Indian Wells: Underdogs become top dogs

Giant-killers Paula Badosa and Cameron Norrie climaxed their steadily improving results this year with career breakthroughs, their first Premier Mandatory and Masters 1000 titles, respectively.

Never-say-die attitude: The memorable final was indisputably the best match of Badosa’s blossoming career. It also taught her a valuable lesson. “The first thing I learned this week,” she said, “is that nothing is impossible.”   -  AP

Champions are not born. They are made. They emerge from a long, hard school of defeat, discouragement, and mediocrity, but they are endowed with a force that transcends discouragement and cries, ‘I will succeed.’” — Bill Tilden, from his 1920 book, The Art of Lawn Tennis.

“Everyone can beat everyone.” So declared 100th-ranked Aliaksandra Sasnovich, a 27-year-old Belarusian journeyman, after she upset U.S. Open champion Emma Raducanu 6-2, 6-4 in the second round at the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells, California. That once-preposterous conclusion aptly sums up a wildly unpredictable season. The first three majors produced 12 different semifinalists, No. 12 Belinda Bencic beat No. 42 Marketa Vondrousova for the Olympic gold medal, and an 18-year-old qualifier defeated a 200-1 longshot in the U.S. Open final.

Winning ways: “I think honestly doing it this way, getting slowly, slowly better every year, improving little things, I don’t think I’ve missed anything, by not making any big jumps,” Norrie said after his title triumph   -  AFP

 

The “expect the unexpected” trend continued at Indian Wells. There, giant-killers Paula Badosa and Cameron Norrie climaxed their steadily improving results this year with career breakthroughs, their first Premier Mandatory and Masters 1000 titles, respectively.

At what point in an ascending tennis player’s career do they realise they can not only compete with the best in the world, but beat them?

For Paula Badosa, it took far more sweat and tears than she ever imagined when she won the 2015 French Open girls’ title at age 17. The ambitious Spaniard then boasted the strokes, physique, and talent to excel as a pro, but lacked the mental game. Burdened by the great expectations, she struggled for four years, suffering disheartening losses, before emerging from the ITF Circuit, the minor league of pro tennis.

READ: Four unforgettable moments of Indian Wells

“We are not robots,” Badosa said during the French Open this June, recalling those dark days. “The expectations from outside were tough,” she said. “You’re 18 and 19 years old. Your head isn’t ready to get that kind of information.”

As a result, Badosa battled depression and anxiety, which further stalled her progress. In 2018, coach Xavier Budo changed her training regimen and diet, but just as important, helped her regain her self-esteem and joy for the game. Not until 2019, at the Australian Open and Wimbledon where she lost in the first rounds, did Badosa make the main draw of a Grand Slam event and crack the top 100.

In September 2020, Badosa hired a new coach, Javier Martí, who understood Paula’s crisis because he had failed to make it as a pro despite his own early promise. Badosa also credits her rise in the rankings to sports psychologists for teaching her how to deal with the pressures she faced as a pro.

“I’ve worked with a lot of them,” Badosa revealed. “I think it’s very important in tennis. Maybe 80, 70% is mental. I’ve worked everything: the expectations, the pressure. Now I’m working with him to try to find the balance of hard work, and as I said before, enjoy. I think that’s why I’m winning so many matches. That’s why I’m having a good year because I found that balance. I have my work time, I do that 100%, but then I have time to turn off mentally.”

READ: Norrie tops Basilashvili, becomes first British man to win Indian Wells title

Badosa gained some momentum during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season at the French Open on clay, her favourite surface. There, she upset 2017 champion Jelena Ostapenko and 2018 finalist Sloane Stephens to reach her first round of 16 at a major and achieved a then-career-high No. 69 ranking.

Badosa’s long, hard road to glory accelerated this year at the French Open. After upsetting 2019 runner-up Vondrousova, she was outlasted by Tamara Zidansek in a 7-5, 4-6, 8-6 quarterfinal thriller. She confided, “I couldn’t control the nerves during the entire match.” Tellingly, the determined Spaniard also tweeted, “The greatest lessons come from the toughest battles. I will be back stronger.”

