Badosa conquers all in Indian Wells

Spaniard comes through brutal draw to clinch the biggest title of her career

Paula Badosa fist pumping during Roland-Garros 2021© Julien Crosnier/FFT
 - Reem Abulleil

As she sat in the main interview room with the fancy Baccarat crystal trophy beside her after winning the biggest title of her career in Indian Wells, Paula Badosa had every right to feel proud of herself.

The 23-year-old became the first Spanish women’s singles champion at the BNP Paribas Open, thanks to a lion-hearted performance against two-time winner Victoria Azarenka, who served for the victory late in the third set but ultimately succumbed to Badosa 7-6(5), 2-6, 7-6(2) in a high-quality three-hour final on Sunday.

Badosa had taken out four consecutive top-20 players en route to the final – including major champions Barbora Krejcikova and Angelique Kerber – and outlasted two-time Australian Open winner Azarenka to claim her second trophy of the year, and first at the WTA 1000 level.

Tough route to glory

It was a statement week for a player who was ranked 87 in the world this time last year, but is now perched nicely at a career-high No.13 and with a serious shot of qualifying for next month’s WTA Finals in Guadalajara (she is No.8 in the Race).

“I think the first thing that I've learned this week is that nothing is impossible. If you fight, if you work, after all these years, you can achieve anything,” Badosa told reporters in the California desert on Sunday after the final.

“That's the first message that I see that could happen. And to dream. Sometimes you have tough moments. In my case I have been through tough moments. I never stopped dreaming. That's what kept me working hard and believing until the last moment. Today was the same, so I'm really proud of it.”

Overcoming anxiety and depression

Badosa has indeed had to navigate a slew of challenges, not just this season, but over the past six years. First bursting onto the scene as a junior, winning the Roland-Garros girls’ singles title in 2015, Badosa admittedly struggled with the pressure of expectation that followed her early success.

In 2019, she revealed in a video released by La Liga Sports that she suffered from anxiety and depression, and that she lost the will to do anything, both on court and off it. Multiple coaching changes as well as working with sports psychologists helped Badosa turn things around.

Her breakthrough 2021 campaign had a rocky start as she was forced into 21 days of quarantine in Australia, after testing positive for Covid-19. She lost her Australian Open first round, but semi-final showings in Lyon, Charleston, and the WTA 1000 tournament in Madrid helped her get back on track.

She claimed her maiden WTA title on clay in Belgrade before reaching her first Grand Slam quarter-final at Roland-Garros in June. Shortly after, she made the last 16 at Wimbledon before bad luck struck again at the Tokyo Olympics, where Badosa was forced to retire due to heatstroke from her quarter-final against Marketa Vondrousova. The Manhattan-born Catalonian was taken off court in a wheelchair, and soon after, made a surprise announcement that she had parted ways with her coach Javier Marti.

Fresh perspective

With a new coach in her corner in the form of Jorge Garcia, Badosa took Indian Wells by storm – on her main draw debut no less – and she can now look back at her journey with a different perspective.

“This year I had, of course, a roller-coaster year, disappointments and everything. But after all I've been through in my life, it wasn't disappointment. When you suffer a lot, when you're young, when you have a little bit of disappointment, you don't feel it like that. So that's the good part of what happened this year,” explained Badosa.

“Of course, I have bad moments. But compared to the things I've been through, it's nothing. For me it's okay.”

Now older, wiser, and with a better understanding of how to approach the sport, Badosa was asked what she would have told her 17-year-old self on how to handle the tricky transition to the pro tour.

“I think the toughest thing when you're a junior and you're a good junior are the expectations,” she responded.  

“People think that when you're a good junior, next year you have to be a top-20 player or top-10 player. You have a lot of expectations. People put a lot of pressure on you.

“I think the key is to have a good team and to work day by day, to not listen a lot, and to make it simple. Sometimes we complicate things. And to enjoy. Of course, it's very complicated. A lot of people were texting me today, ‘Try to enjoy the final’. I was like, ‘Yes, I wish’,” she added with a grin.

“Try not to enjoy in the matches, because you get very nervous, but try to enjoy the journey.”

A balancing act

During her fortnight at Indian Wells, Badosa found the right balance between enjoying her time off court, while staying focused on her routines, practice and matches. In her down time, she and her team played golf, went shopping, and dined out – things she felt she would have never allowed herself to do in the past at any tournament.

“I was very focused on the matches and the practice. But then we had a little bit of everything. I think that's very important because in my past, I was like all day – of course you have to be focused, but super like, not happy, in my room. I thought that was what it’s like being professional.

“I think you have to try to find the balance on that because if you don't enjoy outside, it's impossible to have good results. I think my team is doing a very good job on that.”

Match of the year?

The final against Azarenka is being dubbed by many as one of the best matches of the season, and with good reason. The pair combined to produce a total of 92 winners during the three-hour four-minute affair, and pushed each other to their limits throughout.

Azarenka, who was bidding to become the first three-time women’s champion at the event, broke back twice and wiped a 0-4 deficit in the breaker but still lost the 78-minute opening set to Badosa.

The Belarusian ex-world No.1 started the second set with a purpose, trying to utilise her net play to end the points more efficiently, and changing the direction of the ball at will, which helped her to a double-break 3-0 lead. She scooped the second set in 32 minutes to force a decider.

Badosa led 2-0 in the final set, but was pegged back, and it was Azarenka who served for the championship at 5-4. An unfazed Badosa refused to surrender, however, and it was the Spaniard’s clean-striking in the decisive tiebreak that secured her the title.

“I remember when I was 14, 15 years old, I was seeing you win Grand Slams and I remember telling my coach, ‘I hope one day I can play like her’. So for me it’s amazing. Thank you for inspiring me so much. Athletes like you and women like you, I wouldn't be here without you, really, really thank you,” Badosa told Azarenka during the trophy ceremony.

Azarenka hailed Badosa’s ability to maintain a high level throughout the contest, especially from the physical aspect. The 32-year-old began the tournament looking to implement some changes that would aggression to her game and walks away from Indian Wells feeling satisfied with the progress she has made in that department.

“I would agree with comparing it to the match of the year. I think the entire match the quality of tennis was super high level. We were both going for our shots, really pushing each other to the max,” said Azarenka.

“I think that's what made it super entertaining, that competitive spirit, really fighting for every ball, not giving in anywhere. It's very challenging to maintain that. I think that we both did that really well...

“It's time to rest, train smart, and no quarantine in Australia for me,” she concluded with a laugh.