Top10Matches_2021-4-wide

Over November 29-December 3 and December 6-10, we'll run down our Top 10 Matches of the 2021 season.

No. 10 | No. 9 | No. 8 | No. 7 | No. 6 | No. 5

“No give, no relenting,” commentator Sam Gore said halfway through Paula Badosa’s 7-6 (5), 2-6, 7-6 (2) win over Victoria Azarenka in the Indian Wells women’s final. He was talking about Azarenka’s refusal to go away quietly after the first set, but it was a fitting description for this titanic late-season struggle as a whole. For three hours and four minutes, in near-90 degree heat, Badosa and Azarenka didn’t give and didn’t relent. When it was over and Badosa had fallen flat on the court in celebration, tennis had a new star on its hands, and the California crowd was pleased to welcome her.

“In the final third set, I think I played my best,” Badosa said. “It was my only option if I wanted to win.”

Badosa and Azarenka were evenly matched. Both hit the ball equally well with their forehands and two-handed backhands; both like to step forward and go for attacking shots whenever possible; but neither has a weapon that allows them to put the ball away with one swing on a regular basis. Couple that with Indian Wells’ slow surface and you had a recipe for a war of attrition. And that’s what this match felt like from start to finish.

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CHAMPIONSHIP POINT: Badosa's crowning moment

Every point was a carefully planned and intensely contested mini-match of its own. Every winning shot was punctuated with a clenched fist. Neither player let her game face slip for a moment. The first three games took 20 minutes, and the first set took 80.

“I started to focus on what to do every point, every ball, and not think of anything else,” Badosa said. “I think it was like a roller coaster mentally, emotionally.”

“It was my first final in a 1000. I was playing Vika, she’s a great champion. I admire her since I was a little girl, so that’s another thing.”

Like all good fights, this one was characterized by the way both players got up off the mat after being knocked down. Badosa won the first set on a long rally; after patiently working Azarenka side to side, she closed it with a backhand winner. Badosa walked off court to an enormous roar, with her index finger pointed at her temple, Stan Wawrinka-style. But two games later, the same roar was for Azarenka, after she broke Badosa in her opening service game of the second set and leapt toward the sidelines with a shout and a fist-pump.

With both players so committed to victory, and unwilling to bend, the match seemed destined for a final-set tiebreaker, and that’s where it ended. And that’s where Badosa, who would turn 24 a month later, finally found an edge over the 32-year-old Azarenka. The Spaniard stepped in and hit a backhand winner to go up 3-0; she hit a forehand winner to go up 4-1; and she hit another forehand winner on championship point.

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Like all good fights, this one was characterized by the way both players got up off the mat after being knocked down.

Badosa’s win, and her fall to the court, felt cathartic. She has talked about her struggles with injuries, anxiety and depression, but in 2021 she put those issues behind her and reached the Top 10 for the first time. This win legitimated that rise, and put a capstone on it.

“The first thing I’ve learned this week is that nothing is impossible,” Badosa said. “Sometimes you have tough moments. 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.”

“Today was the same, so I’m really proud of it.”

Badosa finished the year at a career-high No. 8, up from 70th a year earlier. With this victory, she took her place on the global tennis stage. Judging by the reaction of fans in Indian wells, the tennis world won’t want her to step off it anytime soon.