Falling prey: The current French Open women’s champion Barbora Krejcikova of Czech Republic lost in straight sets to Badosa in the round of 16.   -  AFP

 

Indeed she would. Badosa then made the round of 16 at Wimbledon and quarterfinals at the Olympics, upsetting 2020 French Open champion Iga Swiatek. But the best was yet to come.

On the slow, gritty, hard courts at Indian Wells that suited her game, Badosa dispatched four top-20 foes after having beaten none before. Like dominoes they fell: No. 19 and rising star Coco Gauff 6-2, 6-2; No. 5 and French Open champion Barbora Krejcikova 6-1, 7-5; No. 15 and three-time major winner Angelique Kerber 6-4, 7-5; and versatile No. 14 Ons Jabeur, 6-3, 6-3 on her sixth match point in the semifinals.

But not even those impressive wins convinced the unassuming Badosa she belonged among the elite. “I think I’m playing the final, but I might still be dreaming!” she told spectators following her semifinal victory.

Dream final

Her dream final happily turned out to be a dream match for the tennis-starved crowd. It was the first final in 31 months, due to the prestigious tournament’s cancellation in 2020 and postponement from March to October this year. Even so, the 16,100-seat main stadium was only about three-quarters full due to lingering concerns about the coronavirus with fans being required to show their proof of vaccination at the entry gates.

So near yet so far: In the final set, leading 5-4, 30-love on her serve, Azarenka was just two points from winning the title. But the veteran blinked first, unbelievably committing four straight unforced errors.   -  AFP

Victoria Azarenka, Badosa’s opponent in the final, captured her two majors at the 2012 and 2013 Australian Open, but at 32 years of age, is far from over the hill despite her misleading No. 27 ranking. Vika, as she’s known, defeated Serena Williams in the 2020 U.S. Open semis and then extended Naomi Osaka to three sets in the final. At this Indian Wells, she regained that top notch form to knock out No. 11 Petra Kvitova, Sasnovich, rising American Jessica Pegula, and Ostapenko.

The toss-up final pitted youth versus experience, a potent serve versus one of the game’s best serve returners, and an aggressive forehand versus a rock-solid backhand. However, the 5’11” Badosa and the 6’ Azarenka matched up physically, and both were hungry to make history. The Spaniard had never won the BNP Paribas Open or any Premier Mandatory tournament, while the Belarusian was bidding to break her three-way tie with Serena and Maria Sharapova at two titles each.

The key to Badosa’s 7-6 (5), 2-6, 7-6 (2) triumph — and capturing any super-close match — is winning more of the big points and games. Although Badosa won nine fewer total points (133 to 124) and two fewer total games (18 to 16), she usually prevailed in the important ones.

The opening set exemplified both Badosa’s constant struggle to hold serve and her resilience when she didn’t. In the first game, she fended off three break points, the last on a bold backhand winner, to escape. She saved two more break points in her next service game, only to be broken twice, including when she was serving for the set at 6-5.

The tie-breaker climaxed the very physical, 79-minute set featuring blistering and accurate groundstrokes. In only her second career final compared to 41 for Azarenka, Badosa raced ahead 4-0. Azarenka closed the gap to 4-3. Then Badosa belted a backhand crosscourt winner for 5-3, and four points later, won a long rally with another backhand winner to take the tiebreaker 7-5.

READ: Norrie makes light of missing shoes after Indian Wells title

Ever the fighter, Azarenka displayed confident and energetic body language as she then surged to a 3-0 lead in the second set. Azarenka offset Badosa’s slightly greater groundstroke power by hitting 42% of her shots from inside the baseline in the second set — compared to just 17% in the first set — to pressure her opponent. The 88°F desert heat and the six matches seemed to be taking their toll on Badosa when Azarenka strongly finished off the 6-2 set with a forehand winner, backhand serve return winner, and a 104-mph ace.

The deciding set tested Badosa’s resolve and the older Azarenka’s stamina. Like in the opening set, Badosa, after an early 2-love lead, struggled to hold serve. The Spaniard managed to hold serve with her 14th backhand winner and an ace for 3-2, and then with a forehand passing shot winner for 4-3.

Winners exceeded errors as both players battled furiously. “What a treat to see both these ladies play their best tennis at the same time,” said Tennis Channel analyst Lindsay Davenport.

