INDIAN WELLS, Calif. — In its usual March dates, the BNP Paribas Open has been a launching pad for major talent in recent years.
Naomi Osaka won the title in 2018 and then won the U.S. Open by upsetting Serena Williams in the final. Bianca Andreescu won the title in 2019 and did the same.
Time will tell on the 27th-ranked Paula Badosa, who won her first top-tier championship on Sunday with a 7-6 (5), 2-6, 7-6 (2) victory over Victoria Azarenka in a thriller of a final that required three hours and four minutes of effort and resilience with on-court temperatures exceeding 90 degrees. Time will also tell on Cameron Norrie, because Badosa’s unexpected run through a brutal draw that included Coco Gauff and three major singles champions was not the only surprise in Indian Wells. Norrie, seeded 21st, also won his first top-tier title, defeating Nikoloz Basilashvili of Georgia 3-6, 6-4, 6-1 on Sunday. Norrie, born in South Africa and raised in New Zealand, is the first British player to win the BNP Paribas Open singles title. Badosa, born in the United States, is the first Spanish woman to do so.
At 23, she is older than either Osaka or Andreescu were when they made their breakthroughs at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden. But she was once a teen prodigy herself and is now doing justice to her talent after dealing with mental-health issues and working with a series of psychologists.
“There were moments when I thought I would never make it here,” she said on Sunday. “I suffered a lot, and I had to work on it a lot. Everybody was in a hurry, and I think I struggled a lot from the expectations, that by 20 or 21 you should be winning big tournaments.”
On Monday, she will break into the top 20 for the first time at No. 13. That is quite a climb for a player ranked 70th at the end of 2020.
“I think the first thing that I’ve learned this week is that nothing is impossible,” Badosa 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.”
Badosa was born in New York because her parents were working in the fashion industry, but the family soon moved back to Spain where Badosa began playing tennis.
She was identified early as someone with the kind of drive and talent to become Spain’s next great women’s player after Arantxa Sánchez Vicario, Conchita Martinez and Garbiñe Muguruza. She played her first professional satellite tournament at age 14, won two rounds at the Miami Open as a wild-card entrant at age 17 in 2015 and won the French Open junior title later that year. But she went through a full-blown depression that left her struggling to get out of bed, much less train for competition.
Badosa sought professional help, and found a new coach who helped retool her game and rebuild her confidence and perspective, and in January 2019, she qualified for her first Grand Slam tournament at the Australian Open.
She has chosen to be open about her off-court challenges, recording a video in 2019 that recounted her journey. But her rise into the elite began in earnest after the five-month hiatus of the professional tours forced by the coronavirus pandemic in 2020. Badosa reached the fourth round of the French Open, which had been delayed from the spring until October, and after strong preparation in the off-season she was ready to do well at this year’s Australian Open only to end up, like Azarenka, in hard quarantine after the charter flight to Melbourne.
Both players ended up losing in the first round, but Badosa has gone on to have a breakthrough season: winning her first WTA Tour title in Belgrade in May and then following that with a run to the quarterfinals at the French Open, the fourth round of Wimbledon and the quarterfinals of the Tokyo Olympics.
At 5-foot-11, she has physical presence and big power on her serve, forehand and two-handed backhand. But she is very fit and also a natural mover, capable of counterpunching from the corners and chasing down the drop shots that the crafty Ons Jabeur tried against her in the semifinals on Friday.
Azarenka posed a very different challenge. While Jabeur relies on spin and abrupt changes of pace, Azarenka is a straight-line player at her most dangerous when she can take a full cut at a return or step into the court and find a sharp angle with her best shot: her two-handed backhand. She is also effective at the net, where she often thrived on Sunday.
A former No. 1, Azarenka has not had her finest season in 2021. But she is at her best on hardcourts, and Indian Wells has long been one of her happiest hunting grounds.
There are no major tournaments in Belarus, Azarenka’s home country. But this parched part of the United States is an area that also feels like home. After leaving Minsk to find better training opportunities, she lived in Arizona as a teenager and later bought a home in Manhattan Beach, Calif., in the Los Angeles area.
Azarenka won the singles title in Indian Wells in 2012 and 2016, the year in which she looked ready to begin dominating the women’s game in earnest. Instead, she became pregnant with her son Leo and left the tour for nearly a year. After her return, she was unable to compete consistently and was unable to leave California at one stage because of a long-running custody battle with her former boyfriend Billy McKeague.
But she has still hit some high notes: above all her run to the U.S. Open final last year. And at 32, she remains one of the purest ball strikers and best returners in the women’s game. She was one of Badosa’s childhood role models along with Maria Sharapova and Rafael Nadal.
“I was seeing you many times,” Badosa said to Azarenka in the post-match ceremony on Sunday. “I remember saying to my coach that I hope one day I can play like her.”
“Thank you for inspiring me so much,” Badosa added. “I wouldn’t be here without you.”
Azarenka was close, very close, on Sunday to becoming the first three-time women’s singles champion in Indian Wells. After losing the marathon first set in one hour and 19 minutes, she quickly roared back to win the second set as Badosa struggled to produce the same consistency from the baseline.
Azarenka exuded positive energy throughout the match, pumping her fist and moving purposefully between points. Though Badosa jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the final set, Azarenka did not falter. She fought back to 2-2 and then broke the Spaniard’s serve at 4-4 for the chance to serve for the match.
At 30-0, Azarenka was just two points from victory but after nearly three hours of chasing the title, she lost her way, making unforced errors on the next four points to drop her serve and allow Badosa back in the hunt at 5-5.
She did not squander the opportunity, taking command of the ensuing tiebreaker: cracking a forehand winner to to take a 4-1 lead and then closing out the match on her first championship point with another forehand winner.
It was quite a finishing touch on the most significant victory of Badosa’s career, and she immediately dropped her racket, fell to the court and began sobbing, her hands covering her face.
“A dream come true,” she said as she thanked her support team and tournament director Tommy Haas.
“I know it’s been very tough times, so I appreciate all you’ve done,” Badosa said to Haas.
It has indeed been an unusual and challenging edition of this prestigious tournament, canceled in 2020 because of the pandemic and delayed until October this year. But though women’s stars like Ashleigh Barty, Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams were missing and the crowds were significantly smaller than usual, the 2021 BNP Paribas Open did have a final worthy of the event’s hard-earned reputation.
If all goes according to plan, no guarantee in the coronavirus era, Badosa will defend her biggest title in just five months time. The 2022 edition is scheduled to be played in its usual window from March 7 to 20.