Victoria Azarenka’s and Paula Badosa’s tennis seasons did not begin on a high note.
Both had to go through hard quarantine in their hotel rooms in Melbourne, Australia: 14 days for Azarenka and 21 for Badosa, who also tested positive for the coronavirus.
Shortly after their release in February, both lost in the opening round of the Australian Open, and they still wince at the memory of their trip Down Under.
“It was damaging mentally, the end of it,” Azarenka said Friday of her quarantine. “It was damaging physically the most for me. I’ve never stopped for two weeks not doing anything. In no way that was helpful.”
But not for the first time, Azarenka and Badosa have proved resilient, and near the end of a gruelling season, they will face off Sunday in a surprise women’s singles final at the BNP Paribas Open.
Azarenka, a former No. 1, has fallen back in the rankings with injuries and off-court problems. Badosa, a former teen prodigy from Spain, has openly spoken about experiencing depression and struggling to manage her own and others’ expectations.
But while other tennis stars have shut down their seasons or pleaded fatigue in Indian Wells after a year of bubbles, jet lag and virtual news conferences, Azarenka and Badosa have found the energy and the inspiration to thrive in the California desert: defeating a series of higher-ranked players.
Azarenka, a 32-year-old from Belarus, has won the title twice in Indian Wells but not since 2016. Badosa, a 23-year-old in the midst of a breakthrough season, is playing in the main draw here for the first time in singles.
“I’m tired as well,” Badosa told me late Friday night. “I can’t wait to have a few days’ rest, to go home, to be honest. But I love to compete. I love tennis. Every time I’m on court, I’m enjoying, even though I’m suffering, but I know that’s part of the game. I forget everything: that I’m tired, all those things, because I love to be here.”
It has been a strange edition of the tournament. Usually staged in March, it was cancelled shortly before it was set to begin in 2020 and was then postponed to October this year because of the coronavirus pandemic.
With a ban on unvaccinated fans during the tournament, children younger than 13, who are not yet eligible for COVID-19 vaccine shots, have not been allowed on-site, and the crowds have been about half the usual size. Most of the game’s biggest stars skipped or missed the tournament altogether, including the men’s No. 1, Novak Djokovic, and the women’s No. 1, Ashleigh Barty. But the favourites who did choose to take part have not prospered.
This is the first Masters 1000 event in the 31-year history of the category in which no men’s player ranked in the Top 25 was able to reach the semifinals. No. 3 Stefanos Tsitsipas and No. 4 Alexander Zverev were both upset in the quarterfinals in three sets: Tsitsipas by Nikolas Basilashvili and Zverev by Taylor Fritz, an American from nearby San Diego who had to save two match points before securing his most significant victory.
“What gave me a lot of success early on in my career was just that fearlessness to trust myself in the big moments,” Fritz said. “It’s just really nice to kind of have that feeling back.”
Azarenka and Badosa are both outside the Top 25 as well, although not for long. Badosa will break into the Top 20 for the first time Monday, and Azarenka will break back in if she again claims the title.
It has been, on balance, a frustrating season for Azarenka. A former No. 1, she looked ready to return to dominance in 2016 when she completed the so-called Sunshine Double by winning the tournaments in Indian Wells and Miami. But she soon left the tour, pregnant with her son Leo, and then was unable to return to the circuit full time because of a continuing custody battle with Leo’s father.
She remains at her best on hard courts. When she beat her longtime rival Serena Williams in a three-set thriller to reach the 2020 U.S. Open final, it appeared she was in position to return to the fore this year. But she failed to make deep runs at the Grand Slam tournaments in 2021, and Sunday’s match will be her first tour singles final of the season.
“I think my season has been tricky,” she said. “There were parts where I physically couldn’t bring that extra level, extra fight, which was very frustrating. Then there were parts where I felt that I was looking for something to add, and I didn’t necessarily know what it was. It was lot of searching.”
Persistence was certainly required in her high-velocity, high-intensity semifinal with Jelena Ostapenko, a sturdy and powerful Latvian who can pound a tennis ball like few on the planet and rarely deprives herself of the pleasure. Many of her 45 winners were well beyond the 6-foot Azarenka’s reach. But after dominating the opening set, Ostapenko’s trademark high-risk approach resulted in more errors. Azarenka adjusted to the pace and began capitalizing on Ostapenko’s often-shaky second serve.
Azarenka came within two points of defeat late in the third set and had to fight off three break points in the final game: saving the last with a rare and gutsy drop shot that she followed to net, where she read Ostapenko’s passing shot perfectly and hit a lunging volley winner.
“Can you be more brave than that?” Azarenka said.
She soon closed out her 3-6, 6-3, 7-5 victory, and Badosa followed her into the final by defeating Ons Jabeur 6-3, 6-3 but only after failing to convert her first five match points. When Jabeur’s last shot sailed wide, Badosa dropped to the court, relieved and overwhelmed.
Ranked 70th at the end of last season, she reached her first Grand Slam quarterfinal at this year’s French Open and the fourth round at Wimbledon before splitting with Javier Martí, the coach who had helped build the foundation for her strong season.
She now works with Jorge Garcia, a Spaniard who coached her in her youth, and as she has proved on the relatively slow hard courts in Indian Wells, she is a multisurface threat. She has powerful groundstrokes, full-stretch defensive skills and an ability to come quickly forward to chase down drop shots or finish off exchanges at the net.
Her serve remains a flickering flame, but her future looks floodlight bright even if the depth in women’s tennis has made it difficult for any player to go deep in draws consistently.
Badosa and Azarenka have never played each other, but despite the gap in their ages, they have traversed common ground: from big expectations after junior success to Aussie quarantine.
Both are also open to sharing their vulnerabilities, and Badosa, after securing her spot in the final, gave an on-court interview in which she referred to the “tough events” in her life and her depression, which peaked in 2017 and 2018 and required professional help.
“As you can see, other players, they’re passing through this right now, so I’m not the only one,” she said later. “I think it’s important to talk about that, because it’s something very normal. It’s something very tough, because it’s a very tough sport. You pass through a lot of things. When I achieve something like this, the first thing that passes through my head is that: the tough moments. When I was there, I never believed that I could be in a final.”
It will be real Sunday, however, and it could be a great final if she and Azarenka can play with the same conviction and controlled power that they have displayed so far in the desert.