Nadal Wins Thriller In High Winds Against Alcaraz To Reach Indian Wells Final

Three-time champion will play Fritz in Sunday's final

Carlos Alcaraz showed why he is the future on Saturday at Indian Wells, but Rafael Nadal proved he is still very much the present.

The three-time BNP Paribas Open champion reached his fifth final in the California desert with a thrilling 6-4, 4-6, 6-3 victory over his fellow Spaniard after a gruelling three hours and 12 minutes in heavy winds. The legendary lefty will face American Taylor Fritz for the trophy.

"I am super happy to be in the final," Nadal said in his on-court interview. "It means a lot to me, and I'll just keep going."

Nadal is off to a personal-best 20-0 start to the season with titles at a Melbourne ATP 250, the Australian Open and Acapulco. If the fourth seed defeats Fritz on Sunday, he will tie Novak Djokovic for the most ATP Masters 1000 titles in history with 37.

It was a notable scene as cameras followed Nadal and Alcaraz on their golf-cart ride to the court in the California desert. Nadal, a highly respected figure throughout the sports world, was on the back of the cart, intense as ever. Alcaraz, who was in the middle row, is touted as the future of Spanish tennis and, perhaps, the ATP Tour.

"I took it like another semi-final match. He's not a young player that is 100 in the world and is coming. He is a top player already, so I treated it like that, playing against one of the best players in the world," Nadal said. "It doesn't matter if he's young or not, he's a great guy, an amazing player and he has a fantastic future. I treated it like this, just tried to go on court, try my best and accept all the challenges. I am through and it was a very important victory for me."

Little did the Spaniards know that not only would they have to deal with each other’s skills, but an extended period of massive wind gusts. Following a physical, high-quality first set, the wind picked up to such an extent that towels and garbage from the stands flew across the court, the singles sticks became displaced, and the match became a battle of footwork adjustments more than bludgeoned winners (Alcaraz hit 39 winners to 20 for Nadal).

“This is not tennis. This is survival,” former World No. 1 Jim Courier said on Tennis Channel during the second set.

“The net looks like a sail,” longtime coach and courtside analyst Paul Annacone added.

<a href=''>Rafael Nadal</a> wins one of several next exchanges with <a href=''>Carlos Alcaraz</a>.
Photo Credit: Peter Staples/ATP Tour
Despite the winds, both players raised their level in the decider. At 3-3, the fans rose to their feet out of respect for the players' efforts, especially Nadal's incredible reflexes at the net, which even left his own team shaking their heads in disbelief.

In the end, Nadal's unrelenting pressure proved critical. The 35-year-old earned the decisive break at 4-3 when he cracked a huge forehand up the line and rushed to the net to put away a high forehand volley. That was his sixth break of the match, and the one that allowed him to finally overcome the teen's commendable resistance.

"The wind slowed down a little bit, and then I knew I needed to do something because in the second, everything was so difficult. If I went to the net, then it was so difficult to manage with the volleys," Nadal said. "When the wind stopped a little bit, I thought I needed to play aggressive, because if not, Carlos was going to go for the shots and then it was going to be in his hands. I tried to play more aggressive, it worked well."

Eighteen-year-old Alcaraz saved 15 of the 20 break points he faced through two sets, but failing to save the only one he faced in the decider proved fatal. The second-youngest semi-finalist in Indian Wells tournament history (behind 17-year-old Andre Agassi in 1988) fought until the last ball, but Rafa would not be denied.

“I was playing against Rafa. I think it was a close match. I leave the tournament happy. I left the court happy with the level, with the performance,” Alcaraz said. “[The] first time he destroyed me. Now we played [a] third set… I’m really happy.”

The pair clashed for the first time last year on clay in Madrid, where Nadal triumphed 6-1, 6-2 in just 78 minutes behind five service breaks. But it was clear from the first game that today’s Alcaraz has made big strides in the 10 months since that meeting, when the teen had still not cracked the Top 100 of the ATP Rankings.

Now World No. 19 and climbing higher by the week, Alcaraz came out firing. He launched groundstrokes without fear, overwhelming Nadal, who so often imposes his will physically on opponents. That helped the 18-year-old to an early break after he crushed a laser-like crosscourt backhand winner. He then saved five break points in the next game to consolidate it. 

But nobody bullies Nadal, which the 35-year-old proved throughout the rest of the match. As aggressive as Alcaraz was, he also made some untimely errors that put him under pressure. And once fourth-seeded Nadal worked his way into the match, he showed no intention of letting go, even with the wind.

The lefty earned a jaw-dropping 17 break points in the opener, claiming three of them. Although Alcaraz showed his own grit and determination by saving most of those chances and getting back on serve after losing four consecutive games, he found himself on the back foot in games far too often. 

With Nadal's high level and the disappointment for Alcaraz after losing the first set, it seemed the momentum was fully on the veteran's side of the net. But the 18-year-old did well to stay in contact early in the set, and then the wind began to pick up.

If the first set was a heavyweight boxing match, the second set was fought on stilts. Through no fault of the players, they had to battle the wind as much they did each other. There were fewer jaw-dropping rallies in which the pair fired ball after ball from corner to corner. Now, they had to position themselves to avoid making too many mistakes and giving each other free points because of the gusts.

The critical game was at 4-4, which lasted just about 20 minutes. On his seventh break point of the game, Alcaraz hit an incredible lob that left Nadal helpless. He then served out the set to force a decider on Stadium 1.

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"I think he started playing amazing. I was playing well at the beginning, it was just so difficult to stop him with his amazing shots. But then I think after [those] first 15 minutes of the match, I can't say I was under control, because it's impossible to be under control against a player like him," Nadal said. "Then I made a couple mistakes there and then the set [got] complicated.

"But in the second, the conditions became crazy, honestly. It's not funny playing [with] this wind. Even if it's sometimes a challenge, I can enjoy that. But in terms of tennis, it's okay. In terms of stopping all the time because [of] the net, [that] was not good."

The winds died down slightly in the third set, allowing the ball-crushing to resume. Nadal's comfort in the forecourt proved pivotal, as he won 20 of his 30 approaches at the net in his victory. Rafa, a 36-time Masters 1000 titlist, saved all three break points he faced in the final set.

"In the third, I think I played much better. I played more aggressive," Nadal said. "It's true that I saved a couple of balls, but he played some great points too, saving amazing balls."

Nadal has had to overcome several challenges at Indian Wells this March, clawing past Sebastian Korda in a final-set tie-break, navigating past the tricky Daniel Evans, squeaking past big-serving Reilly Opelka and overcoming the highly motivated Nick Kyrgios

Home favourite Fritz, who battled through two final-set tie-breaks earlier in the tournament, eliminated seventh seed Andrey Rublev in straight sets in the semi-finals. Nadal won his only previous clash against the American in the 2020 Acapulco final in straight sets.

Note: This story was updated to correct the number of Nadal’s net approaches, which was misstated in an earlier version. He won 20 of 30 points at net.