Column: Taylor Fritz earns dream win, beating idol Rafael Nadal to take Indian Wells title
Taylor Fritz was chosen the Star of Tomorrow by the men’s pro tennis tour at the end of 2016, the year he cracked the top 100 in the rankings. He was 19 and being touted as a beacon of hope in the seemingly impossible task of improving the downtrodden fates of U.S. men’s tennis players.
Tomorrow turned out to be more than a few years off for Fritz, who grew up in the San Diego area and lives in Rancho Palos Verdes. The wait was worth it.
He fell out of the top 100 and climbed back in, taking two steps forward for every one step back. Reaching the semifinals of the pandemic-delayed BNP Paribas Open last October reinforced his confidence, allowing him to reach the fourth round of a Grand Slam tournament for the first time this year at the Australian Open. He reached a career-best No. 16 in the rankings last month as his forehand became sure and effective, a game-winner. His confidence grew with his game.
Iga Swiatek extended her winning streak to 11 matches and improved to 20-3 on the season with a victory over Maria Sakkari for the BNP Paribas Open title.
That long-promised tomorrow arrived Sunday. Surviving the scare of tweaking his ankle while warming up for his BNP Paribas Open final against childhood idol Rafael Nadal, Fritz out-gritted the grittiest and mentally toughest player in the game. At the end of his 6-3, 7-6 (5) victory, which ended Nadal’s perfect 20-0 start to the year, Fritz threw himself on his back on the court at Indian Wells Tennis Garden and looked up in disbelief.
This was the tournament he had attended as a kid, the title his father, former pro player Guy Fritz, had told him he’d win someday. Someday was Sunday.
“This is seriously like a childhood dream come true, like a wild dream you never expect to actually happen,” Fritz said after becoming the first American man to win the championship since Andre Agassi in 2001.
“To do it against Rafa in the end, that’s like icing on the cake. It’s just insane. Someone that I watched, like, dominate, win everything. Him and Roger [Federer]. I didn’t watch a ton of tennis growing up, but it’s tough to not know these guys, knowing they’re literally winning everything, their Grand Slam finals, all their battles. It’s insane to even be on the same court with these people, much less be able to beat one of them, to win such a big tournament. To do it here in Indian Wells as well, the combination of all these crazy things that I never thought possible.”
Fritz is projected to be No. 13 when new rankings are released Monday. “He will have [a] chance to be very close if not in the top 10 very soon, no?” said Nadal, who needed treatment for the breathing problems he’d experienced during his three-set semifinal victory over Carlos Alcaraz on Saturday but declined to use his worn-out state as an excuse for his loss to Fritz.
“Congrats to him. At the end, that’s the main thing,” Nadal said. “The main thing in tennis, there is a winner and a loser. Today, he’s the winner. He deserves it. He played aggressive, well, so congrats.”
There were moments Sunday, though, when Fritz thought the match wouldn’t happen.
He tweaked his ankle Saturday during his semifinal victory over Andrey Rublev but thought nothing of it. He expected it to disappear overnight, as tweaks and strains sometimes do. But when he went out to warm up for the final Sunday and tried to push off on his right foot, he screamed in shocked pain. He tried two more times, each with the same result.
“Both times, like the worst pain imaginable,” he said. “I was really upset, basically almost crying because I thought I was going to have to pull out.”
Taylor Fritz was wondering how to improve his tennis game and his world ranking when he realized the answers were waiting in his much-heralded past.
After about an hour’s treatment that included numbing the painful area, Fritz began to feel better. He started hitting again and believed he could play. Some members of his entourage discouraged him, fearing he’d make the injury worse. “I apologized to them for being so incredibly stubborn,” said Fritz, who said he’s scheduled to undergo an MRI exam Monday. “In the end, I am glad I made this decision.”
Fritz signaled his intentions when he cashed in his fourth break point in the first game of the first set against Nadal. He went up another break for 3-0 and consolidated for 4-0. Nadal later got a break back to cut Fritz’s lead to 5-3, but Fritz closed him out on his second set point.
Nadal, renewed by a visit to the locker room, went up a break at 2-1 in the second set, but Fritz broke back for 2-all and escaped four break points to go up 3-2. Fritz couldn’t capitalize on his first match point, when he was up 5-4, but he eliminated any chance of Nadal coming back by seizing control late in the tiebreak. The crowd, torn between rooting for the local favorite or the legendary Nadal, roared when Fritz earned the biggest win of his career.
“I just kept trying to self-talk myself, like, ‘This is my time. This is my match. I’m going to win it. This is it. There’s no reason why it can’t be me,’ ” Fritz said.
He believed his long-promised tomorrow would come and it did, and it was more glorious than he could have imagined.
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