INDIAN WELLS, California – Taylor Fritz and his father Guy used to drive north on the highway from San Diego, came across the Santa Rosa Mountains and navigated the bends to the Coachella Valley, where the world’s top tennis players gather every March in Indian wells.
Fritz, a talented junior, was just another kid who patrolled the courts and hunted for fun and autographs, including Rafael Nadal’s, but Fritz’s father told him something extraordinary.
“He told me that one day I would win this tournament,” said Fritz.
On Sunday, Fritz, now 24, did just that: holding back a weakened but still dangerous Nadal, one of the greatest players in tennis’s long history.
“This is seriously like a childhood dream come true,” said Fritz, fighting back tears after fighting Nadal, 6-3, 7-6 (5). “Like a wild dream that you never expect to come true.”
Guy Fritz, who peaked at number 301 in the ATP rankings in 1979, long believed in his son, who has reached number 13 with this victory. But it has taken Taylor thus far to develop the faith and forehand to take out a champion like Nadal in such a tournament.
It’s a Masters 1000 event, one step down from a Grand Slam tournament, but the top tier on the regular tour, and Indian Wells has become a signature stop. It has extensive grounds, excellent facilities and a solid turnout, although this year’s total of 329,764 fans, with vaccinations required for spectators, was no match for the prepandemic figure of 475,372 in 2019.
The event also has strong support from billionaire owner Larry Ellison, who sat on the front row of his box on Sunday to watch Nadal, his friend and regular guest, try to go undefeated in 2022.
Like Roger Federer, Nadal has endured and impressed long enough to transcend nationality. Nadal, a Spaniard, has been on tour for nearly 20 years, winning his record 21st Grand Slam title at the Australian Open this year.
Fritz, who grew up in nearby San Diego County in the elite enclave of Rancho Santa Fe, considers the BNP Paribas Open his “home tournament,” and while he received significant support, at times it felt like he was playing an away game against Nadal.
But Fritz would not be denied as he capped off the win on his second match point, ripping a forehand approach shot down the line that the lunging Nadal couldn’t handle.
“Not really!” cried Fritz, wide-eyed, repeatedly.
A title certainly seemed unlikely a few hours earlier when Fritz ran onto the same field and screamed in terror as he tried to push off on his right foot during a warm-up that lasted just a few minutes. “Like the worst pain imaginable,” he said. “I was really upset, almost crying, because I thought I had to back off.”
After numbing the ankle with pain-relieving treatment, he went back outside to hit an outdoor track and felt better. But his coaches, Michael Russell and Paul Annacone, and fitness trainer, Wolfgang Oswald, all advised him against playing in the final, fearing that Fritz would cause long-term damage to the ankle he twisted in Saturday’s semifinal.
Fritz ignored the advice. “I feel sorry for those guys: I’m so stubborn,” he said. “I went out and I played the game seriously without pain.”
Still, he has scheduled an MRI scan of his ankle for Monday. It seems far more unlikely that he will play in the Miami Open this week than for Iga Swiatek, who won the women’s singles title earlier on Sunday.
Swiatek, the 20-year-old Polish star who is as attentive as he is powerful, defeated Maria Sakkari 6-4, 6-1, in what was a contest for the title, as well as for the No. 2 ranking.
Now standing alone behind Ashleigh Barty, Swiatek has been the most reliable force in the gust with her heavy foundations, especially the forehand which she hits with extreme topspin like her role model Nadal. Until this year, her biggest clay-court titles have been won, most notably the 2020 French Open title, which she won at the age of 19 without dropping a set.
But Swiatek clearly has the skill and will to be number 1 and a threat to all surfaces. After winning the WTA 1000 in Doha, Qatar on a hard court, she extended her winning streak to 11 matches by winning for the first time in Indian Wells.
This tournament has been the site of major breakthroughs in recent years: Naomi Osaka won in 2018 and then claimed her first major at that year’s US Open; Bianca Andreescu did the same in 2019.
Fritz, who had never reached a Masters 1000 final until this tournament, needed tiebreakers in the third set to get past Jaume Munar and Alex de Minaur and three sets to beat Miomir Kecmanovic before finding his form and reach against Andrey Rublev on Saturday.
“His win yesterday is much bigger than his win today because he had a much tougher opponent,” Nadal said of Rublev’s match.
Nadal’s somber remark was a reference to the pain he began to feel in his chest on Saturday after his windswept semi-final win over Spanish compatriot Carlos Alcaraz.
Nadal had to stretch and strain to adapt his shots to those unpredictable conditions, and while he said he hadn’t received a clear diagnosis yet, wringing into the wind against Alcaraz could have caused a pectoral or intercostal muscle. had tense. muscle near his ribs.
“When I try to breathe it’s painful and very uncomfortable,” said Nadal, now 20-1 in 2022. “But it isn’t? It’s not the time to talk about that, frankly. Even if it is “Obviously I haven’t been able to do normal things today. That’s it. It’s a final. I tried. I lost to a great player.”
Fritz’s parents were touring professionals who helped shape his playing when he was young. His mother Kathy May was number 10 in singles on the 1977 WTA Tour and reached three Grand Slam quarterfinals during her career.
After her son’s victory, May spoke in court with Martina Navratilova, whom May once beat on tour, and later posed for photos on court with her son.
Fritz married at age 18 and is the father of a 5-year-old son Jordan, but is now divorced and traveling with his girlfriend Morgan Riddle.
“She’s so committed to making sure I’m doing the right things, like I’m going to bed on time,” he said in an interview. “It’s just someone who holds me accountable, who also wants the same things I do, and it’s great to have someone who cares about me and can help me do the right things.”
What Fritz wants this season is a top 10 spot. He was in 39th place in early October but said he had adjusted his forehand technique after watching footage of a junior match he played against Rublev. “We were just absolutely crushing the ball,” said Fritz. “I watched exactly how I hit my forehand and just tried to copy it as much as possible.”
He reached the semifinals in Indian Wells last year when the tournament was postponed and played in October, and he has been beating the top 20 players on a regular basis ever since. He is the first American to win singles at Indian Wells since 2001, when Andre Agassi won the men’s title and Serena Williams the women’s title.
Fritz was 3 years old at the time. But Indian Wells quickly became a regular part of his life and when he returned this year, he looked up at the big picture of reigning men’s champion Cameron Norrie on the wall of the players lounge and imagined his own picture.
“All week I was like, it would be so cool if that was my picture,” he said.
Mission accomplished, and a long-ago prophecy has also come true.
“He was just very, very proud of me,” Fritz said of his father, smiling. “It’s very hard to get a compliment from him.”