Victoria Azarenka continues to flourish on the hard courts of north America where she reached the semi-finals of the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells on Wednesday with a 6-4 6-2 win over Jessica Pegula, while Jelena Ostapenko, her next opponent, battled past Shelby Rogers, 6-4 4-6 6-3.
It means everything. It’s been a difficult year. To be able to produce this kind of level, with the things I’ve been trying to change and implement, it’s really motivating to move forward. I’ve been playing on tour forever, but when you’re adding something new to your game, it’s kind of like you’re starting from the beginning. I’m really happy and motivated to keep going. Victoria Azarenka
Remarkably, the top 9 seeds are out of the tournament, leaving Angelique Kerber the No 10 seed, in poll position, but Azarenka, a former World No 1 and 2-time Grand Slam champion, must now be seen as the clear favourite for the title.
The 32-year old mother of one, who won Indian Wells in 2012 and 2016, is now through to her 4th semi-final at the WTA Tour 1000 event with her straight-sets win over the 19th-seeded American, Pegula.
“I thought it was a really good match,” Azarenka said after the match. “Very high quality from both players.
“Very consistent in terms of level for me. I felt that I really played well in the crucial moments.
“I felt like I stepped up a lot to the occasion. That’s what I’m really happy with today.
“I started going for my shots from the beginning. I knew I have to apply pressure on her, and I will have the moment where I will have opportunity.
“I think in the beginning of the match we had a lot of great rallies, a lot of points where I was like, ‘Oh, maybe I got this one,’ and she got me.
“I felt that I really just stuck to being aggressive and being consistent. I got my opportunities.”
Although she started off slowly, broken in the 2nd game, she then won 4 games in a row to take the opening set ahead of snagging 3 more breaks in the second to earn herself the win in an hour 35 minutes.
The Belarusian 27th seed struck 21 winners to 18 unforced errors in the match, while Pegula’s 27 winners were outpaced by her 30 miscues.
Overall, Azarenka won 81 percent of her first-service points, and converted 5 of her 13 break points.
She took the lead for good in the 5th game of the match, where a big-hitting rally ended in the Belarusian’s favour, giving her triple break point, and she converted the first by forcing a netted error with a strong backhand, giving her a 3-2 advantage.
Pegula saw off 2 set points with beautiful backhands before holding for 5-4, but Azarenka converted on her 3rd in the next game with an unreturned serve.
After an early exchange of breaks in the first 2 games of the second, Azarenka once again broke for 3-2, this time on her 5th break point of a critical 11-minute game, and eased to 5-2 from there.
Serving for the match, she was forced to stave off 2 break points, but outstanding serving helped her grit out the game and move into the Indian Wells semi-finals where she will face Ostapenko after the Latvian battled back from the brink of defeat against Rogers, the unseeded American.
“It means everything,” said the Belarusian. “It’s been a difficult year.
“To be able to produce this kind of level, with the things I’ve been trying to change and implement, it’s really motivating to move forward.
“I’ve been playing on tour forever, but when you’re adding something new to your game, it’s kind of like you’re starting from the beginning. I’m really happy and motivated to keep going.”
Azarenka dug herself out of an early 0-2 hole in the opening set, reeling off 4 unanswered games to assume control.
Pegula, the daughter of Buffalo Bills (NFL) and Buffalo Sabres (NHL) owner Terry Pegula, saved 2 set points serving at 3-5, only to see Azaranka serve it out one game later and move ahead for good with a service break for 3-2 in the second, finishing with 5 aces to 4 doubles-faults.
“I knew if I gave her one chance, she would definitely take it,” Azarenka added. “She’s such a good player from the baseline.
“She was really aggressive, so we had a lot of moments where it was back and forth.
“At 2-all in the second set, that was really important for me to take my opportunity. I just tried to give her as hard a time as possible and stay focused.”
Latvia’s Ostapenko turned back a challenge from Rogers, firing 51 winners en route to her come-back win over the American in the quarter-finals.
“It was a great match,” said the 24th seed, into her third semi-final of 2021. “She was playing well.
