Taylor Fritz Moves Into A New Phase Of Career Following Shock Indian Wells Win - UBITENNIS
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Taylor Fritz Moves Into A New Phase Of Career Following Shock Indian Wells Win

The American entered into a final showdown with Rafael Nadal nursing an injury and was the underdog. Despite having the odds against him, he prevailed in straight sets to win the biggest title of his career to date.

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Image via https://twitter.com/BNPPARIBASOPEN/

Those of us in the sports writing profession can too easily resort to cliches when describing breakthrough feats from extraordinary athletes on consequential stages. We sometimes shower players with praise that may not be excessive, laud them for performances that might be overrated, and extol their virtues somewhat hyperbolically. That is the nature of our craft.

But as I sit here in front of a keyboard trying to put Taylor Fritz’s  Indian Wells triumph at the BNP Paribas Open in perspective, I can state unhesitatingly that this remarkable American has moved unequivocally into a new phase of his career. The 24-year-old hit a number of milestones by virtue of his victory on the 

California hard courts. He established himself as the first American man to rule at Indian Wells since Andre Agassi in 2001. Fritz had never even been to the final at a Masters 1000 tournament before. He was facing the redoubtable Rafael Nadal in the title round contest, and the Spaniard was in pursuit of a fourth crown.

Nadal had opened his 2022 campaign by sweeping three consecutive titles including his 21st major title at the Australian Open. It was looking increasingly likely that the 35-year-old warrior would head out onto the clay court circuit unbeaten for the year after his best ever start to a season. Moreover, he had won his only previous meeting with Fritz in the final of Acapulco 6-3, 6-2 two years ago in the final of Acapulco.

On top of all that, Fritz had injured himself near the end of his semifinal skirmish with Andrey Rublev. Some members of his team did not want him to walk on court with Nadal, fearing that he might exacerbate his ankle injury or perhaps have to retire early on. But Fritz, despite excruciating pain earlier that day on the practice court, trusted his own instincts and elected to put himself out there against one of the greatest players of all time.

Nadal, meanwhile, was confronting serious issues of his own. He had been bothered throughout the tournament by the same nagging foot ailment  that had kept him out of the game for most of the second half of 2021. Time and again, the left-handed Spanish wizard had survived harrowing battles to take his place in the final. But not only was Nadal concerned about his foot, he was also bothered by an apparent pectoral muscle issue that required treatment from the trainer down the stretch in his semifinal and again in his compelling contest with Fritz. Nadal’s serve was definitely not up to par and his ground game looked ragged at times, but he fought on valiantly on a windy day when he was clearly incapable of summoning his best stuff.

Remarkably, Fritz seemed comfortable physically from the outset despite wearing a blue bandage around his shin. The American was striking the ball with clean efficiency from the outset while Nadal seemed out of sorts and ill at ease. Here he was, striving to tie Novak Djokovic’s record of 37 Masters 1000 titles, appearing in his 53d final at that level. This was very familiar territory for the Spaniard.

But he was rocked back on his heels by the unrelenting big hitting and controlled aggression of Fritz. The home state hero broke Nadal in the opening game with a penetrating barrage of shots. Across the next three games, Fritz won 12 of 14 points to reach 4-0. Soon he extended his lead to 5-1. Although Nadal broke back to close the gap to 5-3, Fritz was undismayed, breaking Nadal in the ninth game for the third time to seal the set.

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The Spaniard took a medical timeout after the set and elevated his game slightly, breaking for a 2-1 second set lead. A determined Fritz broke right back. On his way to 3-2, Fritz fought off four break points. The intensity on both sides of the net was soaring. At 4-4, Nadal garnered another break point after ruling in a 36 stroke exchange which he finished with a forehand passing shot winner, but once more Fritz was undaunted.

With Nadal serving to stay in the match at 4-5, Fritz made it to match point but Nadal erased it emphatically, lacing an unstoppable forehand inside in off a low return to halt the American. He held on gamely for 5-5 and soon reached 15-40 on the Fritz serve in the eleventh game. Yet the Spaniard made a forehand unforced error and then was aced by Fritz, who held on for 6-5. Nadal played a commanding game to hold at the cost of only one point for 6-6. On they went fittingly to a tie-break.

