Two-time champion Victoria Azarenka pulled off a stirring comeback victory in the BNP Paribas Open semifinals on Friday night. The former World No.1 from Belarus defeated Jelena Ostapenko of Latvia 3-6, 6-3, 7-5.
The No.27 seed Azarenka, who won the title in Indian Wells in 2012 and 2016, charged back from a set and a break down to win a hard-fought 2-hour and 20-minute battle over No.24 seed Ostapenko.
Quotes from the winner: "I thought the most important [thing], I would say today, was my fight, that I can be really proud of," Azarenka said in her post-match press conference. "Analyzing the game, it was a lot of probably things that I could have maybe done a little bit better.
"Overall she was playing really incredible in the first set, not giving me much to do. I was just trying to find opportunity, actually create opportunity, for me to get back into the match, to take a little bit more control in the match, really fight for every ball.
"I think my season has been tricky. There were parts where I physically couldn't necessarily bring that extra level, extra fight, which was very frustrating. Then there were parts where I felt that I was looking for something to add, and I didn't necessarily know what it was. It was a lot of searching in the season, a lot of kind of stepping into unknown.
"I feel like right now I'm a bit more settled with a bit more structure, a little bit more discipline, which makes it not necessarily easier but a bit clearer what I need to do. So it doesn't take extra energy on that, so I can kind of focus my energy more on the fighting for every ball."
Stat corner: Azarenka had won their lone prior meeting in two close sets, which came in the first round of 2019 Roland Garros, two years after Ostapenko stunned the tennis world by winning that Grand Slam title in Paris.
The victory this time around was far more complicated for Azarenka. Ostapenko had an initial 6-3, 2-0 lead, but Azarenka steered her way back from that deficit to put herself a win away from her third Indian Wells title, following her triumphs in 2012 (beating Maria Sharapova in the final) and 2016 (defeating Serena Williams in the final).
Ostapenko had more break points, but converted only four of her 13, while Azarenka was a sturdier 5-for-8. Both players tried to attack on second-serve returns to control proceedings, and Azarenka was more successful, winning 60 percent of those points to Ostapenko's 51 percent.
The come-from-behind win over Ostapenko is Azarenka’s 33rd match-win at Indian Wells. Only two women have won more matches overall at this tournament, Lindsay Davenport (47) and Maria Sharapova (38).
Azarenka is now a win away from becoming the first woman to win the Indian Wells title three times. Along with herself, Davenport and Sharapova, the other two-time champions are Martina Navratilova, Mary Joe Fernandez, Stefanie Graf, Serena Williams, Kim Clijsters and Daniela Hantuchova.
Tale of the match: The early stages of the clash belonged to Ostapenko, who jumped out to an early 3-0 lead behind blistering groundstrokes off both wings. Azarenka pulled back on serve at 3-2, but Ostapenko immediately reclaimed the lead, breaking at love for 4-2. Ostapenko went on to win the first set, behind 15 winners to Azarenka’s four.
However, despite falling behind an early break, Azarenka’s game clicked into gear in the second set, with increased aggression and the ability to draw errors from the Ostapenko forehand. Imposing returns came into play as Azarenka grabbed a fourth straight game when breaking for 4-2, and she saved two break points in the next game as she battled through the rest of the set.
A closely contested decider would settle affairs. An exchange of breaks led to parity at 3-3, though Azarenka continued to step into the court and put pressure on the Ostapenko serves. Ostapenko was able to fend off two break points at 3-3, but succumbed at 5-5, ceding the break and giving Azarenka the opportunity to serve for the match.
At 6-5, Ostapenko went for broke, mixing a deft lob in with her groundstroke missiles as she held three break points to send the match into a tiebreak. But Azarenka saved some of her best serving for the end, blasting her way out of trouble. She eventually converted her first match point to reach a third Indian Wells final.