Column: Rafael Nadal’s experience and ageless tenacity lift him into Indian Wells final

Rafael Nadal celebrates after defeating Carlos Alcaraz at Indian Wells.
Rafael Nadal celebrates after defeating Carlos Alcaraz to reach the men’s singles final of the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells on Saturday.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

The swirling winds were blowing itchy grains of sand into Rafael Nadal’s eyes. The kid across the net was half his age and was returning everything. The furrows in Nadal’s forehead were getting ever deeper.

When Carlos Alcaraz uncorked a topspin lob to end a 19-minute 52-second game and break Nadal’s serve late in the second set of their semifinal on Saturday at the BNP Paribas Open, it appeared time might be running out on Nadal’s winning streak and his chance of reaching the final on Sunday. He had come this far on a chronically sore foot. There would have been no shame if he had lost to Alcaraz, who at 18 is Nadal’s heir apparent as Spain’s No. 1 player and one of the most dynamic talents in the game.

Against someone with weaker will and a lesser championship pedigree than 21-time Grand Slam singles champion Nadal has built, Alcaraz might have made the leap on Saturday from child prodigy to Indian Wells finalist. Against someone else, Alcaraz’s young legs, long reach and uncanny creativity probably would have been enough to prevail. Not against Nadal, whose wisdom, experience and sharp volleys carried him to an entertaining 6-4, 4-6, 6-3 victory that played out over 3 hours 13 minutes and extended his start this year to 20-0.


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March 18, 2022

Nadal will face Taylor Fritz of Rancho Palos Verdes, who was aggressive with his groundstrokes in a 7-5, 6-4 dismissal of Russian Andrey Rublev on Saturday in the first semifinal at Stadium 1.

“I had plenty of tough battles this week, but I still alive, so,” Nadal, a three-time champion here, said without finishing the sentence.

“I am in the final and I want to enjoy the final. Again, being in the final here in Indian Wells means a lot to me. Is a very special place. Yeah, I’m going to try to be ready for tomorrow. A match like today helps for the confidence. I know [on Sunday] I need to be ready physically, mentally, in terms of playing at a very high level of tennis because he’s playing well.”

Fritz, 24, became the first American man to reach the Indian Wells final since John Isner, who lost the 2012 championship match to Roger Federer. The last American man to win this tournament was Andre Agassi, who defeated compatriot Pete Sampras in 2001.

The women’s final will be contested first, with No. 3 seed Iga Swiatek of Poland facing No. 6 Maria Sakkari of Greece. The winner will move up to No. 2 in the next world rankings this week, behind No. 1 Ashleigh Barty. The men’s and women’s champions each will receive $1,231,245. Each runner-up will get $646,110.

Rafael Nadal returns a shot during his semifinal victory over Carlos Alcaraz on Saturday.
(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

Fritz has played Nadal only once, a straight-sets win for Nadal on a hard court at Acapulco, Mexico in 2020. Asked about the good and bad aspects of facing Nadal, Fritz was realistic and thoughtful.

“The worst thing is probably just knowing that he’s just going to keep fighting, he’s always going to be there every point, he’s not going to like give you anything. It’s just the competitiveness; like he’s always going to want it so bad,” said Fritz, who rose to a career-best 16th in the world last month and came here No. 20.

“The best thing, I would say, is maybe just from my standpoint, maybe I’m not going to get completely served off the court; I can potentially get looks at return games. But he’s such a good returner that it kind of works the other way; he’s going to get looks at my serves. I’ve been serving great all week, but he’ll still return my serve.”

Nadal and Alcaraz combined for five service breaks in the first set and five straight in the second set. “If you are playing with Rafa, you have to be calm, you have to think well in the tough moments,” Alcaraz said. “That’s what I learned in this match.”

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The strong, sudden desert winds were difficult for both men to handle, but conditions improved in the final set. Nadal summoned a trainer because he felt some discomfort in his chest after he held serve for a 4-3 lead but he quickly rebounded to break Alcaraz’s serve for a 5-3 lead. He finished off the match when Alcaraz hit a return long.

“He has all the ingredients to become an amazing champion, no? I think was a good match. I treat the match like facing not a young player at all,” Nadal said of Alcaraz. “I treat like I play against a top-eight player.”


The winds were calm earlier in the day, when Fritz and Rublev met. Fritz went up a break in the second game of the opening set against fellow baseliner Rublev, converting his third break point chance when Rublev sent a forehand long.

Fritz went ahead 5-2 but Rublev won three straight games, including a service break, to pull even at 5-5. Fritz held serve to take a 6-5 lead, using his forehand to its best advantage and hitting an ace. The next game went to deuce seven times and Fritz had three set point chances before Rublev hit a forehand into the net to give Fritz the set.

In the second set, Rublev saved a break point in the eighth game to hold for 4-4 and had two break point opportunities in the next game. But Fritz battled back, benefitting from Rublev’s faulty backhand and ending the game with an ace.

“I knew that I had to play to a certain level. I couldn’t kind of play the way I was playing previous matches,” Fritz said. “So I played by far my best match today from the ground, especially. Hit the ball really well. So definitely kind of the confidence booster I need going into the final to like feel like I am really playing my best.”