Indian Wells: Fierce Fritz foils fan favourite

Uninhibited by an ankle injury he picked up during a practice session and unintimidated by the legendary Rafael Nadal, Taylor Fritz whacked a huge forehand to capture his first Masters crown at the Indian Wells.

Cherished moment: Taylor Fritz of the United States holds the winner’s trophy after his victory against Rafael Nadal of Spain in the men's final of the BNP Paribas Open at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden.   -  AFP

On the first point of the biggest match of his life, Taylor Fritz dove for a backhand volley and crashed on the unforgiving hard courts. He lost the point against heavily favoured Rafael Nadal, but flashed an inscrutable smile. Was it a knowing smile about what a brutal Indian Wells final against a legend this point foreshadowed? Was it a smile of joy for an action-packed point in the climactic match of the tournament Fritz had dreamt of winning since he was a boy? Or was he simply relieved he had escaped injury?

Probably all of the above, but especially the last. Just a few hours earlier in a practice session, the 24-year-old Southern Californian injured his right ankle and heel so severely that he screamed in agony and had difficulty standing. His team urged him not to play the final and risk further damage. But Fritz wanted this title so badly he had his ankle heavily taped and took painkillers.

Ten months ago, Fritz showed the same unrelenting determination and resilience. At the French Open, he suffered a torn right meniscus and left the court in a wheelchair. Told his minor surgical repair had a four-to-six-week timeline to recover, Fritz had other ideas. And he somehow managed not only to compete at Wimbledon three weeks later, but also played nine sets in 26 hours to reach the third round where he extended Alexander Zverev to four close sets.

In the Indian Wells final, Fritz once again displayed stunning recuperative powers and wasn’t hindered at all.

Ironically, the 35-year-old Nadal suffered pain both from a chronic foot problem and a strained pectoral muscle. The latter injury, incurred during his gruelling semifinal against Carlos Alcaraz, also made it difficult for him to breathe. (Two days later, Nadal revealed he had a stress fracture in his rib cage that would sideline him for “four to six weeks.”) Nadal, wounded but proud, was nothing short of perfection this season, going 20-0 while competing for a 37th Masters 1000 title, which would equal the absent Novak Djokovic’s record.

In sharp contrast, the 20th-seeded Fritz, who had never reached a Masters final, had to survive three-set struggles against Jaume Munar, Alex De Minaur, and Miomir Kecmanovic to reach his second straight Indian Wells semifinal. There he stopped torrid No. 7 Andrey Rublev, who had won 13 matches in a row, in a 7-5, 6-4 slugfest.

Uninhibited by his morning injury and unintimidated by his legendary foe, Fritz broke Nadal’s serve twice to race to a 4-0 lead. Rafa looked a bit drained and flat from his three-hour semifinal. Serving at 3-5, he was broken again when he made two unforced groundstroke errors and double-faulted. Fritz, after winning the first set 6-3, staved off seven break points in the second set. Four of those escapes came in the pivotal, fluctuating 2-2 game. It was spiced with spectacular points. After Nadal saved a game point with an improvisational backhand crosscourt passing shot, Fritz won a net duel to stave off his third break point and then a forehand drop shot winner to survive his fourth. The underdog fended off two more break points to go ahead 6-5. Nadal won the next game to force a tiebreaker.

Something, or someone, had to give because Nadal was 4-0 and Fritz 3-0 in tiebreakers during the tournament. To everyone’s surprise, the superstar blinked first. Serving for the set at 5-4, Nadal missed a routine swinging forehand volley. Two points later, Fritz whacked a huge forehand to capture his first Masters crown 6-3, 7-6 (5). To celebrate his achievement, he tapped his heart several times and lay on his back for a few seconds. “I’ve lost these matches against the big guys all my life,” said Fritz, previously a combined 0-8 against The Big Three. “It’s always felt like they are just unbeatable, so to do it on the biggest stage, there’s no other way, to win a big title I feel like you have to beat the best.”

On Fritz’s marked improvement during the past six months, USTA Director of Coaching, Ola Malmqvist, said, “Taylor serves and hits the ball off the ground as well as anyone! He’s attacking more with his forehand and increasingly winning points at the net. He’s moving better, which has improved his defence. And he’s become more versatile by using angles and drop shots to create openings. All of this will keep getting better.”

Swiatek swats away the opposition

Pole position: Iga Swiatek of Poland poses with the Chris Evert WTA World No.1 Trophy. The shocking retirement of Ashleigh Barty at age 25 meant that on April 4 Swiatek became the first Pole — male or female — to rank No. 1. She disposed of Madison Keys, two-time major winner Simona Halep, and then Sakkari in the final to grab her first Premier Mandatory title at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells.   -  AFP

 

Iga Swiatek, just 19, stunned the sports world by winning the 2020 French Open while dropping only 28 games. At No. 54, she became the lowest-ranked champion since the rankings were introduced in 1975. Mats Wilander likened her to not just one, but two superstars. “I genuinely believe that Iga Swiatek can be the one. I haven’t seen one player who is as complete technically with all the shots,” seven-time major champion Wilander told Eurosport. “I haven’t seen a player as young as her as complete when it comes to constructing points and going forward, taking the ball early. The weakness for most women is the second serve, and she is going to punish that on any surface. Her basic game reminds me of Novak Djokovic, who plays close to the baseline.” Wilander added, “Even though she hits the ball with so much power, she also hits with margin…. Once she gets control of the rally with her forehand, you just can’t get out of the grip. It feels like I’m watching Rafa Nadal!”

