The lush oasis of Indian Wells has proven remarkably fertile in recent years as a springboard for champions including Naomi Osaka to blossom into major winners of the future.
Based on the remarkable performance of Paula Badosa over the past fortnight in the Coachella Valley, it seems likely the Spaniard will continue this trend in coming years.
On a day where Cameron Norrie also claimed his maiden Masters 1000 title, the championship effort of Badosa over Victoria Azarenka in a final of the highest quality was superb.
The 23-year-old edged the former World No. 1 7-6 (5) 2-6 7-6 (2) in a tense thriller lasting 3hr 04min to claim her second WTA Tour title and biggest success of her career.
It was a worthy final to celebrate a return to the “Desert Paradise” for the first time since 2019, one that pitted an emerging star against an established champion still firing into her 30s.
The first set was a gruelling affair.
Badosa was the first to break in the seventh game, only for her rival to retrieve the break, before the Spaniard had the better of the tiebreaker in a set that lasted 78 minutes.
The stirring rally on set point which lasted 28 shots, with the Spaniard eventually clipping a backhand crosscourt beyond the reach of her gallant rival, encapsulated the match’s quality.
Azarenka, seeking to become the first woman to be crowned the “Queen of the Desert” for the third time, pounced in the second set when the younger woman’s intensity dipped.
The style of the third set was akin to that of the opener. Both women slugged groundstrokes, with Badosa’s shots carrying more topspin to the flatter ball of Azarenka.
The pair defended brilliantly, produced some sizzling winners, and Azarenka showed tremendous hands at the net in a decider that became a true test of nerves.
Badosa blinked when serving at 4-all, 40-15, dropping six points as her thunderous forehand momentarily went askew. But Azarenka then lost her way from 30-0 when serving for history.
Unlike the first set tiebreaker, when the Belarusian rallied from a slow start, Badosa was able to gain the upper hand and fittingly thumped a forehand winner to close out her finest victory.
It was a victory born of masterful resilience, both mentally and physically, and superb shotmaking over a dual-Australian Open champion still highly competitive against the best.
Badosa, who collapsed to the baseline before being congratulated by Azarenka, recalled watching her rival winning those titles in Melbourne almost a decade ago.
“I was inspired by you. Athletes like you and women like you, I would not be here without you, so thank you,” Badosa told Azarenka on the court.
Azarenka, who remains a force on North American hard courts based on this effort and her run to the US Open final last year when beaten by Osaka, described Badosa’s breakthrough as “well deserved”.
“The entire match, the quality of tennis was at a super high level. We were both going for our shots, really pushing each other to the max,” she said.
“That’s what made it super entertaining, super competitive , really fighting for every ball, not giving in anywhere.”
Badosa, who moves to a career-high ranking of 11 and is now a likely starter in the WTA Tour Finals in Mexico next month, defeated a string of top-line opponents to succeed.
Azarenka was the third major champion she has beaten in the past week after triumphs over another former World No. 1 Angelique Kerber and the reigning Roland Garros winner Barbora Krejcikova, with four wins coming over women currently ranked in the top 20.
“The first thing I learned this week is that nothing is impossible. If you fight, if you work, after all these years, you can achieve anything,” Badosa said.
The 2018 champion Osaka and the following year’s victor Bianca Andreecu parlayed the confidence gleaned from success at Indian Wells into US Open triumphs later in the year.
Because of the timing of this year’s success, Badosa will not have the same luxury.
But based on her performances throughout 2021, she is clearly a player capable of reaching greater heights, particularly on clay courts and slower-paced hard courts.
Her record throughout this year demonstrates the former Roland Garros girls champion, who has spoken about a battle with depression, can compete with and beat the best.
Keen-eyed Australian fans would have noted just how talented a player Badosa was when she defeated World No. 1 Ash Barty in Charleston in April in straight sets.
Nerves hindered her late in a tight quarterfinal loss to Timara Zidansek at Roland Garros in June in the tournament following her maiden WTA Tour title success in Serbia.
Prior to that, Barty had avenged her loss to the one-time junior prodigy in a semifinal of the Madrid Masters, but it was another tight affair despite the straight sets scoreline.
Badosa, who was moved to a medi-hotel during the Australian Open after testing positive to Covid-19, was also competitive on grass when reaching the last 16 at Wimbledon.
She is a few years older in her breakthrough than players such as US Open champion Emma Raducanu, Osaka, Andreescu and Iga Swiatek, and it occurred a tier lower.
But the success mirrors the timing of Barty, for example, who claimed the Miami Open shortly before her 23rd birthday and went on to win Roland Garros soon after in 2019.
The Manhattan-born Badosa, whose parents were models, was identified as a future star after her junior success in Paris but struggled with the anxiety caused by expectation.
It threatened her career and delayed her progression to senior ranks, but she started to make strides towards a successful career in 2019 and is shaping as a star of the game. The success in Indian Wells is clearly a massive step forward.
“(It is) important to dream. Sometimes you have tough moments,” she said.
“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."
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John Peers and Storm Sanders will join Brett Phillips in this weeks episode.
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