Fabulous Fritz Rocks First Saturday

Photo by Harjanto Sumali

Bill Simons

FIRST SATURDAY ROCKS: The first Saturday at Indian Wells always rocks. One dazzled security guard told a fan, “Welcome to crazytown.” So howling kids pleaded for autographs. Hungry patrons waited two hours to get into Bistro 88, the restaurant that has a court view. Shops were packed, fans formed serpentine lines just to get a moment with Russia’s second best man, Andrey Rublev, there was a drone light show and rockers danced to the rhythms coming from the Indian Wells stage. 

Indian Wells’ first Saturday has always had a buzz. Today was better than ever. Never mind that some players we know pretty well – Roger, Rafa, Nole, Serena and Venus – were nowhere in sight.

OH THE (LOS ANGELES) TIMES THEY ARE A CHANGIN’: There are fewer reporters than ever in the once packed Indian Wells media room that looks out on Stadium 1. There used to be a whole pack of Brits here in the desert. This year there are only five or six. Plus, there are some from France and Japan, a Pole, a Romanian, and our favorite Montana journalist is from Bozeman. Overall, the press room remains a pretty lively place. And there are two celebrated writers from the New York Times. But, at least so far, for the first time in tournament history, there’s not a single writer here from the Los Angeles Times. 

THE MAN WHO CAN’T LEAVE THE STAGE: John McEnroe played his last ATP match 31 years ago, in 1992. But he’s never gone away from the game. He can’t. And, as the Taylor Fritz vs. Ben Shelton match of the day wound down, one heard the guitar riffs and steady drumbeat of John McEnroe’s band, playing just sixty yards beyond Stadium 1.

McEnroe has always loved rock. His great pal Vitas Gerulaitis was really into it. Mac loves to recall how his partying with the Rolling Stones delayed their Meadowlands concert. Playing rock with Bo Diddley on Arthur Ashe Stadium is a favorite memory. Goodness, the guy married a rock legend, Patty Smyth. 

And today, as TV aired his bank commercial, his John McEnroe Band drew thousands to the Indian Wells stage as he played guitar, sang songs like “Go with the Flow,” “Let the Good Times Roll,” and encouraged listeners to dance by saying, “C’mon, this isn’t pickleball, you have to cover the court.” Fans loved it all and gave his band fine reviews.

But there was a hitch. Mac loves the spotlight and he was upstaged by a singer who offered some vocals – his daughter Emily. The fourth of his six kids belted out, “I’m Walking on Sunshine.” But it was her version of “Bad Reputation’ that drew raves. Somehow the lyric seemed oh-so-appropriate:

I don’t give a damn ’bout my reputation

Never said I wanted to improve my station

I’m only doin’ good when I’m havin’ fun

An’ I don’t have to please no one

I’ve never been afraid of any deviation

I don’t really care if you think I’m strange

I ain’t gonna change

So why should I care about a bad reputation, anyway?

All this led to one lady in a straw hat telling her husband, “This guy has made a fortune on his bad reputation.”

JIMBO SIGHTING: John McEnroe wasn’t the only left-handed American idol with plenty of ‘tude who was on hand today. Jimmy Connors, looking trim, drew eyes as he swept through the press room.

When Inside Tennis asked Jimbo, “What is the one thing you would want to change in tennis?” he replied, “I’m the wrong person to ask. Ask me in New York when you see me.”

Then we congratulated Jimmy on so far retaining his record of winning 109 career titles – Federer has 103. As we parted, I couldn’t help referencing his late and beloved mother. I said, “Long live Gloria.” He promptly gave me one of his enchanting glances that had that wonderful Jimbo twinkle in his eye.

AIN’T THAT THE TRUTH? Has there ever been a No. 1 player with a harder name to pronounce? Today, Iga Swiatek told the crowd, “Hopefully more people will learn how to pronounce my name.”

Say this five times in front of your mirror: ​​EE-gah shvee-AWN-teck.  

TAYLOR MADE IT THROUGH: It’s great to play in front of your home crowd – right? Just ask Andy Murray what it’s like to have Wimbledon’s crowd at your back. Frances Tiafoe loves playing night matches at the US Open. 

