Nadal Wins Indian Wells Battle For The Ages

Rafael Nadal (photo: ATP Tour video)

INDIAN WELLS/WASHINGTON, March 20, 2022 (by Michael Dickens)

Saturday’s second men’s singles semifinal in the BNP Paribas Open between fourth seed Rafael Nadal and No. 19 seed Carlos Alcaraz was everything you could hope for in a tennis match. In an all-Spanish generational battle for the ages, it was the 35-year-old icon versus the 18-year-old talented upstart.

However, one thing was certain. Never ever count Nadal out of a match – no matter how old he may be. Ever the problem-solving genius, the World No. 4 Nadal beat World No. 19 Alcaraz, 6-4, 4-6, 6-3, to advance to Sunday’s title match against No. 20 seed Taylor Fritz of the United States. It will be Nadal’s 53rd ATP Masters 1000 final.

“I am super happy to be in the final,” Nadal said during his post-match interview on court. “It means a lot to me, and I’ll just keep going.”

Over the course of the three-hour, 12-minute match that was played at times under very windy conditions that wreaked havoc for all concerned, Nadal put everything he had into winning his 20th straight match to start the 2022 season – and Alcaraz was willing to dish it out, too. After all, he came in having won 10 straight, including a Davis Cup tie against Romania, and won his first ATP 500 trophy last month in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on clay.

Alcaraz had won his first four matches at Indian Wells – all in straight sets. However, Nadal put an end to that streak but not before the young Spaniard endured a 7-deuce, 19-point ninth game in the second set to break his Spanish elder that put him ahead 5-4. He served out the middle set during the next game to force a decider.

In the third set, Nadal gained a crucial break to go ahead 4-3 with a high forehand volley. It was the sixth time he had broken Alcaraz in 21 total opportunities – and it proved to be the most important one. Nadal would go on to outpoint Alcaraz 106-102. He finished with 20 winners (Alcaraz ended with 39) and won 20 of 30 net-point opportunities, a telling stat.

“In the third, I think I played much better,” Nadal admitted. “I played more aggressive. It’s true that I saved a couple of balls, but he played some great points, too, saving amazing balls.”

While Alcaraz gained a further appreciation of Nadal – even in defeat – he suggested during his press conference afterward that he leaves the tournament happy knowing he can compete against the game’s best players.

“I left the court happy with the level, with the performance,” Alcaraz said. “I mean, first time he destroy me. Now we played third set. I have more close to play against Rafa. I’m really happy.”

Looking back, Nadal said he took his encounter with the talented Alcaraz “like another semifinal match.” Here’s why:

“He’s not a young player that is 100 in the world and is coming. He is a top player already, so I treated it like that, playing against one of the beat players in t he world,” said Nadal. It was his 138th career victory against Spaniards. “It doesn’t matter if he’s young or not, he’s a great guy, an amazing player and he has a fantastic future. I treated it like this, just tried to go on court, try my best and accept all the challenges. I am through and it was a very important victory for me.”

Dreams come true for Fritz

In the opening semifinal, Fritz reached his first ATP Masters 1000 final with his 7-5, 6-4 victory over seventh seed Andrey Rublev of Russia. Throughout the duration of the one-hour and 50-minute match on Stadium 1, Fritz maintained his composure while also being aggressive. Meanwhile, Rublev showed bursts of frustration to go along with bursts of brilliant baseline groundstrokes.

Fritz, a native of Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., became the first American man to reach the Indian Wells final since John Isner in 2012 with his semifinal triumph against Rublev. The loss snapped a Rublev’s 13-match winning streak and it gave Fritz a 3-2 lifetime advantage against his longtime friend.

Six months ago, the 24-year-old Fritz had never reached an ATP Masters 1000 semifinal. Now, he’s done it twice and he’s 9-1 at Indian Wells in his past two appearances. Going into Sunday’s final against Nadal, the 21-time Grand Slam champion owns a 1-0 head-to-head advantage. He beat Fritz, 6-3, 6-2, in the 2020 Acapulco final. Now, Nadal will try to become the oldest BNP Paribas Open men’s champion in the tournament’s glorious history, while Fritz will try to be the first American man to win the Indian Wells title since Andre Agassi in 2001.