“I was playing a little bit against myself because I was playing up and down.
“I felt like I could finish in two sets. I had so many opportunities. I missed some balls. But it was tough to play against her.”
The 2017 French Open champion made a furious start as she won 5 of the first 6 games in just 22 minutes before she found her second serve under pressure in the second set.
Both players missed chances in the decider, with Ostapenko closing it out by winning the final 4 games and the match after 2 hours 15 minutes.
“It’s really great because, especially, after I couldn’t play US Open, I was really sad about it because I was in such a great form before,” Ostapenko said. “I think it’s another great opportunity because it’s a big tournament.
“I just enjoy it. It’s the last couple of tournaments this season. I’m just going to try to enjoy it as much as possible.”
Ostapenko, the 24th seed, found herself trailing 1-3 in the decider, but reeled off 5 consecutive games to secure her place in the last 4.
With wins over Hsieh Su-Wei, Yulia Putintseva, Iga Swiatek, and Rogers, the 24-year old has advanced to her 3rd semi-final of the year.
She kept her clean sheet against Rogers, moving to 3-0 against the American in the California desert.
Ostapenko feasted on the American’s second serve, with Rogers winning just 1 of 11 second deliveries in the set.
The American’s ability to dig her heels in and turn a set or match around is well-proven, with wins over World No 1 Ash Barty at the US Open, Bianca Andreescu in Chicago, and a thriller against Leylah Fernandez in the 4th round of Indian Wells.
She slowly turned the tables, coming from 1-5 down to win the next 3 games, but Ostapenko broke for a 4th time to take the opening set.
“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,” Ostapenko said.
“If I just was playing the same until 5-1, I think I could close the set a little bit easier than 6-4. I felt like I was rushing a little bit too much and making some stupid errors.”
Rogers levelled up in the second as she got her teeth into the match, now putting pressure on Ostapenko’s second serves and winning 9 of 10 on those return points.
She broke the Latvian serve 4 times to edge out the hotly contested set.
After hitting just 4 winners to 6 unforced errors in the first set, the 29-year-old from Charleston turned it around in the second, striking 9 winners to 6 miscues, while Ostapenko made 14 winners in the middle frame, but misfired on 18 unforced errors.
In the decider, Ostapenko found herself down 1-3 after having points to be 3-0 up, and looked to be reeling, but Rogers missed 4 crucial chances to build a seemingly insurmountable lead.
“I think from 1-3 down, Love-40, I played like a top player,” Ostapenko said. “Before I was rushing too much, making some unforced errors not in the right moments.”
Having quelled Rogers’ surge, Ostapenko took control, reeling off the final 4 games to seal her come-back win and book her spot in the semi-finals.
“I’m really happy to be in the semi-finals,” said Ostapenko. “It was a tough year for me.
“But I feel like my tennis is getting better and more consistent. I’m glad that today, when I was losing 3-1 in the third set, I was still fighting until the last point. I managed to win and close the match.”
Ostapenko fired 51 winners to 46 unforced errors in the match, while Rogers had 22 winners to 17 unforced errors.
“I honestly feel like I can continue the season much longer, but there are not many tournaments left,” Ostapenko added. “Most of the players are very tired, but I don’t feel like that. I’m kind of feeling very fresh.”
Ostapenko faces Azarenka for the second time in their careers, in an enticing battle between 2 Grand Slam champions.
“She’s a great player,” Ostapenko said. “She’s such a champion, a great fighter I think. Both of us are great fighters. It’s going to be an interesting match.
“I’m more focused on my game. Of course, she’s very consistent. It’s going to be hard. But if I play my game and choose the right shots, I will be consistent, I think it will be a very interesting match.”
Azarenka claimed their only previous meeting in the first round at Roland Garros in 2019, 6-4 7-6(4).
Estonia’s Anett Kontaveit, seeded 18, will face 12th-seeded Ons Jabeur of Tunisia while Spain’s Paula Badosa, the No 15 seed takes on Germany’s Angelique Kerber, the 10th seed, in Thursday’s remaining quarter-final matches.