INDIAN WELLS, Calif. (AP) — Rafael Nadal faced down the future and emerged victorious, outlasting Spanish teenager Carlos Alcaraz 6-4, 4-6, 6-3 Saturday night to reach the BNP Paribas Open final and improve to 20-0 this year.
The 21-time major champion threw his head back, smiled and raised both arms in triumph after escaping an aggressive Alcaraz. The 18-year-old never appeared rattled playing his vaunted countryman, who had the crowd, a 17-year advantage in age and loads of experience in his favor.
“He has all the ingredients to become an amazing champion,” Nadal said. “I don’t have many doubts that he will be great. He is already, by the way.”
Nadal’s perfect record is the third-best start to a season since 1990. He’s won titles at Melbourne, the Australian Open and Acapulco.
Nadal will meet Taylor Fritz in the final Sunday. Seeded 20th, Fritz is the first American man to make the final since John Isner in 2012 and he’ll try to be the first to win the title since Andre Agassi in 2001.
Fritz ended No. 7 seed Andrey Rublev’s 13-match winning streak with a 7-5, 6-4 victory in the other semifinal. The Russian had won 13 consecutive matches since Feb. 14, including back-to-back titles at Marseille and Dubai.
Nadal staved off three break points on his serve in the fifth game of the third set and then broke Alcaraz with a forehand volley winner to go up 5-3. Nadal served out the match with a love game, punctuating the 3-hour, 12-minute struggle with a 95-mph ace.
“Rafa has thousand lives,” Alcaraz said. “If he’s down, he’s able to play at a great level in the tough moments.”
Alcaraz hit 39 winners to 20 for Nadal. The teen saved 15 of the 20 break points he faced through the first two sets, but couldn’t stop the net-rushing Nadal who broke him to go up 4-3.
That’s when Nadal called for a trainer, who appeared to give the soon-to-be 36-year-old star an adjustment. Nadal said he was feeling pain in his left chest.
Ranked 19th in the world, Alcaraz outdueled Nadal in a second set that featured five service breaks, including four in a row.
Tied 4-all, Alcaraz broke Nadal in a game that lasted 19 minutes, 42 seconds. Nadal’s errant forehand gave Alcaraz the advantage on the seventh break point of the game. The teenager tossed up a topspin lob near the baseline that Nadal could not catch up to and Alcaraz led 5-4. He served out the set, 6-4.
“If you are playing with Rafa, you have to be calm, you have to think well in the tough moments,” Alcaraz said. “That’s what I learned in this match.”
Alcaraz got Nadal’s attention from the start, breaking him in the first game of the match. The teen survived a six-deuce game on his serve to go up 2-0. Alcaraz was gutsy throughout, charging the net on break points and often coming up with winners.
“I feel like I’m part of that level. I am part of these kind of players,” Alcaraz said. “I think I’m going to play against Rafa or the best players this year a lot.”
As the match went on, the wind grew so strong it blew the players’ white towels nearly onto the court and rattled Nadal’s perfectly aligned drink bottles that he set facing the court. Ball kids chased items that weren’t anchored down. Nadal said his eyes hurt because of sand stirred up by the wind.
In the first semifinal, Fritz came out strongly in front of a supportive crowd at the tournament where he’s been coming since he was a kid from his home near San Diego. He served a love game to open the match and then promptly broke Rublev and held again for a 3-0 lead.
“I was not the favorite in today’s match and so I was able to play a little freer,” said Fritz, a semifinalist here five months ago when the event was held in October because of the COVID-19 pandemic. “Everything was definitely flowing for me.”
Fritz held at love to go up 4-1. He had a chance to serve out the first set leading 5-2, but the Rublev won the next three games to tie it, 5-all.
Fritz took a 6-5 lead with a 112-mph ace. He broke the big-hitting Rublev after a seven-deuce game to win the set.
The Russian reacted by hitting a ball into the sky and repeatedly punching his racket strings with his right fist. Rublev needed a medical timeout before the start of the second set to tend to a bloodied hand. He later said he hurt his hand “a little bit.”
In the second set, Fritz came up with a big hold at 5-4, firing an ace down the T after fighting off two break points. The men stayed on serve until the 10th game.
Rublev saved eight of the 11 break points he faced, but he missed an easy forehand volley on top of the net to give Fritz his first match point. Fritz bashed a return of Rublev’s serve to take the pivotal break and the match.
“I was just like so much relief and I just couldn’t believe it,” Fritz said. “Those moments are the reason why I wanted to be an athlete, wanted to play professional tennis. It’s the best part of it all.”
By BETH HARRIS AP Sports Writer