Azarenka’s Never Say Never Attitude Lifts Her To Indian Wells Final

Victoria Azarenka (photo: WTA video)

INDIAN WELLS/WASHINGTON, October 16, 2021 (by Michael Dickens)

Victoria Azarenka proved it’s not how you start but how you finish that counts the most. Her never say never attitude lifted her to a come-from-behind, 3-6, 6-3, 7-5 victory over Jelena Ostapenko in the semifinals of the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells, Calif. Friday night.

The two-time Indian Wells champion is now into her third singles final at Tennis Paradise. She will play 21st seed Paula Badosa of Spain in Sunday’s title match. Badosa ended the run of No. 12 seed Ons Jabeur of Tunisia, 6-3, 6-3, in the second semifinal.

The 27th seed Azarenka came in to the semifinal round as the only former BNP Paribas Open champion (2012, 2016) remaining among the final four competitors – and the only one who hadn’t dropped a set. That quickly changed when Azarenka lost the opening set to her feisty opponent from Latvia.

Ostapenko, who had never gone beyond the third round at Indian Wells, dictated play on the slow Stadium 1 court by jumping out to a 3-0 lead with a break of Azarenka in the Belarusian’s first service game sandwiched in between a couple of service holds. She was trying to become the first Latvian player to reach the Indian Wells final, and for the first set, at least, appeared well on her well to achieving her destination. The 24th seed Ostapenko won the 30-minute opener easily 6-3.

Then, Ostapenko broke Azarenka to begin the second set and consolidated the break for a 2-0 advantage. However, Azarenka righted herself and took matters into her own hands. Soon, she leveled the set at 2-all and took off on a mission to even the match and send it to a decider. Azarenka garnered the 42-minute second set 6-3, thanks to winning five straight games.

In the final set, Azarenka jumped ahead 2-0, but the lead was short lived when Ostapenko got the break back to even the set a 3-all, then held for 4-3 after saving two break points. However, Azarenka wasn’t finished fighting. She broke Ostapenko to go ahead 6-5 with the match on her racquet and a berth in her first final of the season. Then, Azarenka fought off two break points to reach deuce, saved a third break point with a half-volley winner on the ninth shot of the rally, and soon gained match point. Azarenka didn’t throw away her shot. She seized her opportunity and put away the victory, the 33rd time she’s won at Indian Wells – third most behind Lindsay Davenport (47), who was there analyzing the match for Tennis Channel, and Maria Sharapova (38).

“I thought the most important [thing], I would say today, was my fight, that I can be really proud of,” Azarenka said during her post-match new conference. “Analyzing the game, it was a lot of probably things that I could have maybe done a little bit better.

“Overall she was playing really incredible in the first set, not giving me much to do. I was just trying to find opportunity, actually create opportunity, for me to get back into the match, to take a little bit more control in the match, really fight for every ball.”

In the second semifinal, Badosa became the first Spanish woman in 25 years – since Conchita Martinez in 1992 and again in 1996 – to reach the Indian Wells final with her straight-set win over Jabeur, who a day earlier secured her place in next week’s WTA Top 10 by winning her quarterfinal-round match.

The 23-year-old Badosa, born in New York City, won her 40th match of the season and reached her first WTA 1000 final – the biggest final of her career – after stringing together victories over Dayana Yastremska, No. 15 seed Coco Gauff, No. 3 seed Barbora Krejcikova, No. 10 seed Angelique Kerber and the World No. 14 Jabeur – four Top 20 foes in all.

“I think I’m doing it very well this week,” Badosa said after her victory. “I’m pretty happy that I improved really fast. I’m quite proud of myself on that.”

Badosa broke Jabeur’s serve four times in 15 opportunities during the one hour and 22 minute match and kept the Tunisian off balance and pinned to the baseline with her steady groundstroke attack. She hit 15 winners and 22 unforced errors, while Jabeur countered with 24 winners but committed 35 unforced errors.

The Spaniard won the final three games of the opening set, then broke Jabeur to go ahead 4-2 in the second. Jabeur saved three match points during a lengthy six-deuce, 18-point game to hold for 3-5, but Badosa kept up the fight during her ensuing service game. Finally, she secured the victory over her good friend on her sixth match-point opportunity.

When Badosa was asked during her on-court TV interview if she had any plans for Sunday, she replied, “I think I’m playing a final, but I don’t know if I’m dreaming.”

Rest assured, Badosa is not dreaming. The World No. 27, who began 2021 ranked 70th and is projected to crack the Top 20 when the new WTA rankings come out Monday, has earned her way into the title match against Azarenka. “It’s an amazing feeling,” she said. “Having a dream come true like this is amazing.”

Later in her press conference, Badosa explained: “Mentally, I think I’m very confident. I’m believing every point. Every day, I’m working very hard as well. I think I’m progressing on a little bit of everything and that’s what is making my level going up. That’s why I’m in a final and playing against the best of the world.”

Looking back, Jabeur had her chances during the match but was able to only convert one of 10 break points against Badosa. “Today, I feel like I did something different than other days,” she said during press, quoted by the WTA website. “I was really fighting hard even though I knew I wasn’t playing very well. I just tried. I tried to think. I tried to do whatever in my power. Honestly, I don’t regret much because today she was a much better player.”

Friday’s BNP Paribas Open results

Saturday’s BNP Paribas Open order of play

By the numbers

When Ons Jabeur beat Anett Kontaveit 7-5, 6-3 in Thursday’s quarterfinal round, it ended the Estonian Kontaveit’s nine-match winning streak and advanced Jabeur to her first WTA 1000 semifinal.

On Monday, the 27-year-old Tunisian Jabeur will become the first Arab woman to be ranked in the WTA Top 10 and the highest-ranked Arab – woman or man – in history.

“Quotable …”

“I feel like I’ve always liked to play big tournaments. Indian Wells is almost like the fifth Grand Slam. I always had a lot more motivation coming to tournaments like this.

“When we come here every year, you sometimes take it for granted. Then, two-and-a-half years later, I feel like I actually forgot how beautiful this place is, how fun it is to play here.

“But in terms of game-wise, conditions are pretty tricky here. It’s about, like, adjustments a lot and navigating through two weeks. It’s a two-week event, so it also takes a lot of energy, a lot of focus out of you.”