It was one of those if-you-liked-it-then-you-shoulda-put-a-ring-on-it moments, Paula Badosa channeling Beyoncé during the Eisenhower Cup on International Women’s Day. The reigning BNP Paribas Open champion, 24, held her left hand up to the TV camera during a playful exchange with on-court emcee Blair Henley, her index finger noticeably ring-free.
Her boyfriend, the Cuban model Juan Betancourt, was suddenly on the clock.
“I was just joking!” laughed Badosa the following afternoon, the very notion of marriage anything but immediate. “Right now, I have too many things to think about. I had a text from him, and he was, like, ‘You put so much pressure on me! Now I don’t have any other option!’ Maybe in the future. I’m still young. First I want to focus on tennis.”
That singlemindedness has been paying dividends for the New York-born/Barcelona-raised Badosa, who since outslugging Victoria Azaranka in an epic Indian Wells final last year, 7-6(5), 2-6, 7-6(2), has been on a steady climb. She capped the year with a semifinal showing at the WTA Finals, then kicked off 2022 with her third career singles title in Sydney, outplaying Barbora Krejcikova, 7-6 in the third.
How has her life changed since stepping into the spotlight, since rising to a career-best world ranking of No. 4?
“A lot of things. A lot of stress, to be honest,” she confided. “It’s everything. If there’s a player who comes here and says she’s not stressed, she’s lying. Don’t believe her. There are expectations. You’re nervous, you’re the favorite now. You feel like you have to win as many matches as you can. Maybe other players play better because they don’t have anything to lose. It’s a different position for me. It’s all new. But it’s a challenge. I’ll try to get through it.”
There’s added pressure, yes, but there’s a certain comfort, too, when, only five months on, you return to the site of the biggest title of your career.
“Last time I was here, I was with the trophy, so I have good memories,” said Badosa, who, following an opening-round bye, will face Czech Tereza Martincova. “I just want to enjoy competing. I think that was the key to last year. I really enjoyed every minute on court. I was fighting for every ball. That’s what made me win so many matches and led me to World No. 4. There are no secrets. It’s just fight, fight. Of course, you have to have talent, but in my case, I have to find that competitive level and not let the pressure get to me.”
“There’s a lot of players that improved a lot but, arguably, she was the most improved player last year,” said Lindsay Davenport, a two-time singles champ in Indian Wells (1997, 2000). “She was a great junior player. She’s talked about how tough that was for the first few years on the pro tour. But you see a player kind of come into their own, and you could see her as the year went on, you could just see how she behaved on the court, like, ‘Yeah, I belong here. Yes, I can do this.’”
“It’s really fascinating and fun to watch when you’re on the sidelines and you see a player really live up to their potential, and a lot of times it starts between the ears,” Davenport continued. “These players are so good, but once they believe they can be there and once they believe in their game at those big moments, you get a result like you saw with Badosa at Indian Wells. I believe she’s going to win a major. I love her game. I love her work ethic. I love her behavior on court. She’s a fighter out there.”
Badosa says she has long looked to countryman Rafael Nadal for inspiration. Who better to take cues from than from someone who, at the age of 35, is off to the best start of his trophy-filled career, who in January somehow battled back from two sets down to secure an industry-best 21st Grand Slam title in Melbourne.
“There are no words for what he just did,” said Badosa. “It’s crazy. He’s one of the best athletes in history. It’s insane. He was two sets down, not against No. 70 in the world but against Medvedev, so it’s even crazier. He’s an inspiration for all athletes. He’s my idol, what can I say?”
Badosa has been practicing with a familiar foe this week in Indian Wells, preparing for her title defense against none other than ’21 runner-up Azarenka.
“Her level is still maybe Top 5, for sure. She’s a great champion,” she said. “Last year, I think we both played at our best level. I was lucky that I maybe went for the points in the moment a little bit more. The thing she showed me even more than her level was her reaction after the match, after a tough loss for her. It’s tough to lose a final in an important event like this one. But she was gracious. I learned a lot from that.”