Rafa Nadal – The Wizard of Oz

0
1721
Photo by Getty Images

Bill Simons

Indian Wells

Taylor Fritz clicks off all the right boxes. He’s a tall, athletic Southern Californian, like Pancho Gonzalez, Jack Kramer and Stan Smith. He comes from a considerable tennis family. Like Rafa, he has an uncle who’s a great tennis coach. His mom, Kathy May, reached the French and US Open quarterfinals and his dad played on the pro circuit. 

He has a strong, expanding coaching team and, of course, great strokes. “This is Fritz Taylor: big return, crush the high two-handed backhand,” observed Paul Annacone, one of his coaches. Plus, it doesn’t hurt that he has wavy black hair and a sexy girlfriend. 

More than anything, the man who sought autographs at Indian Wells as a boy has adeptly progressed through one stage of tennis after another: the world No. 1 junior, holding high the US Open junior trophy; the aspiring ATP wannabe, battling in small tournaments in distant countries; then became the youngest American to reach the top 25 since Andy Roddick, and went on to reach the third round of majors seven times. 

Taylor keeps going, achieving goal after goal. Last year he reached the Indian Wells semis. At the Australian Open, he finally got past the third round, and made it to the second week of a major. He broke into the top 20, had notable Davis Cup success and became the US No. 1.

But there’s always a new challenge. Could the 24-year-old, who had 24 wins after last October’s Indian Wells, do even better at this year’s BNP Paribas Open?

To get to the finals, Fritz would have to get by the second hottest man on tour, the long-haired, hard-hitting Russian, Andrey Rublev, the world’s No. 7 player, who’d just won in Marseille and Dubai, was on a 13-match winning streak and had a ride to the semis that was as smooth as a fine Russian vodka. He hadn’t lost a set.

But Fritz – who had a 2-2 record against Andrey and had beaten him on a slick indoor court in Paris – came out on fire. Powerful, brimming with belief and clarity, Taylor was in his third semi in five months. He blasted a forehand to score an early first-set break of serve. He had three break points to go up 5-1. But his serve dipped, the Russian relaxed, cut down on his errors, and broke, howling loud.

Fritz might have collapsed. But today, he said, “I felt calm and at ease, and played free. I was definitely flowing and making quick decisions.” On his third set point he claimed the first set 7-5. In frustration, Rublev blasted the ball to the heavens and punched his racket.

Taylor went on to survive break points in the second set. Near the end of the battle, Rublev hit an incredible flick volley winner, but two bad errors gave Taylor the victory 7-5, 6-4. The 24-year-old became the first American to reach the Indian Wells final since John Isner, ten years ago. 

If Taylor wins, he’ll be the first American victor at Indian Wells since Andre Agassi in 2001.

                                            ***** 

When the graceful young Grigor Dimitrov emerged with his beautiful one-handed backhand, pundits were quick to call him “Baby Fed.” When Spain’s Carlos Alcaraz began to score big wins, writers couldn’t resist comparing him to Nadal. “He’s Rafa II” was the mantra.

Jim Courier said that Alcaraz is the best 18-year-old he’s seen in years. Yes, Rafa won his first of 13 French Opens when he was 19. But Carlos became the youngest US Open quarterfinalist, has already won the Next Gen tournament, and last month at the Rio Open became the youngest ATP 500 champion ever. Here in Indian Wells he took out top-20 stars Roberto Bautista Agut, Gael Monfils and Cameron Norrie – all in straight sets.

But Rafa is a Spanish national hero – and Carlos’ idol. Nadal was on a 19-0 win streak, and he’d destroyed Alcaraz in their only match, on clay. Today would be “the battle of the ages.”

Maybe the kid would be in awe or show the old man some respect. No – he was aggressive and fearless. Sprinting out of the gate, Carlos promptly blasted winners and bullied “the bull” around the court. At times Nadal was sprinting haplessly. He fell to the ground; he was broken. He had five break points in the second game of the first set but couldn’t convert.

Alcaraz was up 2-0, 30-0. But no one rebounds like Rafa. Resilience is his brand. The man compartmentalizes, adjusts and surges. He won four games in a row to go up 4-2. But the kid wouldn’t be steamrolled. He broke Rafa again amidst swirling winds.

Yes, Nadal was 19-0, and he’s won Indian Wells three times. But today the great man seemed off. Carlos, gusting winds and annoying sands imposed. He whiffed on both a 124 mph and a 117 mph serve from Carlos. He flubbed drop shots and shanked groundies. Some of his returns of serve seemed headed to San Diego. He shrugged in frustration. He faltered on ten break points and two set points. On one of his set points he muffed a short forehand he can hit in his sleep.

But he fought. Rafa always fights. All year he’s found a way. Today he found a way. And on his third point, kid Carlos hit a backhand to give the master the first set 6-4.

Then the wind got far worse. Hats, towels and debris flew around the stadium, net sticks were blown out of place. Tarps snapped, nerves were frayed. “It might not be Tennis Paradise but it’s break of serve paradise,” noted the Tennis Channel.

“You don’t have to like the wind, you just have to dislike it a little less than your opponent,” noted Jim Courier. “This isn’t tennis, it’s survival – the most stern mental test you can have…It’s all just a mess.” 

Paul Annacone added, “I never saw anything like this.” For his part, Rafa asserted, “I think we should stop.” The Spanish Armada was blown off course – the games were long, the winners were rare. The simplest of shots became a challenge. “It would be interesting if they both decided to walk off,” Jason Goodall mused. 

In a 20-minute game, Carlos hit a brilliant lob winner on his seventh break point to go up 5-4. There were five straight breaks of serve, until Alcaraz finally held to take the second set 6-4. 

Soon the winds calmed, and the level of play soared. Alcaraz’s bold forehands were cannons. Rafa’s anticipation and grit astounded. His stab volleys lit up the crowd – there’s a reason he’s said to be the best volleyer in the game. Nadal, who fended off three break points, took advantage of his first break point and hit yet another volley winner to claim the match. 

The boy Carlos was incredible today. Rafa said after the match, “He’s super fast, amazing defense…the energy, the speed on the run and the passion and determination to become a great champion. He’s humble [enough] to work hard…I have no doubts he will be great…His level is top – top.”

Soon Alcaraz’s serve will become more strategic, his shot selection more adept. He will not be denied. But today the great man took the match by the throat. The man who won two tourneys in Australia, another one in Mexico and four earlier matches in the Coachella Valley prevailed in Oz today. He used his grit, singular determination, anticipation and uncanny volleys to win a thrilling, wind-blown 3:12 marathon 6-4, 4-6, 6-3.

Rafa has three titles this year and 21 Slams in his career. If he wins the final, he’ll claim his 37th Masters 1000 and  become the oldest Indian Wells champion ever.

Then again, this legend has nothing to prove. After all, he’s Rafa.

                                           ***** 

John Isner and Jack Sock won the men’s doubles title against Santiago Gonzales and Edouard Roger-Vasselin.

SHARE

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here