A couple years ago, I ran a half marathon. I set out at a faster pace than I thought I could sustain, which felt okay for a few miles but caught up to me at around two-thirds of the way through the race. Beginning a long straightaway after finishing the 10th mile, my legs burned and my breathing was raggedly bursting from my chest. There were three miles left, enough distance that thinking about the finish line was fools’ gold. My body felt like it was melting. The most terrifying thing, though, was that I actually felt like I could last until the end of the race at my current pace. I knew it would take all of my willpower not to let my pace collapse like a half-baked pastry. I knew that I would feel even worse at the end of the race than I already did, and I started to cry a bit.
Playing Sara Sorribes Tormo, I imagine, must feel similar to this. She gets every ball back. She returns serve after serve until game point starts to feel like match point. It’s not especially hard to win a point against her, but the cumulative effect of trying to bash the ball through her smothering defense is exhausting. The worst part is that you can beat her, since almost everyone has much more firepower, and with this understanding comes the knowledge that if you don’t, it was probably because you weren’t willing to suffer enough.
Paula Badosa, the defending champion at Indian Wells, had the misfortune of playing Sorribes Tormo in the round of 32, and in the first set, Badosa suffered. She was broken in her first three service games. The rallies were expectedly long, but Sorribes Tormo was attacking more than usual, putting Badosa on the run at times. The defending champion hit a second serve ace at 4-4, 15-30 in a desperate attempt to avoid yet another brutal exchange. When she held serve after saving a break point, she pumped her fist at her box, but she looked close to tears. It was difficult, difficult tennis.
Badosa pulled out the incredible first set despite Sorribes Tormo saving three set points to get to a tiebreak (one of which with what felt like a thousand impossible volleys, another with an eternal rally that Badosa barely failed to win with an attempted backhand winner). On Badosa’s fourth set point, she forced Sorribes Tormo back with a deep backhand crosscourt, then lashed a forehand into the open deuce side. Only right that this set ends with a winner, I thought, except Sorribes Tormo ran it down and tossed up a lob that only missed by a few inches. Badosa pointed to her head in a trademark celebration, but then jabbed her head forcefully with her finger before slapping it in a kind of rapturous agony. I ran to the bathroom, then ate some chocolate ice cream coated in more chocolate. When I got back to my laptop, Badosa and Sorribes Tormo had already started the second set. They are good friends, apparently, which is odd to me since I don’t think friends are supposed to torture each other for fun.
After the match, Badosa said “if every set is like that, I think I’m gonna die on the court.” It wasn’t, and she didn’t. Badosa ran away with the second set — she went for bigger, heavier shots, and Sorribes Tormo had no answer for the barrage. This isn’t easy for me to admit, since I root unabashedly for Sorribes Tormo due to her unique ability to use endurance as a weapon, but Badosa even managed to tire her opponent out first.
Badosa is ranked 7th in the world, currently in a minor dip from her high of #4 earlier this year. She is yet to make a semifinal at a major, but is by all accounts one of the best players in the world. The Indian Wells championship match last year was Badosa’s first big final, but she navigated the match like a seasoned veteran, playing the more purposeful tennis on the biggest points.
There are no technical weaknesses in the Spaniard’s game. She has been improving at a fierce rate: before 2021, she didn’t have a WTA title to her name, but ended that year as a semifinalist at the year-end finals. She has been to at least the round of 16 at every major besides the U.S. Open (and it feels like a matter of time until she makes a deep run there). At Roland-Garros last year, she was a few points away from making the semifinals. She has a penchant for being a fighter.
Naturally, defending a big title carries some pressure — maybe even more in the early rounds than the last few, given the amount of points Badosa stands to lose with an early exit. This won’t be an easy match to recover from physically, short second set notwithstanding, and her next opponent (either Leylah Fernandez or Shelby Rogers) will bring more firepower than Sorribes Tormo. Still, barring any physical issues, Badosa’s chances of winning this tournament — which hasn’t been defended by a WTA player for more than 30 years — seem as good as anyone’s.