But the magic doesn’t always work. Young Coco Vandeweghe was crushed in front of her hometown crowd when she played Fed Cup as a kid. Last year Felix Auger-Aliassme was humbled in Canada. Bjorn Borg struggled in Stockholm, Iga Swiatek faltered in Warsaw, and let’s not even talk about Amelie Mauresmo at the French Open or Lleyton Hewitt in Melbourne. 

Over the years, hundreds of young Brits who were given wildcards to play Wimbledon failed miserably at home. 

British writer Sue Mott once observed, “Only Britons interpret the umpire’s opening word ‘Play!’ as a knell of doom…After all, the back view of receding British women with towels around their hunched shoulders is a familiar sight to regular Wimbledon watchers.”

Today Southern California’s very own Claire Liu, who was once the world No. 1 junior, took to Stadium 1 to play a No. 1 player in the world for the first time. But Iga Swiatek loves to pound foes – 6-0 wins is one of her signatures. And when the domineering Pole marched to a 6-0, 5-0 lead she seemed to be en route to a double bagel – 6-0, 6-0. One voice in the press room asked rather quite cruelly, “Do you have any cream cheese?”

To her credit, 22-year-old Liu gamely hit her best shot of the match and won a game, before falling 6-0, 6-1. Five times this year Iga has finished a match with losing just two games or less and she hasn’t played a three set match this year. Incredibly, Swiatek said, “It’s the hardest thing to do when everything goes your way.”

Lately everything hasn’t been going Taylor Fritz’s way. He lost early in Melbourne and suffered devastating body cramps in Mexico. But he’s risen to No. 5, the highest for an American since Andy Roddick in 2009, and certainly we thought that now he would defend the pride of Southern California when he stepped out on Stadium 1 after Liu’s loss. 

After all, Ben Shelton is a newbie. He’s been regularly playing on the main tour for just a few months. A year ago he was a collegian who was ranked above 500. Yes, he had a spectacular star-is-born run at the Aussie Open, and in the first round he took out Fabio Fognini. But he’s ranked only No. 41 and was playing his first Indian Wells, where the swirling winds can be meaner than a grizzled western hombre on a mule.

Plus, Taylor Fritz is far more than a Netflix star. The Rancho Santa Fe native dearly wants to defend his title. But Shelton came out on fire. His serve boomed – 142 mph, thank you very much. It can be untouchable. 

Three great lefties, McEnroe, Connors and Rod Laver, were here, and Shelton, who looks up to Nadal, does have the potential to become a southpaw superstar. 

Shelton has so many options. “He’s a Swiss army knife,” noted Tennis Channel. Serve and volley, power and slice forehands, nasty volleys, subtle drop shots. Ben got one break point in the first set. And he pounced, broke serve and took the first set 6-4.

But champions adjust, and Fritz is a fierce, experienced fighter who knows the battle well. After seeming hapless on Shelton’s serve in the first set, he changed things and went on to prevail 4-6, 6-4, 6-3.

He told Inside Tennis, “I’m super happy with how I didn’t panic…I just figured out how I wanted to play…to get those service breaks and get back into the match. I’m super happy to come through.”

But what did he change? 

“I couldn’t return a serve in the first set,” Taylor said. “He was killing me with his kick serve….[So] I moved up a lot closer and just held a backhand grip. If he was going to hit the flat bomb to my forehand, I was just going to try to chip it low, because I didn’t have time to take a swing anyway when it’s coming 140 miles an hour. Then if he serves a big one on my backhand, I already have the backhand grip…That made a big difference.”

Fritz’s draw has opened up beautifully. Three seeds in his section lost today. But Taylor is in the moment. “I’m trying not to think too much about defending a thousand points…I’m also sixth in the race this year. Let’s just have a good result. Let’s keep moving.”  

Photo by Harjanto Sumali

As for Shelton, Fritz said, “It’s too early to tell. It’s a really dangerous thing people do, putting crazy expectations on young American players. He’s really talented. He’s super dangerous…You make one mistake…and the set is over. He’s serving way too well. He definitely has a really bright future. He’s got a super explosive game and a lot of stuff that he can still improve on.”

ROLEX ROLLERS: It used to be that Roger Federer “wowed” Rolex dealers in private receptions. This week it’s been Bjorn Borg and Rod Laver who are impressing jewelers in the Rolex suite.



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