After two volatile, unpredictable weeks of this experimental autumn Indian Wells, a worthy final in the women’s draw will see another resurgence from a former dominant champion in Victoria Azarenka while a younger, equally fiery challenger in Paula Badosa, of Spain, steps into the light for the first time.
Azarenka started the season ranked 13th after a searing return to form last year, during which she reached the US Open final before losing to Naomi Osaka. She entered 2021 filled with renewed hope but, from the moment she became one of the players forced into hard quarantine at the Australian Open in February, Azarenka’s year has been a struggle and her revival stuttered.
After starting the year with physical problems, even as her health settled down from the clay court season onwards, she was unable to find the required level to make progress and she has dropped to 27th.
“I think my season has been tricky,” she said. “There were parts where I physically couldn’t necessarily 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 a lot of searching in the season, a lot of kind of stepping into the unknown.”
In Indian Wells, Azarenka’s last tournament of the year, she has found her way by embracing solidity. After a series of decent wins over players including Petra Kvitova and Jessica Pegula, on Friday night she was a rock in the closing stages of her semi-final as she edged out an in-form Jelena Ostapenko with consistency and discipline.
Although she may be a distance from her suffocating peak, she has put herself in the right position for her form and confidence to grow.
“I feel like right now I’m a bit more settled with a bit more structure, a little bit more discipline, which makes it not necessarily easier but a bit clearer what I need to do. So it doesn’t take extra energy on that so I can kind of focus my energy more on fighting for every ball,” she said.
Across the net, Badosa’s arrival has been coming after a tremendous breakthrough season, but even her performances this week have been surprising in their brutal efficiency. The 23-year-old was once a top junior and she is a peer of Osaka and Ostapenko but she struggled with the transition to the top levels of the tour and has openly discussed her problems with depression during her youth.
Over the course of this year, however, she has never appeared more assured. Faced with four top-20 opponents in succession in Indian Wells, she strolled past Coco Gauff, Barbora Krejcikova, Angelique Kerber and Ons Jabeur without losing a set.
Regardless of how she fares in the final, she will now rightfully rise into the top 20 for the first time at around 17th, while she is 10th in the WTA race to Guadalajara and locked in a battle for the final WTA Finals spots that includes her beaten semi-final opponent, Jabeur. She will now face the considerable challenge of one of the best hard court players of the past generation at a tournament she has already won twice.
“I’ve seen her a lot, a lot of finals, winning grand slams, 1000 tournaments,” said Badosa. ”I know how she’s playing. She’s very intense. She’s a tough one. She’s a competitor. She fights until the last ball.
“I know it’s going to be a tough one. But I like these kind of matches. I’ve never been through a final, so I can’t wait to play it. I always dreamed to be in one.”
Despite the supreme performances of the two finalists, the most significant story of the week was arguably provided by Jabeur as she continued her trailblazing ways. By reaching her maiden WTA 1000 semi-final, she has broken into the top 10 for the first time and is the first ever Arab tennis player, male or female, to do so.
With the amount of attention she already commands when she competes in Arab countries and the opportunity her success presents for Tunisia and beyond, the hope is that she will not be the last.