Spring came later than expected for Paula Badosa.
The late-blooming Spaniard made it through strict stay-at-home orders and a surprising shift in her coaching staff to end an unforgettable 2020 season with a career-high ranking, a major breakthrough in the fall at her beloved Roland Garros, and a renewed belief that her best was yet to come.
“I still think about how I could have done a little bit more,” she said of her fourth round defeat to Laura Siegemund. “I know that I was tired, feeling a lot of emotions, and it wasn’t easy to be playing my first fourth round. Of course, I’m ultimately quite happy about it.”
She scored back-to-back wins over 2018 finalist Sloane Stephens and 2017 champion Jelena Ostapenko to reach the second week of a tournament she’d won as a junior. Having only just won her first Grand Slam main draw match back in January, it was a test of her professional and personal growth, having suffered narrow defeats to the likes of Petra Kvitova and Kiki Bertens in two of her last three major appearances.
“I came into my matches in Paris with so much more belief compared to last year, when I was playing a lot of them for the first time. Everything was still quite new, and so I found myself feeling nervous about what I would find on the court. I felt much calmer, and was more able to focus on my game and myself, and that helped me believe I could play on that level.”
Much of that belief was honed when it was all she could actively improve.
“It wasn’t easy because I’m typically very active,” she told of her time in quarantine. “I love to go out and do things during the day, and so it wasn’t easy to spend 24 hours at home. We couldn’t play tennis in Spain because the situation was very bad. We spent about two months at home, under total lockdown.
“It wasn’t easy, but I tried to spend a lot of time with my family, which was important to me, because they almost never see me with the tour schedule. I also tried to work on other things, where, for the first moment in life, I didn’t feel like a tennis player. It was all a bit weird.”
That sort of loss of identity could have revived the 22-year-old’s previous mental health struggles. Instead she emerged from the lockdown with new resolve, ready to take control of her career. She parted ways with longtime coach Xavi Budo after the US Open and opted to take a chance on recently retired ATP player Javier Martí.
“It was a big change, especially before a Grand Slam, but I really felt I needed it. I’d had a good relationship with Javí before. We knew each other very well, and so I was 100% sure things would work out and we’d be a good team. It just felt like a great time and moment.”
Just five years older than Badosa, Martí is as much a contemporary as a coach, sharing her eager enthusiasm for the sport that earned him the nickname “Il Loco Martí.”
“He knows all the players, spends all day watching tennis. He was on tour as a player until this year, so he understands everything I’m feeling in precise moments. He’s experienced the same things I have.
“Sometimes we’ll scout opponents individually, and then talk about it. Other times we watch matches together, because I really love tennis, as well. It’s can be like 24/7, the way we talk about tennis.”
Their one disagreement thus far? Chocolate.
“All day I’m eating fish when all I want is some chocolate! This week, I’ve been able to have some because it’s my holidays, and it was the first thing I had once I was finished with my season.”
The two plot a pre-season in Marbella to prepare for the Australian Open and a possible Top 50 debut.
“Hopefully, things will be a little more normal. I know it won't be exactly as it used to be, but at least it can get better to a point where we can have more fans in attendance. I think they’re so important for us.”
Equally important is how one assesses one of the strangest seasons in recent memory, especially when it happens to be the one during which you achieve your best results yet.
From the most uncertain soil, spring indeed seems to have sprung for Paula Badosa, who is at last equipped with the tools to grow an even bigger garden in 2021.
“I know things were very tricky, and it was a very tough season, but there were still so many positives. I learned so much about myself. I learned to have more patience; I haven’t always been the most patient person in the past!”