03:34 AM GMT March 14, 2018
Taylor Fritz was inches away from losing in the first round of the BNP Paribas Open. If a whizzing inside-out forehand from best friend Reilly Opelka landed just marginally to the left, Fritz would have been out of the tournament in his opener.
Instead, the #NextGenATP American survived. And after two more strong wins — the latest coming in the form of a nail-biting 4-6, 6-2, 7-6(1) victory on Monday evening against an in-form Fernando Verdasco — the 20-year-old is into the Round of 16 at an ATP World Tour Masters 1000 event for the first time.
"To pull out a match whenever it's close like that can go either way. You're nervous," Fritz admitted. "It just makes the feeling even better when you win and to have the crowd supporting, as well... It's like a dream."
Fritz began his season at No. 105 in the ATP Rankings, far from his career-best of No. 53. But a great start to the campaign has the American surging in the ATP Race To Milan. The #NextGenATP star entered the tournament fourth in the Race, but by advancing to the fourth round — and possibly further — Fritz is projected to leave Indian Wells in the top spot, ahead of one of the players he beat at the event: No. 27 seed Andrey Rublev. His performance in the Coachella Valley backs up a victory at the ATP Challenger Tour event in Newport Beach, California, in January as well as a final at Noumea, New Caledonia, in Fritz's first tournament of the season.
The Californian is making another strong run at his home event, one year after ousting this year's second seed, Marin Cilic, in the second round. On Saturday, the American defeated fellow #NextGenATP star Rublev. But whereas Fritz faltered in the Round of 32 last year after his big upset, he did not slow down this year. Instead, he battled a game Spaniard, who was fresh off a victory over reigning Nitto ATP Finals champion Grigor Dimitrov, and came out on top.
And get this — Fritz is now 11-1 at or above the ATP Challenger Tour level in deciding-set tie-breaks.
"I think it speaks to my strengths on court, which is just being clutch and playing my best tennis in the big moments. When it comes down to it like that, I don't get too nervous," Fritz said. "It's probably the stat that I'm most proud about in my tennis career, is my third-set tie-break records. It shows that I'm clutch."
Double faults proved costly for Verdasco. Not only did the Spaniard hit one to go down an immediate break in the third set, 0-2, but after battling back, he hit two more in the deciding tie-break to give Fritz a lead that he did not relinquish. The left-hander double-faulted 10 times in the match.
Fritz will next face the player who has lost the fewest games of anyone in the top half of the draw — 2017 Next Gen ATP Finals qualifier Borna Coric. For the second match in a row, the Croatian steamrolled a seeded Spaniard by defeating last week's Dubai winner Roberto Bautista Agut 6-1, 6-3 in one hour, 22 minutes. The 21-year-old has lost just nine games in the tournament.
"Since the first match I was playing very good and then gradually I started playing even better and better," Coric said. "Today until 6-1, 3-0 I was playing maybe the best tennis of my life probably. I was just playing very aggressive, I was making constant pressure on him. But at the same time, I was not making mistakes."
Did You Know?
Coric has lost just nine games in the first three rounds of the BNP Paribas Open, and has lost no more than three games in a single set.