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Great Expectations: Paula Badosa embraces pressure-packed French Open
The 2015 junior champion has won her last seven matches, having conquered mental health struggles that once plagued her.
Published Jun 03, 2021
WATCH: Badosa reached back-to-back semifinals in Charleston and Madrid before winning her first WTA title in Belgrade.
Paula Badosa looked out of place on Court 6 on Wednesday. Playing in the shadow of Court Philippe Chatrier, the surging Spaniard clobbered Danka Kovinic in 52 minutes flat, all the while maintaining a regal carriage that belied her lowly court assignment.
In her own words, the 23-year-old was “feeling herself.”
“I think I played quite perfectly,” she told me after the 6-2, 6-0 win. “Sometimes you wake up and you get on the court feeling like you’re there and like you’re going to play well. All of these matches and the confidence are really helping.”
Badosa has indeed amassed an impressive 15-2 record on clay courts since the Volvo Car Open, where she shocked reigning world No. 1 Ashleigh Barty to reach the first of three semifinals in Charleston, Madrid and Belgrade. It was in Belgrade where she won her first title and began a seven-match winning streak—all in straight sets—that continues into the third round of Roland Garros.
A win from matching her breakthrough round of 16 result last fall, the No. 33 seed is many a pundit’s pick to go much farther this time around, and she knows it.
“Last year when I came here, every match felt like a present because I wasn’t expecting any of it,” she explained. “I won my first round, and then I beat Sloane Stephens, so I was playing loose and without any expectations. It was all just coming to me then, but this year is a little different. I have expectations, and I had a very good clay-court season, so people have expectations of me, as well, and so the pressure might be there a bit more. Still, I’m happy to be managing the pressure quite well.”
Through a conversation that goes dark in parts, Badosa remains thoughtful but undeniably light, emphasizing most of her adjectives with a staccato “quite” and laughingly recalling her copious consumption of pains au chocolat in her first trip to Paris. The zone in which I’ve found her is a stark contrast to the shell-shocked state she was in ahead of the Australian Open.
Testing positive for COVID-19, she and coach Javier Martí were hotelbound for nearly three weeks, let out just in time for a crushing first-round defeat to Liudmila Samsonova after serving for the match.
“All of these experiences have helped me grow into a stronger person,” she insists, “and, of course, there have been plenty of things that I cannot control off the court, but I find they’ve made it easier for me to accept things on the court even better. I’m trying to focus on the positives from all that’s happened to me and use them in ways that help me in matches.”
Badosa is the first to admit that this mindset took time to build. A former junior Roland Garros champion, her transition onto the pro circuit was agonizingly slow compared to the rapid accession she and others had expected, leading to a protracted mental health struggle that she first discussed in the summer of 2019.
“As young players, we have to make the process of getting mature very fast. By 20 or 21 years old, you have to be ready to play in front of 15,000 people and perform for the entire world, winning Grand Slams. It’s quite tough to have all that pressure, and it can naturally cause anxiety.”
Citing the struggles currently facing world No. 2 Naomi Osaka and applauding her decision to speak out, she continues, “I haven’t reached her level but I had it at my own level, so I understand how tough it can be to get through these things. It’s quite important to address and take care of because, for me, tennis is 80 percent mental, so if you don’t take care of it, everything gets more complicated. You have to listen to your mind as much as your body.”
Maybe it helps to have been a junior who had all these expectations and pressure, because four or five years later, I have them again. I think it taught me to manage them a bit differently, and with all the experience I’ve had since, I’m dealing with the nerves and expectations quite well. Now I’m more focused on myself and trying not to listen to all of the things that make up those greater expectations.
She credited then-coach Xavi Budo with bringing her out of her depressive episode, coming away from that experience certain that a strong support system would be critical in her climb up the rankings.
“I tried a little bit of everything, I worked with psychologists but ultimately the people who are around you 24/7 and know you best are, in my opinion, the best to work through these things with. They’ve seen you in your bad and good moments, and they’re there to help manage the two. I trust my team above all else.”
The pandemic tested Badosa past what she thought possible, and only proved she was stronger than she had ever dreamed imaginable. Having emerged from her own shadow of self-doubt, might the muscle memory of her junior triumph translate to a Chatrier debut and beyond?
“Maybe it helps to have been a junior who had all these expectations and pressure,” she muses, “because four or five years later, I have them again. I think it taught me to manage them a bit differently, and with all the experience I’ve had since, I’m dealing with the nerves and expectations quite well. Now I’m more focused on myself and trying not to listen to all of the things that make up those greater expectations.”