During the week, Fritz had gone 3-0 in tie-breaks but Nadal went one better at 4-0 prior to the final. The feeling here was that Fritz had to finish off a surging Nadal now or adrenaline and experience would carry the Spaniard safely and inexorably across the finish line. Nadal served with a 5-4 lead and had a tremendous opening. But he sent a forehand swing volley wide. Instead of a 6-4 lead with two set points at his disposal, Nadal was stuck at 5-5. He lost the next point when Fritz drove a flat forehand with the wind to force Nadal into an error. Serving at 6-5, arriving at match point for the second time, Fritz refused to buckle. Nadal’s return was short and Fritz’s forehand approach was struck with full conviction. Nadal barely touched that ball. Fritz had celebrated a career altering moment, defeating Nadal 6-3, 7-6 (5) for the biggest tournament win of his career, a triumph that will take the American all the way up to No. 13 in the world.

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All week long, Nadal was living dangerously, winning more on grit, gumption and reputation than anything else. He commenced his journey for the first Masters 1000 crown of 2022 with an improbable escape against Sebastian Korda, the 6’5” American ranked No. 38 in the world. The 21-year-old Korda was driving through the ball beautifully off both sides and hitting Nadal off the court for a long spell, collecting 11 of 14 games to reach 5-2 in the final set. Nadal was attempting to answer pace with pace, and not succeeding. 

Nadal had served two double faults while losing his serve for the second time in that third set to go down two breaks. But Korda was not ready to meet the most consequential moment of his young career.

The son of 1998 Australian Open champion Petr Korda put only one first serve in play at 5-2 and made four unprovoked mistakes off the backhand. Nadal then held before Korda came within two points of victory when he served for the match a second time at 5-4, only to be thwarted by a nifty Nadal backhand lob down the line. Korda lunged for a backhand overhead but did not come close to making it.

A resolute Nadal was back to 5-5 but still struggling, fending off a break point in the eleventh game. In the end, he came through 6-2, 1-6, 7-6 (3) by giving little away in the tie-break and winning the last five points from 2-3 down.

His difficulties were not over. Great Britain’s crafty Dan Evans moved ahead of the Spaniard 4-2 in the opening set but Nadal gradually found the range off his incomparable forehand and triumphed 7-5, 6-3. Facing the towering Reilly Opelka—who stands just a tad under seven feet tall—Nadal came through precariously 7-6 (3), 7-6 (5). Ranked No. 17 in the world when he took on Nadal, Opelka was poised to win the second set when Nadal trailed 2-4, 15-40. The American had three break points in that crucial seventh game but failed to put a return in play on any of them.

In the quarterfinals, we witnessed Round Nine in the compelling career series between Nadal and the mercurial Nick Kyrgios. Once more, Nadal relied on his big point propensity and match playing acumen to get him out of a match he could well have lost. Kyrgios was overpowering and disciplined until he served for the first set at 5-4 and reached 30-15. Nadal barely scraped back a sliced backhand down the line at full stretch that landed just inside the line. He won that point, took the next two points, and eventually sealed that set in a tie-break as the Australian imploded, receiving a point penalty on the final point. Nadal was letter perfect and Kyrgios self destructive as the Spaniard prevailed in that sequence 7-0.

Commendably, Kyrgios recovered a degree of composure and broke Nadal at the end of the second set with persistence on his side of the net and some tentative play from the Spaniard. But Nadal was true to character down the stretch, saving two break points to avoid a 2-0 third set deficit and later breaking Kyrgios at 3-3 by adjusting his return positioning adroitly. In a pulsating and entertaining clash, Nadal prevailed 7-6 (0), 5-7, 6-4 for his sixth win in nine duels with the Australian. Nadal won only three more points in that encounter than Kyrgios (106 to 103) but when it mattered most he was the decidedly better player.

