Elena Vesnina and Kristina Mladenovic step out onto court for one of the biggest matches of their respective careers on Friday night, with a spot in the Premier Mandatory BNP Paribas Open final at Indian Wells on the line.
A surprise semi-final awaits on Friday night in the Californian desert as 14th seed Elena Vesnina - who enjoyed a career resurgence last year and has brought that form into 2017 - against 28th seed Kristina Mladenovic, who is in career-best form and now learning how to harness her supreme talent consistently on tour. Mladenovic has conquered a pair of former Indian Wells champions on her way to the final four, while Vesnina has upstaged a couple of former World No. 1s. Both thoroughly deserve their spot in the semi-finals, but only one can keep the dream alive and reach a landmark first Premier Mandatory final. It promises to be a thrilling battle in the desert, with the winner to face either Karolina Pliskova or Svetlana Kuznetsova in the final.
Having already taken down soon-to-be No. 1 Angelique Kerber in the Round of 16, Vesnina found herself confronted with another former World No. 1 in the quarter-finals - seven-time grand slam champion and recent Australian Open finalist Venus Williams. The Russian started brilliantly, taking advantage of Williams’ slow serving this tournament, and raced out to a swift 3-0 lead. Vesnina rode that wave of momentum through to a dominant 6-2 first set triumph, but Williams - as she has done all week - came back strongly in the second with immense firepower from the baseline, and after some tense moments towards the end of the set, the American claimed it 6-4. The deciding set was also a nervous affair throughout, but it was Vesnina who maintained her composure, winning five of the last seven games and recovering from 0-40 while serving out the match to complete a memorable 6-2 4-6 6-3 victory.
"I'm in the semifinal of BNP Indian Wells tournament, one of the biggest tournaments. I guess I'm on fire," Vesnina said after the match. "I'm enjoying myself on the court, and I'm really happy with my wins here.
"This win today against Venus really means a lot for me. It's never easy to play against her. She's a great champion and always fighting till the end. I'm really happy that I pulled it out."
One of the surprise packets of last season after finishing inside the top 20 for the first time since turning professional in 2003, Vesnina is continuing her resurgence in the desert this week. Vesnina didn’t enjoy the best start to the season and was probably cursing herself after missing a golden opportunity to reach the Australian Open semi-finals - she was nicely placed in the open quarter where Mirjana Lucic-Baroni made the final four, but lost in the third round to qualifier Jennifer Brady. Nevertheless, Vesnina has learnt from that moment, and she’s made no mistake when presented with a similar opportunity at Indian Wells, defeating Shelby Rogers and Timea Babos before taking advantage of Kerber and Williams, who were not at their best.
Live Stream: BNP Paribas Open tennis live from Indian Wells
A Wimbledon semi-finalist last season, Vesnina will attempt to reach the biggest final of her career on Friday night - and she takes a 2-0 head-to-head record into her semi-final with Mladenovic.
Kristina Mladenovic (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)
In the middle of a purple patch of form after compiling a stellar series of results over the last month, Mladenovic registered one of the biggest wins of her career in Thursday’s quarter-finals, toppling former champion and No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki 3-6 7-6(4) 6-2. Mladenovic showcased excellent resolve and fighting spirit in recovering from a set-and-a-break down to emphatically secure her spot in her first Premier Mandatory semi-final. Mladenovic had never beaten Wozniacki in three previous meetings, including the Hong Kong final last year.
"Caroline is a top player, former World No. 1. She's also in very great shape; she had a very good start of the season, as well, and won lots of matches,” Mladenovic said in press. "That final in Hong Kong at the end of last year was very painful for me, very frustrating. I thought I was playing well that entire week and, in the final, I was just kind of exhausted and injured.
"Today I thought, 'Okay, today I'm feeling good.' When I woke up, nothing was hurting. I'm not injured. I was happy about that. I wanted to give a fight there and have no regrets."
Always a bright talent, Mladenovic struggled with consistency over the last couple of years, along with attempting to figure out an accurate balance of her fearsome, powerful game. But the 23-year-old is enjoying a golden run of form at the moment, highlighted by capturing her maiden WTA title at St. Petersburg - defeating Venus Williams and defending champion Roberta Vinci along the way - upstaging World No. 3 Karolina Pliskova in Dubai and making the final of Acapulco just prior to arriving at Indian Wells. Mladenovic also claimed the scalp of former champion Simona Halep in the second round, proving to herself and everyone that she’s now a genuine threat to the top players.
"It's been a lot of matches and, to be honest, it's like the longest kind of string of winning matches I had so far in my career," Mladenovic said of her current run.
Vesnina and Mladenovic have played twice before and it was the Russian who emerged triumphant on both occasions at Estoril and Auckland - although they haven’t clashed in over two years. Both players are at a completely different stage of their careers and are playing the best tennis of their life, which should ensure a thrilling and competitive semi-final. It will be the flat power of Mladenovic up against the court smarts of Vesnina - although she has been flattening out her own groundstrokes quite effectively this week. I’ve been really impressed with Mladenovic this tournament - especially her comeback against Wozniacki, who is a similar type of player to Vesnina - and if the Frenchwoman finds her range again, she starts favourite in my book.