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By Richard Pagliaro | Saturday, March 11, 2023


In an entertaining all-American clash, Taylor Fritz beat Ben Shelton 4-6, 6-4, 6-3 to launch his Indian Wells title defense with a compelling comeback.

Photo credit: Matthew Stockman/Getty

Flapping flags above the stadium signified the tempest Taylor Fritz faced in his BNP Paribas Open return.

A fearless Ben Shelton was bombing 140 mph serves, ripping ballistic forehands and throwing down smashes taking the opening set and putting the champion on the precipice.

More: Federer Poised for Wimbledon Comeback as a Commentator

A calm Fritz tamed turbulence battling by Shelton 4-6, 6-4, 6-3 to launch his Indian Wells title defense with a compelling comeback in an often electrifying all-American clash that lived up to the hype.

It was Fritz's eighth win in his last nine matches.

The Delray Beach champion raised his 2023 record to 15-4.

Competitive composure, experience and a timely return adjustment that saw Fritz covering the left-handed Shelton's slice serve wide on the ad side helped the defending champion to rally past the Australian Open quarterfinalist for his seventh straight win in Tennis Paradise.

"I'm super happy with how I didn't panic under the circumstances of being down a set," Fritz said. "The guy's serving bombs, not winning points on his serve, obviously defending champion, a lot of pressure, he's playing well.

"I didn't panic. I stayed calm. I changed some things around. I kind of just figured out how I wanted to play and what I needed to do to get those service breaks and get myself back into the match.

"I'm super happy to come through a really, really tough second-round match."

A fundamental tennis truth reminds: You're only as good as your second serve and Fritz's second delivery was often superb today. Fritz won 26 of 31 second-serve points and faced just one break point.

Afterward, the pair shared an embrace at net ending what may well be the first of many future exciting encounters between the 25-year-old Fritz and 20-year-old Shelton. East Coast vs. West Coast. Lefty vs. Righty. New Balance vs. Nike. There's obvious differences between these two, but quite a lot of similarities too.

Both men come from standout tennis families, both possess jolting power, both can play all-court tennis, both relish the adrenaline rush of the big stage and share a mutual respect.

"He's a really good player," Fritz said of Shelton in his on-court interview, after sharing a warm embrace with his opponent at net. "I expected him to come out serving well. He was playing well. He had nothing to lose so I did expect him to come out with a really high level.

"I think I was ready for it. I just had to regroup and find a way to problem-solve. He's an incredible player, an extremely tough first match to play, so I'm happy to get through it."

If you're one of the skeptics saying American tennis is dead, your tennis analytic skills are likely on life support.

Fourteen American men reside in the ATP Top 100. Before a packed stadium one court that included Hall of Famer Rod Laver, Fritz and Shelton showed why they are two of the nation's most electrifying players.

"Obviously I'm the top-ranked [American]. I mean, who knows what it's gonna be in a year or two," Fritz said. "I can see different parts of the years where just depending on defending points, keeping points, where other people take the spot, but I don't know.

"There is a lot of really good American players and it's exciting to see. I'm very, I guess, happy, honored, fortunate to be at the top of it right now. But I wouldn't, I guess, think of like a leader. I'm the highest-ranked."

Playing just the ninth Tour-level event of his life, Shelton slammed down a smash drawing first-break blood in the fifth game.

The shot-making swagger Shelton exudes frustrated former Monte-Carlo champion Fabio Fognini in round one. Trying to sweep Masters champions, Shelton showed slick racquet skills and unsettling variety sometimes following massive forehands with slithering slices off both wings and the occasional serve-and-volley as well.

The Shelton serve and forehand are among the explosive of any man in the tournament and he showed it.

The left-hander lasered a 96 mph forehand as he backed up the break with a strong love hold for a 4-2 lead.

Thirty-two minutes into the match, Shelton earned triple set point at 40-love.

On his second set point, a sharp Shelton slashed a forehand strike down the line erupting with a loud "yeah!" to his box as he seized the opening set with confidence.

Pressed under stressed on serve in the sixth game of set two, Shelton hammered his way out of trouble. The 2022 NCAA champion for Florida clocked a 141 mph ace down the T holding to level after six games then casually tossed the stray ball aside.

Shelton's imposing serving ratcheted up pressure on Fritz's service game, but the champion did not flinch.

As the match progressed and tension and fatigue grew, Shelton's service percentage dipped from 74 percent in the first set to 46 percent in thefinal set. 

A loss would have dropped Fritz out of the Top 5, but Fritz was up to the pressure as the second-set escalated firing a timely forehand to help him hold for 5-4.

Staring down a break point, which was set point, for the first time, Shelton drew the mid-court ball he wanted but hit his forehand into the top of the tape. Fritz's erupted with a shout snatching the second set to force a decider after 74 minutes.

To give you an idea of how explosive Shelton is take a look a the 123 mph second serve he rocketed to seal a love hold and level four games into the final set.

Still, no matter what Shelton threw at him, Fritz remained riveted on the ball.

The fourth-seeded Fritz slammed down a love hold for 3-2.

By then the windy was whipping with more fervor creating tricky conditions for both men.

Shifting his return position wider on the ad side and holding his backhand grip to try to nullify the left's slider serve out wide, Fritz was playing cleaner combinations throughout the final set. Shelton struggled to land serves, shanked a couple of forehands and found himself down a break point in the sixth game.

A dipping Fritz drive created a challenging volley and the AO quarterfinalist pushed it wide as Fritz gained the key break for 4-2.

"I couldn't return a serve in the first set. Also, he was killing me with the kick serve," Fritz said. "A big change I made was moving up a lot closer and just holding a backhand grip, and if he was going to hit the flat bomb to my forehand, I was just going to try to chip it low, because it's not like I'd have the time to take a swing on my forehand 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. I took the returns early and shortened up the swings to put more in the court, and I thought that made a big difference in just making him play a bit more and me putting more returns in the court."

The Delray Beach champion confirmed the break at 15 for 5-2.

Fritz served out a one hour, 52-minute victory. Withstanding Shelton's severe test may well fuel Fritz for another deep run.

A slew of seeds in Fritz's quarter—No. 16-seeded Alex de Minaur, 18th-seeded Borna Coric and 19th-seeded Lorenzo Musetti—all lost today. Next up for Fritz is either 30th-seeded Argentinean Sebastian Baez or Aussie qualifier Rinky Hijikata.


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