And so the stage was set for another riveting Nadal match in the penultimate round when he confronted countryman Carlos Alcaraz. The 18-year-old was on a mission at Indian Wells. His level of play in all four contests prior to his appointment with Nadal was nothing less than excellent. He took apart the capable American MacKenzie McDonald 6-3, 6-3, crushed Roberto Bautista Agut—one of the sport’s wiliest veterans—by the barely credible scores of 6-2, 6-0, moved past Gael Monfils 7-5, 6-1 and upended the guileful left-hander Cam Norrie 6-4, 6-3.

Nadal was well aware of the spectacular Alcaraz run, and knew full well that obliterating his stunningly gifted adversary last spring 6-1, 6-2 on the dirt in Madrid meant nothing now. Alcaraz has improved immensely since then, and he approached this meeting no longer in awe of his idol but quietly confident that he could get the job done.

Alcaraz moved in front 2-0 after a long service game and Nadal was behind 0-30 in the third game following a double fault and a netted drop shot. But, critically, he held on there and clenched his fist, knowing how badly he needed that game. Nadal rolled to 4-2, dropped the next two games but still won the set 6-4 despite some flagrant mistakes.

By the end of that opening set, the conditions were abysmal. The ferocity of the wind—with gusts in the range of 50 MPH—was hindering both players significantly. The situation worsened in the second set and both combatants were severely compromised. It was not unlike the day Nadal beat Andy Murray handily in the 2009 Indian Wells final and was also reminiscent of the 2012 U.S. Open final when Murray defeated Novak Djokovic in five sets, not to mention the Djokovic-Ferrer semifinal in the same tournament which was carried over a day after play commenced with the wind making two extraordinary players look pedestrian.

Who can forget semifinal day at Roland Garros three years ago when Nadal ousted Roger Federer in straight sets in horrific conditions with the wind whipping around Chatrier Stadium uncontrollably? Later that day, Djokovic fell behind Dominic Thiem in the second semifinal and the Serbian justifiably insisted on play being postponed until the following day, when Thiem came out on top in five sets.

Where does this Nadal-Alcaraz confrontation rank among some of these extraordinarily windy occasions? That is a difficult question to answer, but this much is certain: what the two Spaniards encountered—especially in the second set—was outrageous. Under the horrid circumstances, they performed stupendously, but nowhere near their normal standards.

In the second set, as both players served with considerably less velocity, there were five service breaks in a row. Alcaraz achieved the last of those breaks for 5-4 with a sparkling backhand topspin lob winner that defied belief and then he held to seal a hard earned and stressful set. The teenager had dealt with the burdensome conditions admirably. Nadal has demonstrated time and again across the years that he is a more adaptable in the wind than most of his peers, and yet on this occasion he struggled inordinately to cope.

Be that as it may, the wind gradually diminished in the third set. It was still substantial but not nearly as forceful. At 2-2, Alcaraz had his chance, thrice reaching break point in that pivotal game. But Nadal sensed the urgency of the situation and played accordingly. He held on steadfastly, saving the first break point with a first serve down the middle setting up a forehand winner; erasing the second with an overhead winner; and releasing a service winner out wide on the third. From 3-3 and deuce in that final set, Nadal was impenetrable, securing three games in a row to finish it off, taking the last seven points of the contest. He volleyed impeccably in that stretch, much the way he had against Daniil Medvedev when they met in Acapulco a few weeks earlier. The Spaniard’s low backhand volley has never been better. His anticipation in the forecourt was uncanny.

But Nadal was spent for the final while, strikingly, Fritz was not. Fritz had a very tough time himself reaching the final. His early rounds were filled with fraught and he did not do himself full justice. But the fact remains that he came through honorably in the clutch to pull out some very hard fought matches. After dismissing Kamil Majchrzak of Poland (the world No. 75), 6-1, 6-1, Fritz accounted for Spain’s Jaume Munar (the world No. 99) 6-4, 2-6, 7-6 (2). In the round of 16 against the Australian Alex de Minaur, Fritz rallied to win 3-6, 6-4, 7-6 (5). Now in the quarterfinals, Fritz had to work hard again before subduing the Serbian Miomir Kecmanovic 7-6 (5) 3-6, 6-1.

