On a perfect weather Sunday, Victoria Azarenka and Paula Badosa took the court at 1 p.m. for the final time at the 2021 BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells. These two women were sharing the same goal but had taken a different path to this final destination.
The 32-year-old Azarenka had the chance to become the first three-time BNP Paribas Open WTA singles champion. For the 23-year-old Badosa, this occasion was much bigger, as this would be her first shot at a WTA 1000 title.
Alas, in defeat Azarenka was impressively gracious in her on court speech and bestowed a huge hug on Badosa during the trophy presentation. It was a touching moment. Both women were COVID hard lockdown survivors from Australia. Both are vocal about how damaging the experience was mentally and physically. Both rose above it all today.
Paula Badosa [ESP] d. Victoria Azarenka [BEL] 7-6(5) 2-6 7-6(2)
As the score indicates, the first set was very evenly matched. The final point was quite long. Seed No.27 Azarenka seemed to be in defensive beast towards the end of the set. Just as she saw a light in the tunnel, Badosa sealed the deal with a forehand winner, capping the set in one hour and 20 minutes.
During the changeover, Azarenka’s career experience showed. She had her head up, pumping herself up. There were no signs of defeat in her body language. And none of that is a surprise, I am just stating the facts. Given the score line, 7-6(5), she had many reasons to believe she still had what it took to come through. She was visibly doing everything to show her opponent that she was not backing down in her quest to change the momentum. Or rather to keep riding her momentum that broke through in the end of the first set.
Azarenka raced thru the second set. Already up 3-0, she was taking very little time between points. I think of Azarenka being a bit like Novak — when she is backed into a corner, it awakens a beast that few want to face.
Azarenka closes with a quick hold to go up 5-1. Moment later, Badosa held to 5-2 but all her effort was erased when the Belarusian served it out, 6-2.
As the third set commenced, both women were very business-like; no drama, no gamesmanship, with their attention focused on the next point.
Despite the match length, there were no visible signs of fatigue. Both appeared to be managing their emotions well. There were some opportunities lost for each though-out, but neither player got stuck in those moments for long. A let down seemed inevitable after dropping the second set, but no, Badosa emerged with positive body language. Who would be more aggressive? Thus far, Azarenka was winning at net with greater success than her opponent.
The motivation for both women was immense. As Azarenka reminded me in her presser, the occasion was much bigger for Badosa. The prize money would be a game-changer, the rankings opportunity immense and the sense of accomplishing something she had never done before loomed large.
The seed No.21 Badosa began the decider strong with a hold and a break. A defining moment came at 2-0, with Badosa on serve. In this game both women had break points, went for their shots, defending and pumping themselves up. Neither woman was backing down. After 13 points, Azarenka got the break and began closing the gap to 2-1.
The tango of aggression continued as Azarenka got the “must break” result to 5-5. With a fast hold Azarenka pushed the Spanish brave-heart to hold or go home. Badosa was in real danger as Azarenka was up at 0-30. With the sun setting, Badosa held for 6-6.
The final breaker
Badosa wasted no time, grabbing the early 3-0 lead by hitting the lines and serving well. She hit a backhand line winner that would make Uncle Toni proud and probably have Rafa Nadal on his feet. As Azarenka began to work her way back in, I wondered if another momentum shift was on her racquet, but at 5-2 Badosa took charge and closed well this time.
During the trophy presentation, we saw a beautifully graceful in defeat Azarenka. When you play your heart out, and your opponent does the same, what else can you do? She remarked on bringing the “smaller” trophy home for her son Leo to play with. A Baccarat Crystal trophy for a five-year old, well I guess nothing but the best for her Prince, Leo.
Paula Badosa handled the biggest match or her career with flying colors. And make no mistake, she was put through her paces by a combat expert. Upon match point, the Spaniard crumbled fluidly as if turning into desert sand. Rolling onto her stomach, her shoulders shook as the emotional wave took command of her body.
In her post-match presser, Badosa revealed she was probably still in shock. She spoke of how today was proof to her that nothing is impossible. The storms she weathered and her ability to keep dreaming despite setbacks are the keys to her success.
She and her team work hard day-to-day on court. They also made sure she had a “normal” week, doing things off-court to keep her balanced. Getting out of her room to enjoy life off-court helps support her mind health. With the win, Paula Badosa rises to No.11 in the WTA rankings.
Jim Courier spoke on the women’s final stating, “incredibly high level” and “one of the best matches of the year, men or women.”
Where the COVID shutdown first started back in March of 2020, this event has been a homecoming of sorts and sign of life returning to normal. Quite a breath of fresh air for everyone involved. Congratulations to the players, the tournaments and especially the volunteers who are the backbone of the operation. See you all in March 2022!