Last year Swiatek didn’t win another Grand Slam title or even reach a major semifinal. Nonetheless, the slender, 5’9” Pole reached at least the round of 16 at every major and finished the season ranked No. 9. This year Swiatek regained the form that Wilander touted so highly. At the Australian Open, she made the semifinals, losing to red-hot Danielle Collins. Swiatek then captured the Qatar Open where she outclassed No. 2 Aryna Sabalenka, No. 6 Maria Sakkari, and No. 7 Anett Kontaveit, 6-2, 6-0 in the final. Riding that momentum, she grabbed her first Premier Mandatory title at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells. Once again, Iga finished with a flourish, disposing of Madison Keys, two-time major winner Simona Halep, and then Sakkari 6-4, 6-1 in the final.

With winds gusting up to 45 mph, the final turned into the survival of the sounder, smarter, and calmer. That was clearly Swiatek, who smacked her semi-Western forehand with enough topspin to control her power. Her superior footwork allowed her to handle the unpredictable bounces better than Sakkari, and her aggressive positioning — hitting 31 per cent of her groundstrokes from inside the baseline — repeatedly forced errors from the rushed Greek. As a result, Swiatek broke Sakkari’s serve a whopping six times.

With a potent first serve and a wicked kick second serve, the Pole ranks an overall No. 1 in WTA Serve Stats. She also ranks No. 1 in Return Stats, highlighted by her tour-leading 53.5% of return games won. No wonder then the Indian Wells crown propelled her to No. 2 in the world rankings.

The shocking retirement of No. 1 Ashleigh Barty at age 25 meant that on April 4 Swiatek became the first Pole — male or female — to rank No. 1. But can she keep the top spot during this era of unparalleled parity and frequent burnout of young stars? “I would tell her to keep that inner child alive,” former No. 1 Kim Clijsters told WTAtennis.com. “And not get caught up in an adult world. When you start worrying about the pressure — when that takes over — that’s when it becomes so hard.”

Battle of the ages

The King’s rule: Rafael Nadal (ESP) and Carlos Alcaraz (ESP) exchange pleasantries after their semifinal match at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells. Alcaraz didn’t defeat Nadal this time, but he clearly possesses the game, athleticism, and determination to win major titles.   -  AFP

 

One of the most eagerly anticipated matches this decade did not take place at a Grand Slam event, involve two champions, or grace a final. Yet it more than lived up to expectations and had major implications for the future of men’s tennis.

The semifinal duel between Rafael Nadal and Carlos Alcaraz featured several of the dynamic elements of classic matches: The contestants were evenly matched, both have star appeal, and the calibre of play was high and sometimes brilliant. Lastly, while their playing styles were similar, there were notable contrasts. Nadal is a lefty, while Alcaraz is right-handed. Most striking, Nadal is 35, nearly double the age of Alcaraz, 18. The most intriguing aspect of this clash involved their places on the tennis totem pole. Nadal not only boasted a record 21 Grand Slam titles and ranked No. 1 but was unbeaten (19-0) this year. Alcaraz had never even reached a major final, though he was rising fast and riding a nine-match winning streak. If all that weren’t enticing enough, both come from Spain, a tennis powerhouse.

A huge front-page headline in MARCA, Spain’s leading sports daily, blared “The King versus The Prince.”

The King lavished praise on The Prince after Alcaraz overpowered world No. 12 Cam Norrie 6-4, 6-3 in the quarterfinals. “I think he’s unstoppable in terms of his career. He has the passion. He’s humble enough to work hard. He reminds me of things when I was a 17- or 18-year-old kid.”

The Prince, who had idolised The King ever since he started playing at age five, sounded highly confident despite facing his hero and playing his first Masters 1000 semifinal. “I think you saw my level,” Alcaraz, ranked No. 19, said. “I think I’m playing a good level in this tournament. I’m going to have fun and enjoy every single second in the match. It’s a very special experience for me.”

A year ago on the Madrid clay, Nadal gave Alcaraz a 6-1, 6-2 lesson. The rematch would prove much closer, as both players and the experts anticipated. “Alcaraz has played the best tennis in this tournament,” said Tennis Channel analyst Paul Annacone. “But can he beat the aura of his hero?”

It sure looked like it from the very first point. Alcaraz blasted a 95-mph forehand winner, and three points later, broke Nadal’s serve with a backhand crosscourt winner. Even though Alcaraz whacked first serves up to 142 mph and wicked kick second serves, he faced 17 break points in the first set and was broken three times. Dynamic shot-making abounded as did spectacular defence, but the more consistent Nadal prevailed 6-4.

