INDIAN WELLS — The grounds of the Indian Wells Tennis Garden are familiar territory to Taylor Fritz, who often played here as a child. Being in the round of 16 at the BNP Paribas Open, though, is new territory for the resurgent 20-year-old from Rancho Palos Verdes.
Fritz put his thunderous serve and powerful ground strokes to optimal use on Monday in a 4-6, 6-2, 7-6(1) victory over 34-year-old Spanish veteran Fernando Verdasco played before a crowd that enthusiastically chanted and rhythmically clapped Fritz's name. "It's an absolute dream come true," said Fritz, who was visibly moved by the vocal support. "I never thought I'd be standing here doing this in front of this crowd."
Fritz, who started the year ranked 104 and moved to 74th before this tournament, had two match points in the 10th game of the third set but couldn't capitalize. He didn't panic. "I tried to just focus up on my service game after I lost those two, and I told myself to just make him beat me in a third-set breaker because that's my specialty," Fritz said after improving his career record in third-set tiebreakers to 11-1. "I think it speaks to my strengths on court, which is just being clutch and playing my best tennis in the big moments."
Fritz, who will face 21-year-old Borna Coric of Croatia on Wednesday, peaked at No. 53 in the rankings in August of 2016 but his play dropped off later that year and through 2017. Had he flamed out before he had realized his potential? He thought not, even if some observers declared him a failure. "It feels really good to prove people wrong and do what I know I have been able to do this whole time, to finally do what I know I can do," he said.
Stephens' wild ride continues
Life hasn't been the same for Sloane Stephens since she won the U.S. Open last September, her first Grand Slam title. Unfortunately, neither has her tennis.
Stephens didn't win another match in 2017 and struggled this year. Two wins at Acapulco gave her hope she had reversed course, but a 6-4, 6-3 third-round loss to Daria Kasatkina of Russia on Monday led her to reflect on how hard she has come down from an emotional high. "I wouldn't say it's a crash, but I think that there's a lot that comes with winning a Grand Slam and I think there is a lot that comes with winning a Grand Slam as an American player," said Stephens, who couldn't handle Kasatkina's topspin or her ability to get so many shots back.
Kasatkina, 20, has never won a Slam but has defeated each of the four reigning Slam titleholders. For her, the key against Stephens was simple.
"Fighting spirit, as always," she said, smiling. "I was just reading the game pretty well today, moving, and really fighting for every ball."
Kasatkina's opponent on Tuesday in the round of 16 will be Australian Open champion Caroline Wozniacki, ranked No. 2 in the world. Kasatkina, who beat Wozniacki indoors in St. Petersburg, Russia, earlier this year, doesn't give that any weight because of the difference in surfaces. "She won a Grand Slam, so she's a big champion," Kasatkina said. "For sure it's going to be a tough match."
Wozniacki, the No. 2 seed, said she wasn't nervous before she faced unseeded Aliaksandra Sasnovich of Belarus but was wary of the tricky nature of the hard surface. "I was feeling pretty good but I feel like these courts are really difficult to play on," she said. "I think that's also why you see a lot of upsets. The ball bounces really high and it goes extremely slow."
Wozniacki needed time to find her rhythm but prevailed 6-4, 2-6, 6-3. "I didn't really feel the ball off the racket," she said.
Carla Suarez Navarro upset No. 4 Elina Svitolina 7-5, 6-3 and will face wild card Danielle Collins, who continued her run with a 6-4, 6-4 victory over Sofya Zhuk. No. 10 seed Angelique Kerber defeated defending champion Elena Vesnina 7-5, 6-2 and will face No. 7 Caroline Garcia, a 7-5 6-4 winner over Daria Gavrilova.