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Paula Badosa, Victoria Azarenka in Surprise Indian Wells Final

  • October 17, 2021

She remains at her best on hardcourts. 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, the 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 hardcourts in Indian Wells, she is a multi-surface threat. She has powerful groundstrokes, full-stretch defensive skills and an ability to come quickly forward to chase down dropshots or finish off exchanges at the net.

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