INDIAN WELLS, UNITED STATES (AFP) – Rafael Nadal battled past Carlos Alcaraz and the elements on Saturday (March 19), beating his talented young Spanish compatriot 6-4, 4-6, 6-3 to book an ATP Indian Wells Masters title clash with American Taylor Fritz.
Nadal, who claimed a record-setting 21st Grand Slam title at the Australian Open in January, improved to 20-0 in 2022.
The 35-year-old superstar was pushed all the way through three hours and 12 minutes by the 18-year-old aiming to follow in the footsteps of his childhood idol.
“I think was my best match so far in the tournament in terms of level,” Nadal said.
“In the third I played with great determination against a very difficult player to play. He’s great. He has a lot of amazing things.”
The array of shots and athleticism that have already stamped Alcaraz a star were on full display in a match that saw gusting winds buffet the players in the second set, sending debris skittering across the court and at one point forcing a readjustment of the billowing net.
Alcaraz’s fearless start to the contest saw him take a quick 2-0 lead – fighting off five of the astonishing 17 break points he would face in the set in the second game.
Nadal won the next four games before surrendering his serve again, but he pocketed the set with another break in the 10th game.
Down 0-40, Alcaraz delivered a drop shot winner, a backhand volley winner and a service winner.
A forehand into the net gave Nadal another opportunity, which the former world number one squandered with an easy forehand miss. He’d make no mistake two points later, pocketing the set on his fifth opportunity.
Alcaraz again seized the initiative in the second set with a break for a 3-2 lead.
That launched a run of five straight breaks of serve, the last another marathon in which Nadal saved five break points and missed two game points before Alcaraz finally put him away.
Alcaraz, who had won just three games in his only prior career meeting with Nadal in Madrid 10 months ago, then calmly served out the set.
As the wind died down again, the third set saw both players hitting winners from every quarter of the court.
Nadal stepped up his attack, coming to the net more in a bid to end the rallies.
A high forehand volley gave him another break and a 5-3 lead.
“In the third I think I played much better,” said Nadal, who was not slowed by discomfort that had him bring on the trainer for a quick adjustment to his upper back.
“When the wind stopped a little bit I thought I need to play aggressive because if not Carlos is going to go for the shots and it is going to be in his hands.”
Alcaraz said he leaves the tournament happy, despite the defeat.
“I mean, I was playing against Rafa,” he said. “I think it was a close match. First time (we played) he destroyed me. Now we played third set.”
If Nadal beats Fritz on Sunday, he will tie Novak Djokovic for the most Masters 1000 titles in ATP history with 37.
The 24-year-old Fritz, ranked 20th in the world, ended Andrey Rublev’s 13-match ATP winning streak with a 7-5, 6-4 victory over the world number seven in the other semi-final.
Fritz is the first American man to reach the Indian Wells final since John Isner in 2012 and he’ll be vying to become the first US winner since Andre Agassi in 2001.
Fritz is into his first elite Masters 1000 final and in search of a second career ATP title after his victory at Eastbourne in 2019.
The Southern California native came out firing on all cylinders and seized a 3-0 lead in just 11 minutes.
Firing winners off both wings and punishing Rublev’s second serve, Fritz had a chance to go up 5-1, but Rublev managed to fight off three break points in a marathon game featuring eight deuces.
As Fritz served for the set at 5-2, Rublev broke him with a stinging service return winner to put the set back on serve, but Fritz broke again in the 12th to take the set.
In a fit of frustration after the error-strewn set, Rublev repeatedly punched his racquet head with his right hand, opening cuts on his knuckles that apparently prompted his medical time out.
Rublev lifted his game in the second set, but couldn’t convert two break chances in the ninth game and Fritz served it out in the next.