Early Sunday afternoon Taylor Fritz stepped out on Stadium 1 to take his pre-final warmups, tried some routine movements, grimaced in pain and immediately called it quits.
“I took a couple of change of direction steps and screamed,” Fritz recalled. “Honestly I was trying to act tough because I had cameras on me.”
It was just the beginning of a bizarre, emotional day that would end with Fritz anointed as the first American man to win the BNP Paribas Open men’s singles title in 21 years.
With his right ankle heavily taped, the 24-year-old Rancho Santa Fe, California native stepped on court and pulled an upset for the ages, defeating three-time champion Rafael Nadal 6-3, 7-6(5) for his biggest career win.
“This is just one of those childhood dreams that you never even think could come true,” Fritz said, on the verge of tears. “I just can’t even – I just keep saying no, no, no way it’s real.”
Not willing to pass on a chance for a historical title, the American explained that he went out again to practice on a smaller, more secluded practice court and suddenly felt euphoric when realized he would be able to play.
“We did a lot of work leading up to the match and I went through a roller coaster of emotions, thinking that there was no way I could possibly play, to then doing all this work on the ankle, doing so much stuff to it,” Fritz said of his strange pre-match work up.
It was a shocking turn of events that saw the young American snap Nadal’s 20-match winning streak and deny the 35-year-old Spaniard a chance to become the oldest champion in BNP Paribas Open history.
As the American stepped into an early lead and closed the opening set out, it became apparent that Nadal was also struggling physically. The 21-time Grand Slam champion wore the fatigue that came from fighting through a trio of gripping three-setters to get to the final, including an energy-sapping three-hour and 13-minute slugfest with 18-year-old Carlos Alcaraz late on Saturday evening.
After the opening set, Nadal had to go off court for medical treatment, and he sought the attention of a trainer again after the ninth game of the second set.
“It was not possible today,” Nadal said on court after the match. “I had a good fight until the end and I’m happy for that – I hope I can keep coming for the next couple of years.”
The Spaniard would return and gradually pick up his level, but Fritz did not waver. The No. 20 seed matched Nadal stroke for stroke in the second set, saving the last seven break points he faced to bring things to a tiebreak.
Nadal fought valiantly, even saving a championship point while serving at 4-5, but he could not stem the tide on Fritz’s second opportunity. Fritz took the final three points of the tiebreak, blasting a forehand that Nadal could not handle and dropping to his back on the court as the crowd erupted.
The American becomes the youngest men’s singles champion at Indian Wells since Novak Djokovic in 2011, and the youngest American to win the title here since Michael Chang in 1996.
Five months after his original breakthrough, which saw Fritz reach the semifinals at Indian Wells, the American has cracked a milestone that he’ll forever cherish, and defeated a legend in the process.
“I’ve lost these matches against the big guys all my life,” said Fritz. “It’s always felt like they are just unbeatable, so to do it on the biggest stage, there’s no other way, to win a big title I feel like you have to beat the best.”
Written by Chris Oddo on bnpparibasopen.com.