When Paula Badosa arrived in Sydney last week to play her second tournament of the 2022 season, her achievements from the previous year were still sinking in.
The Spaniard began 2021 ranked 70 in the world and was one of the unlucky players to land in hard quarantine in Melbourne after someone on the charter flight flying them from Abu Dhabi to Australia tested positive for coronavirus.
With a start like that, the New York-born Catalonian would never have imagined that she would go on to win her first WTA title just three months later, reach the quarter-finals at Roland Garros, clinch the Indian Wells crown, finish the year contesting the semi-finals of the WTA Finals and rising to No 8 in the world rankings.
“I think it’s still sinking in these days as well, coming back on the tour,” Badosa told The National in an interview in Sydney last week.
“I just can, like slowly, I’m doing it. I’m working hard, I’m accepting all that’s happening slowly. Just day by day it’s sinking in, and living again the tour, I think it’s helping me to start to think that, ‘Wow, now I’m seeded in the tournaments, I’m favourite’. It’s totally different and it’s a challenge.”
Delight Down Under
Badosa rose to that challenge in remarkable fashion as she stormed to the Sydney title with victory over reigning French Open champion Barbora Krejcikova on Saturday. It was a high-quality final that saw Badosa scrape through in the deciding set tiebreak and consequently rise to a career-high No 6 in the WTA rankings.
The 24-year-old Spaniard has won her last 10 consecutive tiebreaks.
“I know the last tiebreak I lost. I even remember against who it was, so imagine – [Kristina] Mladenovic in Olympics. But, yeah, I think it's small details in that moments. I like to play at the limits. I try to give everything there. I try to compete to play that point and finding the balance of being aggressive, as well,” Badosa told reporters on Saturday.
What makes that tiebreak statistic all the more impressive is that it highlights the mental transformation Badosa has undergone in order to get to where she is right now.
By her own assessment, Badosa went from being “super bad mentally” to being one of the best on tour, a change she describes as “extreme”.
Her mental strength has helped her in crucial moments these past 10 months, triumphing in all three of the finals she has contested and finding her A-game against the toughest players.
This time last year, she was 0-5 versus top 20 opposition. Today, she has won 13 of her last 18 matches against players ranked in the top 20 and is showcasing a complete on-court game with no obvious weakness to exploit.
Two-and-a-half years ago, Badosa revealed that she had been suffering from depression. Her early success as a teenager, winning the French Open junior title back in 2015, brought big expectations and huge pressure. She admits she has had to navigate some difficult moments.
“I passed through depression; so when you have that kind of things, you have very bad thoughts,” Badosa explained.
“Bad thoughts in my case was having no sense in life. I was not motivated by anything and then I was trying to play, I was struggling as well. Because my dream was always to be the best tennis player as I can, so that was the thing that was maintaining me a little bit alive in that moment, because I love this sport. No matter what, I love to compete.
“But it was very tough for me because I was struggling, I was losing a lot of matches, then off court I wasn’t feeling OK either. I didn’t want to do anything. I just wanted to lay on my bed. So it was tough and it was a long period of time. It was tough for me to come out of that.
“Maybe it was one-year-and-a-half or two years, the same like that. I had to treat myself and I had to be with professionals to help me with the mental health part and that was very important for me to find that person that helped me get out of that. I think the worst years for me was from 2017 to 2019 and that is where I started from zero, to start over again, to try to remember who I was before.”
Once Badosa began to feel better off court, her results started to improve. She continues to work with her psychologist – and nutritionist – Dani de la Serna, whom she describes more as a “friend and confidante” and had a full circle moment when she reunited with her former coach, Jorge Garcia, who used to work with her when she was 15, at the tail end of 2021.
She recalls earning her very first WTA point under his guidance and he was in her corner last November when she contested the WTA Finals in Guadalajara.
Badosa now puts a lot of emphasis on enjoying her time both on court and off it. Clearly it's paying off. She has a solid team around her and says it helps to have her boyfriend, Cuban model Juan Betancourt, accompanying her at tournaments.
She admits seeking help and opening up was not an easy process, though she is comfortable discussing her journey.
“It took me a lot of time [to seek help and open up]. It was super difficult because no one was doing that. It was weird, it was like you’re weak because of that, so you never want to show your weakness,” she says.
“So I’m very, very happy and proud of a lot of players that do that and that are making the situation normal because it’s very normal and in sports when you struggle a lot and you have challenges day by day and, of course, you cannot do all of them.
“I think the only person that can be better day by day no matter what is Rafa Nadal, but that’s something different in life. I don’t know what they gave him.
“But that’s why I think it’s very important, because we all struggle and sometimes people forget that athletes are not robots. And that’s good that people are speaking up and slowly this situation is getting normal because it has to be like that.”
Mentorship from Vika
Approaching this new season as a top-10 player with a target on her back, Badosa received some welcome advice fromVictoria Azarenka – the player the Spaniard defeated to lift her biggest trophy to date at Indian Wells last October.
The pair played doubles together last week in Adelaide, and also squared off in the first round in singles, which saw Azarenka down Badosa in straight sets.
“She’s a very nice person, she has a lot of experience, she’s giving me quite a few advices and we’ve been keeping in touch,” Badosa said of the Belarusian two-time Grand Slam champion.
“So that’s nice that I have a player like her. For me she’s a legend, because I think she’s won amazing tournaments and she’s been No 1 in the world. So having advice from her is really nice.
“I think the most important [advice] that I had and the one that I could give, is that focus a little bit on yourself.
“Sometimes when you have a lot of expectation, you have a lot of things when you’re top 10, you start to think, ‘Oh, if I lose this match, I’m the favourite now, or what are they going to say if I don’t play as good as they think?’
“The most important thing is to focus on yourself, to keep improving, play match by match; a lot of players now are going to play amazing against you because they don’t have the pressure, so it’s a little bit tricky.
“So I’m trying to work on that and to stay with my team on that. Of course I’m the same person, I’m going to be nervous as well. Nothing changes, it’s not that you’re top 10 and you’re like a superhero, no, that’s a lie. So I just try to enjoy as much as I can.”
Badosa says her success last year has only fuelled her to carry that momentum into the new season.
“Of course I have goals like winning big tournaments, why not? When you win Indian Wells and you’re now No 8 in the world, you want to win two Indian Wells if it’s possible. You always want more and I’m very motivated this year about that and I will work for it,” she says.
“But I think I don’t want to put pressure on that and I think I want to put pressure on improving day by day and to enjoy the road.
“Tennis is tough but I think it’s a beautiful sport and I want to enjoy because I don’t want to regret when I’m 30 years old that I didn’t enjoy it enough.”
Badosa opens her Australian Open campaign with a first-round match against Ajla Tomljanovic on Monday.