Former World No. 1 Victoria Azarenka could likely be considered the favourite for the title at the BNP Paribas Open this year, as no one remaining in the draw has had the same success in Indian Wells as the 2012 & 2016 champion.
But if there’s anything we’ve learned in the recent years of unparalleled depth in women’s tennis, it’s that former success – like ‘love’ in every game of a match – means nothing.
An argument could be made that no one understands that concept better than Azarenka’s Friday afternoon semifinal opponent Jelena Ostapenko. The temperamental Latvian with tectonic groundstrokes genuinely believes that every point, every shot and every moment in a tennis match is on her racquet – and she’s not wrong.
“I think from 5-1 I just stepped a little bit back and I was not that aggressive, and also maybe missed some balls, kind of gave her the opportunity to play,” said Ostapenko following an impressive 6-4, 4-6, 6-3 win over Shelby Rogers in the quarterfinals. “In the second set I had so many opportunities to close it in two sets. I felt like I was rushing, just doing some wrong things, choosing some wrong shots maybe.”
In summary: When she’s winning points, she’s hitting her spots and striking thunderous winners; when she’s losing points, she’s not playing well enough and leaking errors. In the No. 24 seed’s mind, allowing her opponent the opportunity to even play their game is a failure in her own execution, which pretty much encapsulates the entire Jelena Ostapenko experience.
A Grand Slam champion at the age of 20, Ostapenko announced her audacious brand of tennis to the world by bruising through an impressive roster of opponents to win the 2017 Roland Garros championships in Paris. Her personality? Similarly audacious, questioning every line call that against her (obvious or not) and repulsed at herself when she barrels an ambitious drive volley into the net.
The Latvian lives every moment of a match on her sleeve, feeling all her feels out in the open and polarizing crowds across the world with gratingly watchable play.
And that’s what makes Friday’s first semifinal so compelling: Azarenka could be (and used to be) described in the same way.
Early in her career, the fiery Belarusian was famous for her power hitting, and infamous for the decibels of her grunt and her occasionally ornery disposition. The player you see today, however, couldn’t be more different.
Sure, she plays with the same consistent aggression that will match up scintillatingly against Ostapenko’s, but her vibe has done a 180° since becoming a mother in 2016 and struggling with a well-documented off-court custody challenges. With the dust seemingly settled on her off-court tribulations, Azarenka has frequently dropped nuggets of wisdom in her press conferences, unpacking complex topics with both candor and disarming introspection.
“If I will look back at my career, I mean, I think the answer you’re looking for is what was the best result that I had, right?” mused this week’s No. 27 seed in press after her quarter-final victory when asked what gave her the greatest satisfaction in her tennis journey, going on to mention her two Grand Slam triumphs in Australia in 2012 and 2013 as result highlights.
“But the best moments are invisible moments I will say, the ones that nobody sees and you overcome. I will say that those couple moments in my life happened where I was super proud of myself which had nothing to do with tennis results.”
Saying everything without saying anything. And that’s just one of many examples that has elevated Azarenka to a thought leader in the WTA Tour’s veteran class, without sacrificing any of the on-court fight and passion that still makes her a threat at any tournament she plays.
When Azarenka faces Ostapenko on Friday, both colorful personalities will be on full display for the Indian Wells Tennis Garden crowd – but more than that, two extremely competitive and talented tennis players will be bringing their powerful best to the court.
Will the Belarusian’s measured but relentless baseline game be enough for her to overcome the former World No. 5’s high-risk, high-reward shotmaking and earn her a chance at becoming the first player in history to win three BNP Paribas Open titles? Or will it be Ostapenko, whose newfound consistency saw her upset No. 2 seed Iga Swiatek earlier this week, that will out-hit Azarenka for her biggest result since reaching the Wimbledon semi-finals three years ago?
With lots on the line for both competitors, tennis fans in the Palm Desert can sit back and enjoy as the two duke it out to find out.