Remarkably, Fritz took his game up immeasurably to beat Rublev 7-5, 6-4. The Russian had won two tournaments and 13 matches in a row but wasted a comeback from 2-5 down in the first set. He was so infuriated that he bashed his hand with his racket several times and brought up blood. It was in the penultimate game of that match that Fritz realized he had a leg/ankle issue. Yet somehow he came away with the crown and played stupendously at times against Nadal, driving the ball through the wind with astonishing depth and control, making only 22 unforced errors, which was 12 fewer than Nadal. Fritz redefined himself with his singular accomplishment over such a formidable adversary.

The Spaniard will undoubtedly use the next month to recuperate physically, mentally and emotionally before commencing his clay court campaign in Monte Carlo. But what of the other major casualties at Indian Wells? Daniil Medvedev had just celebrated his rise to No. 1 in the world but he dropped nine of the last ten games from 3-3 in the second set against Monfils, who sparred with the Russian cagily until finding the openings to blast outright winners off the forehand. Monfils was terrific but Medvedev unraveled and was listless and almost resigned to defeat.

Medvedev has not really recovered from his debilitating loss to Nadal in the final of the Australian Open when he led two sets to love and had Nadal cornered at 2-3, 0-40 in the third set. The Russian sorely needs to win the upcoming Masters 1000 tournament in Miami, but I doubt he has the confidence to do it right now.

Similarly, Sascha Zverev has wandered through 2022 unhappily thus far. He was fortunate to be given a probation rather than a suspension after smashing the umpires chair in Acapulco. Perhaps that embarrassing episode has lingered because Zverev suffered an avoidable loss against the plucky American Tommy Paul, who played a scintillating tie-break at the end to topple Zverev in three sets. The fact remains that Zverev was serving with a 4-2 final set lead when he released no fewer than four double faults to get broken.

Surely Medvedev and Zverev are surrounded by doubts at the moment as they move toward Miami and try to resume their winning ways. I don’t expect much from Zverev in Miami either. 

There is no clear favorite at the moment. Fritz will surely need some time to digest the most emotional and gratifying win of his career. I believe he will play some very good tennis on the clay, make his presence known at Wimbledon in the latter stages, and then do some fine work on the hard courts over the summer in Canada and the U.S. Winning such an important tournament will change this young man irrevocably, but the fact remains he needs some time to grow into a new psychological space and get used to his loftier surroundings and expectations. Alcaraz will be dangerous again in Miami and it would not surprise me in the least if he takes the title. As for Rafael Nadal, he will get over his Indian Wells loss swiftly. As long as his body heals and he is healthy on the red clay, no one is going to want any part of him during that stretch of the season.

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Jack Draper Wins In Stuttgart, Potentially Faces Andy Murray in Round Two

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Jack Draper – ATP Monaco di Baviera 2024 (foto via Twitter @atptour)

Britain’s Jack Draper tight first round win headlined the opening day’s results at the Boss Open 2024 in Stuttgart – and possibly faces a second-round match with Andy Murray who takes on Marcos Giron tomorrow.

Less than 24 hours from the last ball being hit at Roland Garros, the ATP Tour had already switched surfaces onto the grass, and 22-year-old Draper was well tested but ultimately came through in two tie-breakers over Sebastian Ofner.

The sixth seed’s 7-6, 7-6 win contained just one break of serve each, both coming in the second set, as serve dominated proceedings on the faster grass courts in Germany.

While the Austrian won 75% on his first serve, Draper won a whopping 89% behind his first delivery as well as hitting eight aces. These kind of service stats will surely take him far during the grass court season.

“I thought it was a really good match,” Eurosport quoted Draper saying after his match. 
“Both of us played really clean tennis, executing really well.
“When it came down to it, I’m glad I competed really well and got over the line – it’s good to be back on the grass as well.”

There were also wins for Germany’s Yannick Hanfmann who won 6-3, 6-3 over wildcard Henri Squire, while compatriot Dominik Koepfer won in three sets over China’s Zhizhen Zhang 4-6, 7-6, 7-6. 

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Carlos Alcaraz Still Owns A Magical Racket

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The legend of Carlos Alcaraz and his magical racket lives on.

