WATCH: Badosa addressed the crowd after winning a third-set tiebreaker at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden.

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By now on this desert afternoon, Paula Badosa and Victoria Azarenka had gone toe-to-toe for just over three hours. Badosa had won a 79-minute opening set and led 2-0 in the third. Azarenka had served for the match in the third set at 5-4, 30-0. Between them, they would combine for 92 winners. Fittingly, the last one ended this high-quality match, a sharp crosscourt forehand from Badosa that closed out the women’s final of the BNP Paribas Open, 7-6 (5), 2-6, 7-6 (2).

“I would agree with comparing it to the match of the year,” said Azarenka. “I think the entire match the quality of tennis was super high level. We were both going for our shots, really pushing each other to the max.”

“I think it was really good one, as well, because she played an amazing level,” added Badosa. “I think I had to rise high level every set. At the final third set I think I played my best. It was only option if I wanted to win, so I'm really proud of it.”

Coming into the match, Azarenka had far more experience, having won this title twice and this year at Indian Wells taken out past Grand Slam winners Petra Kvitova and Jelena Ostapenko. This was Badosa’s main draw debut, her run to the finals highlighted by wins over ascending Coco Gauff, Roland Garros champion Barbora Krejcikova, three-time Slam winner Angelique Kerber and Top 10 newcomer Ons Jabeur.

This was the first time Azarenka and Badosa had played one another. “I was playing Vika,” said Badosa. “She's a great champion. I’ve admired her since I was a little girl, so that's another thing.”

Badosa defeated four Top 20 players in six matches to win her second career WTA title.

Badosa defeated four Top 20 players in six matches to win her second career WTA title.

“Sometimes you can be more nervous playing in your first big final,” said Azarenka. “Sometimes you are a bit freer. I felt that today she was playing, you know, really free.”

In some cases, new opponents will subtly probe one another early in a match to explore weaknesses. Not these two. Exploration took the form of massive baseline firepower from both players. In the thin desert air, on this slow hard court, each cracked the ball deep and hard into the corners. But the slight edge in the weaponry deployment department—notably early and late—went to Badosa. Said Azarenka, “in the first set I could have been a bit more aggressive, where I felt like I let her play a little bit more the game she likes in some moments.”

With Azarenka serving at 3-3, 15-40 in the first set, Badosa fired an untouchable, laser-like forehand return. Azarenka responded immediately, earning the break back with a forehand winner of her own. Azarenka repeatedly tracked down Badosa’s hard shots and regained control of the rally, a strong statement to a player eight years her junior. And with Badosa serving in the first set at 4-5, 15-30, it appeared that experience was primed to gain the upper hand. But two missed makeable groundstrokes by Azarenka, followed by a fine Badosa serve, levelled the set at 5-all. The first set tiebreaker offered a sharp contrast to the closeness of the prior twelve games. Badosa went ahead 4-0. Azarenka caught up to 5-all but then came a misfired down-the-line backhand and a short forehand that opened up the court for a Badosa crosscourt winner.

With positive body language and exceptional focus, Azarenka played the second set as if she was double-parked. It took her eleven minutes to go up 3-0 and just over a half-hour to level the match.

The third set was a tribute to each player’s physical and mental fitness. Badosa served at 2-0, 40-15, only to see Azarenka win that point with a superb volley. Azarenka went on to break serve, the two even until 4-all in the third. Here again, Badosa took a 40-15 lead. Once again, she was broken, in the last two points of that game wide with a pair of forehands.

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I think I had to rise high level every set. At the final third set I think I played my best. It was only option if I wanted to win, so I'm really proud of it. Paula Badosa

So, it was that Azarenka grabbed the balls to serve for the title at 5-4. And when Badosa made two more forehand errors, the end seemed very close. Now it was Azarenka’s turn to lose control – a forehand into the net, a wide backhand, long forehand, long backhand. Just like that, Badosa was back in the match.

And though Azarenka was able to push it into a tiebreaker at 5-6, Badosa was by far more aggressive and consistent at crunch-time. Badosa went up 3-0 in the tiebreaker. This time, though, Azarenka was unable to launch a comeback, Badosa by this stage fully dialed-in. Serving at 3-1, Badosa blistered a crosscourt forehand return winner. On the next point, she completely handcuffed Azarenka’s usually stronger backhand with a deep return. Up 6-2, Badosa’s 44th winner delivered the biggest title of her career.

Azarenka still has yet to win a tournament in 2021. But today she showed so much of what makes her a champion – albeit one who over the years has been beset with various injuries that have taken her way from the competition she so clearly loves. Still, if Azarenka’s run at Indian Wells is any indication, she has more excellent tennis ahead. “But the most important for me was to also see for myself that physically I'm there, I'm ready to play as long as it's needed, match after match,” said Azarenka. “I think that was a bit of a challenge, as I said before, for me during the year physically with some injuries.”

Ranked No. 27 upon arrival in Indian Wells and No. 70 at the start of the year, Badosa has now soared to 13. As the rankings begin to sort themselves out after being frozen amid the pandemic, this Spaniard’s rise is unquestionably one of the more surprising storylines of 2021.