During his on-court post-match interview, if it seemed like Fritz was on Cloud Nine, it’s probably because he was. “It’s just unreal, really,” he said. “It doesn’t even seem real. I’m just trying to take in the moment, regroup and come back tomorrow for the final. But it’s a dream come true.”

Fritz hit five aces and won 75 percent (39 of 52) of his first-serve points. He saved three of four break points while breaking Rublev’s serve three times in 11 tries. Fritz outpointed the Russian 87-78.

“Today, I definitely played my best match of the tournament so far,” Fritz admitted. “I was so much more aggressive from the ground and so much more solid [with] my groundstrokes, whereas [in] other matches I was maybe playing a bit safer. I really tried to take it to him and impose my game today. I did it well, so that helped a lot.”

Looking back, Fritz was appreciative of the support he received from the crowd, which swelled to 16,000 fans at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden. “It’s amazing,” he said. “Just the support I got today, the crowd was so amazing and they really pushed me on. I wouldn’t be able to do it if I didn’t have all the support here, so thank you.”

Saturday’s BNP Paribas Open results

Sunday’s BNP Paribas Open order of play

Isner and Sock capture men’s doubles title

American wild cards John Isner and Jack Sock won the BNP Paribas Open men’s doubles title over Edouard Roger-Vasselin of France and Santiago Gonzalez of Mexico, 7-6 (4), 6-3 in an hour and 19 minutes Saturday night.

Isner and Sock, both well established as singles players, have shown they are pretty effective as a team, too. They improved to 26-8 and the Indian Wells title was their third ATP Masters 1000 title to go with ones won at Shanghai in 2016 and at Indian Wells in 2018.

Roger-Vasselin and Gonzalez were playing together for the first time this week. However, both Tour veterans have a rich past. Roger-Vasselin, 38, was seeking his 23 career tour-level title and Gonzalez, 39, was seeking his 19th. Had he won, Gonzalez would have become the first Mexican ATP Masters 1000 titlist.

Instead, Isner, 36, won his seventh ATP Tour and fourth ATP Masters 1000 doubles title of his career, while Sock, 29, won his 16th tour level and fourth ATP Masters 1000 doubles title.

Unseeded Xu and Yang win women’s doubles title

Unseeded Chinese pair Xu Yifan and Yang Zhaoxuan garnered their first WTA title as a team at the BNP Paribas Open Saturday afternoon.

Xu and Yang defeated No. 7 seeds Asia Muhammad of the United States and Ena Shibahara of Japan, 7-5, 7-6 (4), in an hour and 43 minutes on Stadium 1.

“We’re very happy we won the tournament because we were actually trying to get in in the beginning,” recalled Xu during the team’s post-match news conference. “We weren’t able to [at first] because our ranking is pretty low, and we were trying to get in, signing on site. …

“It wasn’t easy, all five rounds, but we’re just happy we made it all the way.”

Xu and Yang were Olympic teammates last year and reached the second round before losing to Australia’s Ashleigh Barty and Storm Sanders. Saturday’s doubles title at Indian Wells was Xu’s 11th overall and second WTA 1000. She teamed with Gabriela Dabrowski of Canada to win the 2017 Miami Open. Meanwhile, it was Yang’s fifth career WTA doubles title and her first at 1000 level.

By the numbers

The 17-year age difference between Rafael Nadal, 35, and Carlos Alcaraz, 18, is the largest in BNP Paribas Open semifinal history and the largest in a tour-level semifinal since November 2019 at the Nitto ATP Finals (Roger Federer, 38, vs. Stefanos Tsitsipas, 21). It’s also the second-largest in an ATP Masters 1000 semifinal since the series started in 1990 (Miami Open 2019, Roger Federer, 37 vs. Denis Shapovalov, 19).

“Quotable …”

“He has a great team next to him. I think he will be unstoppable in terms of his career. He has all the ingredients. He has the passion. He’s humble enough to work hard. He’s a good guy. He reminds me a lot of myself when I was 17 or 18-years-old. I think he has the passion. He has the talent and the physical components.”

Rafael Nadal on Carlos Alcaraz