Taylor Fritz nearly didn’t take the court Sunday against Rafael Nadal in the final of the BNP Paribas Open. He hurt his right ankle in Saturday’s semifinal and aggravated the injury during his warmup session Sunday morning, a few hours prior to the biggest match of his career.
But instead of withdrawing, the 24-year-old Rancho Santa Fe native opted to give the ankle a try against Nadal. That decision turned out to be the right one.
Fritz won the first four games of the first set and, with the momentum in his favor, beat the 21-time Grand Slam champion, 6-3, 7-6 (7-5), to become the first American to win an Indian Wells singles title since Andre Agassi in 2001.
“I can’t even begin to describe how ridiculous it is that I was able to play,” Fritz said. “I’ve never experienced worse pain in my life before a match.”
Entering Sunday’s championship, Nadal was 91-37 in finals with 11 straight wins in finals since May 2019. Fritz was 1-5 in finals.
In the mostly full 16,100-seat Indian Wells stadium, Fritz also became the first player to beat Nadal this season, snapping the Spanish tennis star’s 20-match win streak to start the 2022 season. Only Novak Djokovic has had a longer streak to start a season since the ATP Tour began in 1990.
With the victory, Fritz earns the first-place prize of $1,242,025 and Nadal gets the second-place check for $665,330. Fritz will rise to No. 13 in the ATP rankings on Monday.
Fritz limped around Stadium Court on Sunday morning and walked off the court just minutes after his warmup began. He hobbled around the players’ lounge and locker room at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden for a few hours before getting his ankle wrapped with blue tape and walking out to the practice courts.
On the Tennis Channel broadcast, Grand Slam champion Jim Courier said that tournament director Tommy Haas texted him Sunday morning to see if Courier had any tennis gear with him. Hass, a former player himself, had gathered Grand Slam champions Pete Sampras John McEnroe and Novak Djokovic for an impromptu doubles match for the fans after Nadal withdrew before his semifinals match versus Roger Federer with a knee injury in 2019.
After some time inside, Fritz went out to the practice courts and felt well enough to try to proceed with the match and see how the ankle held up.
“That’s how much it means to him,” said Tennis Channel commentator Paul Annacone, who has coached Fritz. “He’s going to be out here giving everything he’s got.”
Fritz said that the right ankle didn’t bother him too much once the match began. Fritz opened the match receiving and forced Nadal into a break right out of the gate. He then held serve, went up a double break and held serve again to take a 4-0 lead as Nadal’s 18 first-set unforced errors put him into an early hole.
Nadal entered the match with his own health concerns. His chronic left foot condition had him thinking about retirement at the end of last year, and he said Saturday that he may have strained a pectoral muscle during his semifinal match versus Carlos Alcaraz.
Nadal took a rare medical timeout to meet with an ATP trainer before proceeding with the match. Then, during the first set on Sunday, he met with an ATP doctor and physio during a break in play. Following the first set, Nadal walked off the court with a trainer.
“Only thing I can say is it’s tough to breathe for me.” Nadal said. “I feel very, very — when I try to breathe, it’s painful and it’s very uncomfortable.
“But it’s not the moment to talk about that honestly, even if it’s obvious that I was not able to do the normal things today. That’s it. It’s a final. I tried. I lost against a great player.”
After Nadal returned to the court, he seemed rejuvenated. With Nadal superfan Ben Stiller and tournament owner and tech mogul billionaire Larry Ellison among those watching courtside, the Spaniard held serve early in the second set, then went up a break to take a 2-1 lead in the set.
The two went at each other, neither backing down despite their physical ailments, with the thousands inside Stadium 1 roaring after every big point.
But Fritz broke Nadal back to get back on serve and during a crucial fifth game the American made several acrobatic, even miraculous, shots to hold serve and move one step closer to victory.
Nadal saved a championship point in the 10th game to bring the score to 5-5, before Fritz saved three break points to hold serve and move the score to 6-5. Nadal then held to take the set to a tiebreak, where Nadal had been 4-0 during this tournament.
But as the set moved into the tiebreak, Fritz, ultimately, showed more resilience against one of the most resilient players ever to grace these hardcourts.
He took the early 1-0 lead when Nadal buried the ball into the net on a forehand, then took a 2-0 lead, crushing a forehand winner down the sideline. Nadal climbed his way back to take a 5-4 lead, but Fritz scored the next three points to put the match to bed.
With the loss, Nadal, who turns 36 in June, fell just short of becoming the oldest men’s champion in BNP Paribas Open history and the third-oldest ATP Masters 1000 champion since the series started in 1990. Both records belong to Federer.
Fritz has been coming to the Indian Wells tournament for as long as he can remember. His dad, former tennis player Guy Fritz, is the longtime tennis coach at College of the Desert and his mother is former top 10 player Kathy May. As a child, his parents brought him to the tournament, where he’d watch all the top players, including his all-time favorite, Argentina’s Juan Martin de Potro.
Guy Fritz would have his top players at COD play against Taylor when Taylor was a boy, and soon enough Fritz was playing juniors in the Easter Bowl at Indian Wells. By 16, Fritz was playing in the qualifiers at Indian Wells and by 18 he had reached the main draw.
The Indian Wells tournament was canceled in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and last year’s event was rescheduled for October. Fritz entered that tournament ranked 39th in the world yet made a run to the semifinals. He lost to Nikoloz Basilashvili of Georgia but later said that his run at Indian Wells ignited a level of confidence that helped him reach the top-20 for the first time.
Fritz moved to 16th earlier this year, having built on that performance at Indian Wells with a finals appearance in St. Petersburg and a quarterfinal finish in Paris. Since October, Fritz has beaten five of the six top 10 opponents he has faced.
With his win Sunday, which gave him the second title of the his career (Eastbourne 2019), Fritz is the youngest BNP Paribas Open men’s singles champion since Djokovic in 2011 and the youngest American to win the Indian Wells men’s singles title since Michael Chang in 1996.
He’s also the first American to win an ATP Masters 1000 singles title since John Isner at Miami in 2018 and the youngest American to win an ATP Masters 1000 singles title since Andy Roddick at Cincinnati in 2006.
Before Sunday’s win, Fritz was 0-8 all-time against the Big Three of Nadal, Federer and Djokovic. But he’s now 5-0 against top 10 players at Indian Wells.
“I’ve lost matches against the big guys my whole life,” Fritz said. “It’s always felt like they were unbeatable. But to win a title you’ve got to beat the best.”
Andrew John covers sports for The Desert Sun and the USA Today Network. Email him at andr[email protected] and find him on Twitter at @Andrew_L_John.
Last five American winners
2022: Taylor Fritz def. Rafael Nadal 6-3, 7-6 (5)
2001: Andre Agassi def. Pete Sampras 7-6, 7-5, 6-1
1997: Michael Chang def. Bohdan Ulihrach 4-6, 6-3, 6-4, 6-3
1996: Michael Chang def. Paul Haarhuis 7-5, 6-1, 6-1
1995: Pete Sampras def. Andre Agassi 7-5, 6-3, 7-5
Note: American men won every tournament from 1991 to 1997
This article originally appeared on Palm Springs Desert Sun: Taylor Fritz tops Rafael Nadal to win BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells