Tennis Baby Shows His Mettle

The action at Indian Wells, one of the season’s biggest tournaments in men’s and women’s tennis, is hurtling towards its conclusion. Defector tennis bureau chief Giri Nathan and correspondent Patrick Redford are on the scene, here with a dispatch on the highest-ranked American men’s player losing a thriller.

The first 90 minutes of tennis baby Holger Rune’s fourth-round matchup with the glass cannon Taylor Fritz at Indian Wells were a grim continuation of his vaguely haunted past few months, and an uncomfortable echo of the last time he was down here in Southern California.

Fritz’s power put Rune on defensive footing, and the Dane was unable to execute the simple yet punishing gameplan of making the tall American move his feet. As Rune dropped the first set 6-2, one couldn’t help but think of his merciless execution at the Australian Open by a wildcard in the second round, which preceded his split with coach Boris Becker and a reunion with the mildly disgraced Patrick Mouratoglou. As Rune flailed at Fritz’s railgun first serves in a desperate, failed attempt to break him in the second set before he faced a match point on his serve, it was impossible not to recall the last time he was in the desert, when he lost a fourth-round banger to Stan Wawrinka and went goo-goo-ga-ga mode. Where was the ruddy stick of dynamite that made a habit of beating Novak Djokovic? When would the pro-Fritz crowd get treated to Rune’s explosive athleticism and bullet backhand?

Maybe Rune needed to be backed into a corner, because for the first time since his run in Adelaide, he reached that peak form en route to a rousing 2-6, 7-6 (2), 6-3 comeback win to advance to the quarterfinals. Rune swapped his tiny black shorts for tiny blue shorts—this guy’s on pace to compete in a Speedo by 2025—before the second set, and swapped overcautious decision making and forehand errors for a bolder approach. Fritz was still bombing first serves in the high 130s, but Rune started stepping into them and pounding them back at Fritz’s feet. The tempo, normally bonk…..bonk….bonk…, picked up to a bonkbonk…bonk…bonk.

To Fritz’s immense credit, he was up for the challenge, saving the only two break points Rune managed to force and winning the fourth game behind three aces. He won this tournament two years ago, and with the home crowd cheering him on, he never let go of the rope. Fritz remained on form into and past the tiebreaker, which made Rune’s comeback that much more exciting to watch. Up 15-30 and 4-3 in the second set, Fritz had a golden chance to earn a pair of break points on Rune when he sent the Dane flying into a wobbly chipped backhand. It seemed like it was sailing out, yet Fritz duffed a dropshot into the middle of the net. The crowd moaned, Fritz let out his first yelp of frustration of the night, and Rune held two uneventful rallies later. That was the moment things shifted for Rune, and once he pounded Fritz in the tiebreaker, he swaggered through the third set.

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Rune’s lone break point was the match in miniature: He leapt on an inaccurate Fritz serve down the T, and after Fritz was able to plant his weight behind a lashing forehand, Rune responded with a backhand down the line to compromise Fritz for good. Fritz pushed Rune in his service games, and while he never was in serious trouble, I’m thankful for Fritz’s liveliness, as he pushed Rune hard enough for the Dane to craft the best highlight of the night. Rune backpedaled onto decent lob into the far corner and walloped a perfect forehand down the line.

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Rune has Daniil Medvedev on Thursday night, the first hardcourt meeting between the two players, and while a result against the Russian comic genius would be huge for Rune as he stabilizes into the spring season, it was thrilling to see him flash his best stuff again against another top player. At his best, Rune is a player without a serious weakness, a mini Carlos Alcaraz capable of exploding into any shot, nailing backhand screamers at a dead sprint, and winning his service games quickly by consistently landing his first serve. The tier break between Rune and the others in his cohort of precocious hotshots solidified over the past year, as Alcaraz and Jannik Sinner both won majors, though Rune has enough talent to keep pace with them.

Giri Nathan contributed reporting.


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