Rafael Nadal beats Carlos Alcaraz to reach Indian Wells final

The swirling winds blew itchy grains of sand into Rafael Nadal’s eyes. The boy on the other side of the net was half his age and gave everything back. The furrows on Nadal’s forehead became deeper and deeper.

When Carlos Alcaraz uncorked a topspin lob in the second set of their semifinals at Saturday’s BNP Paribas Open to end a 19-minute, 52-second game and break Nadal’s serve, it seemed like time was up for Nadal’s winning streak and his run away chance of reaching the final on Sunday. He had come this far with a chronically sore foot. There would have been no shame if he lost to Alcaraz, who at 18 is Nadal’s heir as Spain’s No. 1 and one of the most dynamic talents in the game.

Against someone with a weaker will and championship pedigree than 21-time Grand Slam singles champion Nadal, Alcaraz might have made the leap from prodigy to Indian Wells finalist on Saturday. Against anyone else, Alcaraz’s young legs, long reach and uncanny creativity would probably have been enough to prevail. Not against Nadal, whose wisdom, experience and sharp volleys led him to an entertaining 6-4, 4-6, 6-3 victory that spanned 3 hours and 13 minutes and extended his start to 20-0 this year .

Nadal meets Rancho Palos Verdes’ Taylor Fritz, who was aggressive with his groundstrokes in Saturday’s first semi-final at Stadium 1 in a 7-5, 6-4 sacking of Russia’s Andrey Rublev.

“I’ve had a lot of tough fights this week but I’m still alive,” said Nadal, a three-time champion here, without finishing the sentence.

“I’m in the final and I want to enjoy the final. Being in the final here in Indian Wells means a lot to me. Is a very special place. Yes I will try to be ready for tomorrow. A match like today helps with self-confidence. I know [on Sunday] I have to be physically and mentally ready to play tennis at a very high level because he plays well.”

Fritz, 24, became the first American to reach the Indian Wells final since John Isner lost the 2012 championship game to Roger Federer. The last American to win this tournament was Andre Agassi, who defeated fellow countryman Pete Sampras in 2001.

The women’s final will be contested first, with Poland’s No. 3 Iga Swiatek taking on Greece’s No. 6 Maria Sakkari. The winner will move up to No. 2 in the next world rankings this week, behind No. 1 Ashleigh Barty. The men’s and women’s champions each receive $1,231,245. Each runner-up will receive $646,110.

Rafael Nadal returns a shot in his semifinal win over Carlos Alcaraz on Saturday.

Rafael Nadal returns a shot in his semifinal win over Carlos Alcaraz on Saturday.

(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

Fritz has only played Nadal once, a straight-set win for Nadal on a hard court in Acapulco, Mexico in 2020. When asked about the good and bad aspects of meeting Nadal, Fritz was realistic and thoughtful.

“The worst thing is probably just knowing he’s just going to keep fighting, he’s always going to be there at every point, he’s not going to like giving you anything. It’s just competitiveness; like he always wants it so badly,” said Fritz, who rose to 16th in the world last month and finished at 20th.

“The best, I would say, is maybe just from my point of view, maybe I’m not fully served from the pitch; I may be able to see rematches. But he’s such a good returnee that it kind of works differently; He’ll look at my serves. I’ve been serving great all week but he’ll still return my serve.”

Nadal and Alcaraz combined for five breaks of serve in the first set and five breaks of serve in the second set. “When you play with Rafa you have to stay calm, you have to think carefully in the difficult moments,” said Alcaraz. “I learned that in this match.”

The strong, sudden desert winds were tough for both men to deal with, but conditions improved in the final set. Nadal called in a coach because he felt some discomfort in his chest after holding for a 4-3 lead, but he quickly recovered to break Alcaraz’s serve for a 5-3 lead. He ended the match when Alcaraz hit a long return.

“He’s got all the ingredients to be a great champion, right? I think it was a good match. I treat the game like I’m not facing any young player at all,” Nadal said of Alcaraz. “I treat like I’m playing against a top 8 player.”

The winds were calm earlier in the day when Fritz and Rublev met. Fritz grabbed a break in game two of the opening set against his baseliner Rublev, converting his third break point chance when Rublev sent a long forehand.

Fritz took a 5-2 lead, but Rublev won three straight games, including a break of serve, to equal 5-5. Fritz held to take a 6-5 lead, making the most of his forehand and hitting an ace. The next game went to Deuce seven times and Fritz had three set point chances before Rublev netted a forehand to give Fritz the set.

In the second set, Rublev saved a break point in game eight to hold at 4-4 and had two break point opportunities in the next game. But Fritz hit back, capitalizing on Rublev’s erroneous backhand and finishing the game with an ace.

“I knew I had to play at a certain level. Somehow I couldn’t play the way I used to play,” said Fritz. “That’s why I played by far my best match today, especially from the ground. Hit the ball really well. So definitely kind of a confidence boost that I need to go into the finals to feel like I’m really doing my best.” Rafael Nadal beats Carlos Alcaraz to reach Indian Wells final

Andrew Schnitker

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