The 21-year-old Spaniard executed one magical shot after another with his racket and legs  Sunday afternoon in the French Open final. That bit of magic spelled defeat for Germany’s Alexander Zverev.

This was a final to remember, one of the great matches of all the Grand Slams. It just wasn’t in the cards for the 26-year-old Zverev to finally win a Grand Slam title.

HE HAD IT, THEN HE DIDN’T

Both players seemed to play a game of “he had it and then he didn’t.”

Alcaraz appeared to have everything under control in the first set, but Zverev rushed through the second set and then made a comeback from 5-2 down in the third set to win five straight games.

Zverev had everything going for him when he started the fourth set with a two-set advantage. It appeared that all the 6-6 Zverev had to do was to continue playing his masterful game of big serves and mighty ground strokes.

But Zverev couldn’t get started in the fourth set until he was down 4-0. So much for a smooth and easy ride to a Grand Slam title. By then, the magic of Alcaraz was heating up.

MAGIC OF ALCARAZ HEATING UP

Zverev still had his chances, even when he fell behind 2-1 in the fifth set. He had to feel pretty good about his chances when he took a triple break point lead against Alcaraz’s serve and appeared ready to even the set at 2-2. Even after Carlos came up with a winner to bring the  game score to double break point.

Zverev still was ready to even the entire match.

That’s when everything seemed to go haywire for the German, while all the while, Alcaraz was able to repeatedly come up with his magical shots as the Spaniard made critical shots that looked almost impossible to make.

ALCARAZ HEADED FOR GREATNESS

Everything for Zverev was lost in the magical racket of Alcaraz.

What was then initially called a game-ending Alcaraz double fault and a 2-2 deadlock quicky reversed itself and Alcaraz stayed alive by winning the next three points while taking a 3-1 advantage.

Zverev did get back to a 3-2 deficit and had a break point in the sixth game, but that was it for the hopes of Zverev. The last two games went rather easily in favor of Alcaraz to wrap up a 6-3, 2-6, 5-7, 6-1, 6-2 victory for Alcaraz.

That moved the Spaniard to a higher level of success on the ATP Tour. He became the youngest man to win Grand Slam titles on all of the different surfaces, clay, grass and hard courts.

Carlos Alcaraz and his magical racket appear to be headed for greatness.

James Beck was the 2003 winner of the USTA National Media Award  for print media. A 1995 MBA graduate of The Citadel, he can be reached at Jamesbecktennis@gmail.com. 

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Tsitsipas Brothers Hit With Trio Of Fines At French Open

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Stefanos Tsitsipas and his brother Petros have been fined more than 20,000 euros for multiple violations of the coaching rules at this year’s French Open. 

The brothers received a financial penalty during three different matches that they played in. Two of those were in the second and third rounds of the men’s doubles tournament. Furthermore, Stefanos was also penalised during his singles quarter-final match against Carlos Alcaraz, which he lost in straight sets. According to French newspaper L’Equipe, all three of those fines were issued as a result of coaching rules being broken.

Ironically, coaching is allowed during matches at the French Open but certain rules must be followed. ‘Verbal’ coaching can only be issued from the coaches and their team if they are sitting in the designated player’s box. Instructions must be limited to a few words and can only be given if the player is in the same half of the court as their coach. Although non-verbal coaching is allowed regardless of what side the player is on. Finally, players can’t start a conversation with their coach unless it is during a medical break, a bathroom break or when their opponent is changing clothes.

However, the Tsitsipas brothers have been found in violation of these rules, which is likely due to their animated father in the stands who is also their coach. Apostolos Tsitsipas has been given coaching violations in the past at other events, including the 2022 Australian Open. 

The value of the fines are €4,600 and €9,200 for the Tsitsipas brothers in the doubles, as well as an additional €7,400 just for Stefanos in the singles. In total, the value of their fines is €21,200. However, the penalty is unlikely to have an impact on the duo whose combined earnings for playing in this year’s French Open amount to roughly €495,000. 

So far in the tournament, the highest single fine to be issued this year was against Terence Atmane who hit a ball out of frustration that struck a fan in the stands. Atmane, who later apologised for his actions, managed to avoid getting disqualified from the match. Instead, he was fined €23,000. 

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