Leading 5-4, 30-love on her serve, Azarenka was just two points from winning the title. But the veteran blinked first, unbelievably committing four straight unforced errors. Seizing her opportunity, Badosa streaked to a 5-1 lead in the tiebreaker. Then, with panache, she whacked a forehand winner on championship point.

“You never know how a player is going to respond to the biggest match of their career,” said Davenport, a three-time major champion. “How amazing was Badosa down the stretch! Going for her shots and hitting winner after winner. She played her best when it mattered the most.”

Match of the Year

Not surprisingly, some pundits rated the three-hour, nine-minute duel “the match of the year.” Azarenka agreed: “The quality of tennis was super-high level for the entire match. We were both going for our shots, really pushing each other to the max.”

In any event, the memorable final was indisputably the best match of Badosa’s blossoming career. It also taught her a valuable lesson. “The first thing I learned this week,” she said, “is that nothing is impossible.”

Badosa, whose ranking this year soared from No. 70 to No. 13, recalled the bouts of depression that once made her doubt herself. “I think it’s important to talk about that because it’s something very normal,” she said. “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, it’s that, those tough moments. When I was there, I never believed that I could be in a final or I can be fighting against champions and legends like Vika [Azarenka] or Angie [Kerber] or all these other players. For me, it’s an amazing feeling to be here.”

In sharp contrast with Badosa, Cameron Norrie possesses the a priori confidence of Jimmy Connors and Serena Williams. When he was asked in a video at the start of the year which unheralded player might surprise the tennis world in 2021, the 26-year-old Englishman replied, “I would like to say myself. I think I’m going to have a breakout season this year. Um, it’s obviously a big statement, but I’ll back myself and see how it goes.” It went exactly as Norrie predicted. He enjoyed a breakout season highlighted by his breakthrough tournament at Indian Wells. Taking advantage of a diluted field without the Big Three and Dominic Thiem, Norrie notched good wins over No. 19 Roberto Bautista Agut, No. 15 Diego Schwartzman, and No. 28 Grigor Dimitrov to make the biggest final of his late-blooming career. Then he out-steadied, outsmarted, and outlasted No. 36 Nikoloz Basilashvili, a one-dimensional slugger, 3-6, 6-4, 6-1.

Second best: Nikoloz Basilashvili of Georgia plays a forehand against Norrie. Basilashvili’s glaring weakness is his lack of tactics, which was exposed in the final.   -  AFP

 

Basilashvili, from the Republic of Georgia, bludgeoned his powerful groundstrokes — the fastest on the ATP Tour in 2020 — to take down No. 29 Karen Khachanov, No. 3 Stefanos Tsitsipas, and No. 39 Taylor Fritz to make his first Masters final.

“Norrie’s biggest weapon is his head,” said Paul Annacone, Tennis Channel analyst and former coach of Roger Federer and Pete Sampras. The patient, calm Brit bedevilled Basilashvili with a tricky combination of high-bouncing topspin forehands and low-bouncing flat backhands, an improved lefty serve, and relentless consistency. Conversely, Basilashvili’s glaring weakness is his lack of tactics. Specifically, the Georgian clearly eschews the famous Bill Tilden adage to always change a losing game because Basilashvili has no Plan B or C.

The low-key Norrie merely raised his arms to celebrate after Basilashvili made his 24th unforced error of the set, a forehand far beyond the baseline, on championship point. Aside from the first set, the biggest problem quietly confident Norrie faced involved his three pairs of tennis shoes that were stolen before the final.

Big upset: Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece, the No. 3 seed, was inconsistent and never in control as he went down to Basilashvili in the quarterfinals.   -  AFP

 

Norrie’s road towards the top of the sport was more deliberate and much less stressful than that of Badosa. After starring at Texas Christian University for four years, he advanced steadily on the Challenger circuit.

He didn’t crack the top 100 until 2018. Now the Brit with grit stands at a career-high No. 16. “I think honestly doing it this way, getting slowly, slowly better every year, improving little things, I don’t think I’ve missed anything, by not making any big jumps,” Norrie said. Different strokes for different folks, as they say. But Norrie and Badosa have one exciting prospect in common. They’re both in strong contention to qualify for their tour’s prestigious year-end championships.

For more updates, follow Sportstar on :