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Stronger than yesterday: Paula Badosa links improved mental toughness to 2021 surge
In her WTA Finals debut, the Spaniard secured the top spot in her round robin group after defeating Aryna Sabalenka and Maria Sakkari in straight sets.
Published Nov 14, 2021
Paula Badosa is on the precipice of a pitch-perfect finish to her 2021 season, a far cry from how it all began: in Australian quarantine.
The Spaniard, who is guaranteed to finish atop the Chichén Itzá after straight-set wins over Aryna Sabalenka and Maria Sakkari, spent nearly three weeks in lockdown after contracting COVID-19 en route to the Australian Open. Emerging mere days from her scheduled first round, she played a valiant opener only to suffer a heartbreaking defeat against Liudmila Samsonova.
It was then that Badosa, at the time ranked outside the Top 70, returned home, opened the windows that had been closed throughout her 21-day odyssey, and set to work at revamping her on-court attitude.
“I think maybe COVID helped me,” she mused after her 7-6 (4), 6-4 win over Sakkari, “because I was two months at home and I started to work very hard on that. I didn't want to hear that anymore. I want to prove people wrong.
“A few years ago, mentally, I was a typical player: ‘Oh, she can play good, but mentally she's so far away. She needs to improve a lot on that.’ I heard that a lot.”
The 23 (now 24, as of Monday)-year-old indeed returned to tour a different player, surging into the semifinals of an indoor event in Lyon to foreshadow her thunderous clay-court swing, during which she reached back-to-back semifinals in Charleston and Madrid, culminating in her first WTA title in Belgrade.
“I did an extreme change. I passed from being super bad mentally, to now I think I'm maybe one of the best ones—or that's what I try. I fight for every point. I can’t accept myself not to do that. I think I did an amazing change on that.
“I think it's one of the things that I'm prouder of because, of course, I improved on my tennis and physically. That's tough. But I think the toughest part to improve is on the mental game.”
Now a Top 10 player, Badosa has sailed through her share of mental tests since Melbourne: first shaking off a disappointing Roland Garros quarterfinal defeat, then regrouping from a split with coach Javier Martí, all in the lead-up to her breakthrough win at the BNP Paribas Open.
Undaunted by having to adjust, she rallied from a night-session stunner over Sabalenka to overcome Sakkari, an opposite opponent in completely different conditions.
“When I went to warm up, my first thought was, ‘Oh, my God, I have so many things today to adapt.’ It was going to be a challenge because I went to court and I was like, ‘Okay, it's windy. I play in the day, so the ball flies more. I play against an opponent, I don't know her. I'm playing for the semifinals.’ So many things.”
Playing Sakkari for the first time, she held off late surges in both sets from the Greek No. 1, managing a sometimes wind-strewn ball toss to strike a whopping 10 aces to extend her winning streak to eight in a row and all but secure her spot in the semifinals—Sabalenka’s victory over Iga Swiatek made it official Saturday night.
How has she stayed so steady through a season full of uncertainty? Long open about early-career struggles with mental health, a wry Badosa indirectly chalked up her adaptability to childhood trauma.
“This year I had, of course, a roller-coaster year, disappointments and everything. But after all I've been through in my life, it wasn't a disappointment,” she said with a smile after winning Indian Wells. “That's the good part. When you suffer a lot, when you're young, when you have a little bit of disappointment, you don't feel it like that.
“Of course, I have bad moments, but compared to the things I've been through, it's nothing. For me it's okay.”
Badosa will face Swiatek in her final round robin match on Monday.