Big-time tennis returned to the BNP Paribas Open on Sunday, and the men were still in the locker room.
In a women’s final match that, upon further review, might be ranked as one for the ages, newcomer Paula Badosa beat cagy veteran Victoria Azarenka. The score was 7-6 (5), 2-6, 7-6 (2), and if that alone sounds like a battle royal, it was. It took 3 hours 4 minutes. Badosa started both tiebreakers at 4-0. The two contested 30 break points, but that didn’t mean either or both had weak serves. The opposite was true. Badosa, the Spanish newcomer, even hit one 122 mph.
On match point, as the shadows overtook the 16,100-seat Indian Wells Tennis Garden and the three-quarters-full stadium rocked with noise in appreciation of this incredible tennis, Badosa hit a 107-mph serve, followed it in for a forehand winner, and collapsed on her back in jubilation when her shot didn’t come back. Azarenka walked slowly around the net and hugged Badosa. The hug lingered. They had gone toe-to-toe for more than three hours, neither had cracked, neither had whined about their mistakes or the other’s good shots. They just kept playing, kept upping the excellence, kept dazzling a sophisticated tennis crowd that has always known when it was seeing great stuff.
This was classic David versus Goliath, not to mention the longest women’s match ever at Indian Wells and the longest on the WTA Tour this year.
Azarenka is 32, a Belarusian and two-time major champion, both Australian Opens. She is also a two-time winner here who was seeking to become the first three-time female singles winner at Indian Wells, and the winner of more than $33 million in her career. This crowd, as well as all tennis fans, knows her for her grit, her fire. When the going gets tough, she marches to the service line, shakes a ball in one hand as if she is demanding it obey her, and cranks it up again.
Badosa is the newcomer, the kid with the slingshot. Here, she came out of nowhere. She won’t turn 24 until next month. While Azarenka has won twice in Melbourne and contended in other places such as Paris, London and New York City and taken a total of 21 singles titles, Badosa’s big moment came this year when she won a tournament in Belgrade. Her opponent in the final retired. Her career winnings of $1.9 million were helped with a run to the quarterfinals at the French Open this year. All that, of course, will change radically now, as she pockets more than $1.2 million for this win and moves up to No. 13 in the world rankings.
Both players said they understood what was going on and how special this match was.
“I had to raise my level,” Badosa said. “It was the only option I had if I could win.”
In Azarenka’s news conference, it was suggested that this was, in the minds of many, the women’s match of the year.
“It had super high quality,” she said. “It was really a deserving final match; a lot of fight out there. That’s what a final deserves.
“Yes, I would agree. Match of the year.”
Bill Dwyre is a former Los Angeles Times sports editor.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.