Victoria Azarenka continued her near-perfect start to 2016 by showing vintage form against an out of sorts World No.1 Serena Williams to win the BNP Paribas Open final, 6-4, 6-4, and return to the Top 10.
Playing in her first Indian Wells final since 2001, the top seed hadn’t dropped a set through her first five matches but struggled throughout the nearly 90-minute match, converting just one of 10 break point opportunities and striking 33 unforced errors.
Azarenka, by contrast, won 86% of her first serve points, and held off an impressive fightback from the 21-time Grand Slam champion – who won four games in a row with two chances to level the second set from 1-5 down – to win her second Indian Wells title, and first Premier Mandatory event since the 2012 China Open.
Williams led Azarenka 17-3 in head-to-head record but Azarenka had stretched her to 3 sets in last 3 meetings in 2015. Azarenka had won opening set in their last two meetings at French Open and Wimbledon last year and once again Belarusian got off to a better start as she broke Williams in the first game.
Azarenka saved two break points in the sixth game and three break points in the eighth game as she held all her service games in the first set. Azarenka took the first set 6-4 and started the second set by breaking Williams’ serve again.
Azarenka broke Williams again and raced to a 4-0 lead in the second set. In the 2010 Australian Open Azarenka had won the first set 6-4 against Williams and was leading 4-0 in the second set when Williams made a comeback and won the match.
Once again Williams made a comeback as she won 4 out of next 5 games. Azarenka served for the match at 5-4 and was 15-40 down, but this time she did not allow Serena Williams to make a comeback and won 4 points in a row to finish the match. The match lasted for 1 hour and 28 minutes. The biggest factor which helped Azarenka was that she saved 11 out of 12 break points she faced.
A gracious Serena fought back tears during her runner-up speech.
“It was really hard the last moment I had here wasn’t the greatest, so thank you so much,” she said, addressing the crowd.
“Thank you so much for the cheers; I can’t tell you how much it means to me. I can’t even begin to tell you!
“I’m just so happy to be able to stand here again.”
The Belarusian was equally effusive in her praise for Williams, against whom she has now won four of 21 total matches – becoming the only player to defeat the American in more than three championship matches.
“I wanted to first address a personal thank you to Serena. I know how emotional it was for you to be back here and you truly inspired so many people out there to see the type of committment you have to the game. It’s truly inspriing.
“Thank you for that from the bottom of my heart. You are an amazing competitor who changed the game.
“If it wasn’t for you and how hard you work and seeing you play so well, I wouldn’t be as motivated to come back and work so hard. Thank you on behalf of the sport.”
With Sunday’s win, Azarenka will return to the Top 10 for the first time since the summer of 2014, at No.8. Meanwhile, Serena remains atop the WTA rankings heading into the Miami Open, a tournament she has won eight times.