INDIAN WELLS, Calif. — Back in the day, Taylor Fritz and his father Guy would drive north on the highway from San Diego, come over the Santa Rosa Mountains and navigate the switchback turns down to the Coachella Valley, where the world’s best tennis players gather every March in Indian Wells.
Fritz, a talented junior, was just another boy patrolling the courts and hunting for fun and autographs, including Rafael Nadal’s, but Fritz’s father told him something extraordinary.
“He told me that I was going to win this tournament one day,” Fritz said.
On Sunday, Fritz, now 24, did just that: holding off a diminished 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 off tears after fighting off Nadal, 6-3, 7-6 (5). “Like a wild dream you never expect to actually happen.”
Guy Fritz, who peaked at No. 301 in the ATP rankings in 1979, long believed in his son, who has reached No. 13 with this victory. But it has taken Taylor until now to develop the faith and the forehand to take out a champion like Nadal at such a tournament.
It is a Masters 1000 event, a step below a Grand Slam tournament but the top-tier category on the regular tour, and Indian Wells has become a signature stop. It has vast grounds, excellent facilities and robust attendance even if this year’s total of 329,764 fans, with vaccination required for spectators, was no match for the prepandemic figure of 475,372 in 2019.
The event also has strong backing from its billionaire owner Larry Ellison, who was sitting in the front row of his box on Sunday to watch Nadal, his friend and regular houseguest, try to remain unbeaten in 2022.
Like Roger Federer, Nadal has endured and impressed long enough to transcend nationality. A Spaniard, Nadal has been on tour for nearly 20 years and won his record 21st Grand Slam singles title at this year’s Australian Open.
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 though he did get considerable support, it sometimes felt like he was playing an away game against Nadal.
But Fritz would not be denied as he finished off the victory on his second match point, ripping a forehand approach shot down the line that the lunging Nadal could not handle.
“No way!” the wide-eyed Fritz shouted repeatedly.
A title certainly had looked unlikely a few hours earlier when Fritz walked onto the same court and shouted in anguish as he attempted to push off on his right foot during a warm-up session that lasted only a few minutes. “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.”
After numbing the ankle with painkilling treatment, he went back out to hit on an outside court and felt better. But his coaches, Michael Russell and Paul Annacone, and fitness trainer, Wolfgang Oswald, all advised against him playing in the final, concerned Fritz might do longer-term damage to the ankle he had twisted in the semifinal on Saturday.
Fritz ignored the advice. “I feel bad for those guys: I’m so stubborn,” he said. “I went out there, and I seriously played the match with zero pain.”
Still, he has scheduled for Monday a magnetic resonance imaging scan on his ankle. It looks much more unlikely that he will play in this week’s Miami Open than it does for Iga Swiatek, who won the women’s singles title earlier on Sunday.
Swiatek, the 20-year-old Polish star who is as thoughtful as she is powerful, defeated Maria Sakkari, 6-4, 6-1, in what was a match for the title but also for the No. 2 ranking.
Swiatek, now ranked only behind Ashleigh Barty, was the more reliable force in the gusting wind with her heavy groundstrokes, particularly the forehand that she hits with extreme topspin, like her role model Nadal. Until this year, her biggest titles have come on clay: above all the 2020 French Open title that she won at age 19 without dropping a set.
But Swiatek clearly has the skill and will to be No. 1 and an all-surface threat. After winning the WTA 1000 in Doha, Qatar on a hardcourt, she ran her winning streak to 11 matches by winning for the first time in Indian Wells.
This tournament has been the site of big breakthroughs in recent years: Naomi Osaka won in 2018 and went on to claim her first major at that year’s U.S. Open; Bianca Andreescu did the same double in 2019.
Fritz, who had never reached a Masters 1000 final until this tournament, required third-set tiebreakers to get past Jaume Munar and Alex de Minaur and three sets to defeat Miomir Kecmanovic before finding his form and range against Andrey Rublev on Saturday.
“His victory of yesterday is much bigger than his victory of today, because he had a much tougher opponent,” Nadal said of the Rublev match.
Nadal’s glum comment was a reference to the pain that he began feeling in his chest late in his windblown semifinal victory over Spanish compatriot Carlos Alcaraz on Saturday.
Nadal had to stretch and strain to adjust his shots to those unpredictable conditions, and though he said he had not yet received a clear diagnosis, it was possible that, in contorting himself in the wind against Alcaraz, he had strained a pectoral muscle or intercostal muscle near his ribs.
“When I try to breathe, it’s painful and very uncomfortable,” said Nadal, now 20-1 in 2022. “But that’s it no? 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.”
Fritz’s parents were touring professionals who helped to shape his game when he was young. His mother Kathy May was ranked as high as No. 10 in singles in 1977 on the WTA Tour and reached three Grand Slam singles quarterfinals during her career.
After her son’s victory, May spoke courtside with Martina Navratilova, whom May once defeated on tour, and later posed for photographs on court with her son.
Fritz was married at 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 all the right things, like I’m going to bed on time,” he said in an interview. “It’s just someone who’s holding me accountable, who also wants the same things I want, and it’s amazing just to have someone who cares and who can help me do the right things.”
What Fritz wants this season is a place in the top 10. He was ranked No. 39 in early October but said he tweaked his forehand technique after watching footage of a junior match he played against Rublev. “We were just absolutely crushing the ball,” Fritz said. “I watched exactly how I was hitting 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 delayed and played in October, and he has been defeating top 20 players with regularity since then. He is the first American to win the singles in Indian Wells since 2001 when Andre Agassi won the men’s title and Serena Williams won the women’s title.
Fritz was 3 at the time. But Indian Wells soon became a regular part of his life and when he returned this year, he looked up at the big photograph of reigning men’s champion Cameron Norrie on the wall of the players’ lounge and imagined his own photo taking its place.
“All week, I was like, it would be so cool for that to be my picture,” he said.
Mission accomplished, and a long-ago prediction has also come true.
“He was just really, really proud of me,” Fritz said of his father, tearing up as he smiled. “It’s really tough to get a compliment out of him.”