportunity for her, to learn how to forget her failures and move on to the next point. So easily said, but not done.
The form showed by both players in this semifinal was some of their best of the season. Victoria spoke of how harsh the lockdowns have been, that she had never taken a full two-week break from training and the after effect was a deep hole she had to climb out of.
Tonight, she advances to yet another BNP Paribas Open final, nine years after she won her first Indian Wells title in March of 2012, when she defeated Maria Sharapova.
No.21 seed Paula Badosa [ESP] d. No.12 seed Ons Jabeur [TUN] 6-3 6-3
As I looked at this pairing, I felt the emotion of not wanting either player to lose. Both are passionate, funny, real, respectful and fierce 2021 breakout players. The 27-year-old Jabeur has, after years of struggle, had an “upper hand.” We all know, on paper the clear frontrunner often does not translate to a win on-court. Case in point, Grigor Dimitrov win over Daniil Medvedev. This court has raised the odds of unpredictable results. For those betting on tennis, I feel sorry for you for this and many other reasons…
The first set was largely Badosa. The Spaniard was steady, consistent and executed well. She started right away with a break of serve. Jabeur seemed a bit flat and unable to find her rhythm, which happens especially after a long, hard season.
Jabeur fought back hard in Badosa’s service game, to no avail. After seven points, the deficit was 2-0. The Tunisian was able to settle a bit and held despite a 0-40 start of her next service game. The 12th seed worked her way into the match to tie at 3-3. Badosa stepped up at the key moment, turning the set in her favor. She took the seventh game, a thirteen-point break and then there was no stopping her. Final score, 6-3.
The second set began with an exchange of holds to 2-2. Tonight the typical handcrafted drop shots and slices were not firing well for Jabeur. Her energy seemed low, and her emotion subdued. I have to wonder if the occasion became a bit overwhelming.
As Badosa broke Jabeur again going up 4-2, the Tunisian’s fate seemed set. And yet up 5-2, the Spaniard struggled with her own nerves and could not break to close as she had done earlier. To the delight of the crowd, Jabeur showed a flicker new life in holding her service game. Badosa’s final service game was another eleven-point battle, going the way of the No.21 seed, final score 6-3.
The disappointment on Jabeur’s face was of course a stark contrast to her friend Badosa. They held a short embrace at net. As friends, this could not have been easy. It seemed that Badosa could not look down thru the court. Instead, she was workman-like moving swiftly between points.
In Victoria Azarenka’s earlier presser, she dished on Ons Jabeur in a big way. She spoke words of respect for both Paula and Ons. In the end, she admitted to being an Ons “fan girl.” That’s a huge compliment from a woman who knows what it takes to succeed in this craft and who somewhat understands the challenges of being from smaller, less affluent, not easily marketed countries.
With both outcomes today, I remain bullish on the future of the WTA Tour. The emerging prospects and the blue chip players offer high margins in terms of passion for the game, a quest for continuous self-improvement, colorful life experience and perspectives, as well as compelling personalities.
The women’s singles final will be played Sunday, October 17th. The Veronika Kudermetova/Elena Rybakina vs Hsieh Su-Wei/Elise Mertens doubles final takes place tomorrow, Saturday, October 16th.