The gusting wind that worsened in the second set seemed tailor-made for Nadal’s topspin, high-percentage game. Still, Alcaraz notched three service breaks, the last coming with the score 4-all. On his seventh break point, he conjured a terrific topspin backhand lob winner. In the next game at 40-all, The Prince leaped for a backhand volley winner and took the next point for the set, 6-4.

In the deciding set, Nadal staved off three break points to hold for 3-2. Then, with Alcaraz serving at 3-4, Nadal pounced just as he had done against Daniil Medvedev on championship point in the Australian Open final. Anticipating a floating return, he sprinted forward and put it away with volley. The King served out the final game at love and prevailed 6-4, 4-6, 6-3.

The Prince didn’t defeat the King this time. But he clearly possesses the game, athleticism, and determination to win major titles. As former No. 1 Jim Courier said, “You’re seeing the beginning of what will be an illustrious career.”

The very next week, Alcaraz dropped just a set on the way to becoming the youngest Miami Open champion.

The Americans are coming

Lying in wait: The son of two former Czech world-class players, Sebastian Korda of the United States unsurprisingly has terrific technique in every department. Only 21, Korda is still figuring out tactically how to win close matches. The American blew a 5-2 third-set lead and a 3-2 tiebreaker edge in his 6-2, 1-6, 7-6 (3) second-round loss to Nadal.   -  AFP

 

Not since Andy Roddick won the 2003 U.S. Open has an American man captured a Grand Slam title, and no American has ranked in the top 5 since Roddick in 2005. Several rising, young players have a legitimate chance to end both droughts this decade.

Besides the much-improved Taylor Fritz, the U.S. has high hopes for 6’11¾” Reilly Opelka. The 17th-seeded Opelka notched a mild 6-7 (4), 6-4, 6-4 upset over 13th-seeded Denis Shapovalov to reach the quarterfinals where Nadal edged him 7-6 (3), 7-6 (5).

With a rocket first serve that often surpasses 140 mph, heavyweight groundstrokes, surprisingly good mobility for a giant, and a newfound confidence, Reilly can beat any player on a given day. His fate often hinges on tiebreakers. Of his 46 sets this year, more than half, 24, were settled in tiebreakers. He has a 14-10 tiebreaker record, but, tellingly, is a woeful 0-6 against top 20 opponents. To beat the best, you have to win tiebreakers against them.

The son of two former Czech world-class players, Sebastian Korda unsurprisingly has terrific technique in every department. Seb recently increased his service power, which now averages 120 mph and is more commensurate with his 6’5” height. Only 21, Korda is still figuring out tactically how to win close matches. The easy-going American blew a 5-2 third-set lead and a 3-2 tiebreaker edge in his 6-2, 1-6, 7-6 (3) second-round loss to Nadal.

Looking at the bright side of his disappointing defeat, Korda said, “He’s one of the greatest players of all time. He’s super-hot. Hasn’t lost a match this year. To kind of push him to the edge was awesome. Shows a lot of my game, how dangerous it can be against tough opponents.” Korda has to start beating tough opponents. So far, he’s defeated only two top 10 players: No. 9 Diego Schwartzman and No. 10 Roberto Bautista Agut.

Experts disagree about the potential of unconventional Jenson Brooksby. Critics point to his flawed two-hand backhand volley, lightweight serve that seldom exceeds 115 mph, flat groundstrokes, and unexceptional speed and stamina. Supporters rave about his consistency, shot accuracy, fighting spirit, and brilliant tactics that confound opponents. At Indian Wells, the 21-year-old Californian routed 25th seed Karen Khachanov 6-0, 6-3 and then notched his biggest career win, upsetting No. 5 Stefanos Tsitsipas 1-6, 6-3, 6-2.

On the secret of his success, Brooksby explained, “I think my superpower would be exploiting weaknesses in other people…. I think I’m definitely underestimated among fans. They just look for the flashy things like the technique, the athleticism, things like that. I don’t think anything [in my game] really stands out.” In this era of power tennis and high-level technique, however, it’s doubtful whether Brooksby has enough game and athleticism to become a champion or even a top contender.

A better bet for an eventual spot in the top 10 is Tommy Paul, a top-notch athlete. After winning the 2015 French Open junior title, Paul failed to live up to his considerable potential in the pro ranks. That started to change in late 2021 when he beat former No. 1 Andy Murray and compatriots Fritz and Frances Tiafoe to capture his first ATP title at the Stockholm Open.

This success along with a career-high, season-ending No. 43 ranking motivated him to improve his serve and forecourt finishing shots during the off-season. His focused, hard work paid off this year with an impressive win over No. 6 Matteo Berrettini at Acapulco. Paul raised his level even higher at Indian Wells where he used his solid strokes and blazing speed to upset No. 4 Alexander Zverev at 6-2, 4-6, 7-6 (2) in the second round.

None of these imperfect Americans is a can’t-miss prospect to win a major. But what if we had a player who combined the excellent technique of Fritz and Korda, the booming serve of Opelka, the tactical acumen of Brooksby, and the athleticism of Paul? But that may be too much to ask.

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