INDIAN WELLS, Calif.—The most compelling aspect of Wednesday’s fourth-round match between American Taylor Fritz and Croatian Borna Coric—the two youngest players remaining in the draw—was that the stakes were supremely high for each.
Fritz, playing what he’d after call the biggest match of his career, was out to reach his first Masters 1000 quarterfinal, a goal with exceptional geographic resonance for the Southern California-raised 20-year-old.
Though only 11 months older than Fritz, Coric bore the dual weight of precocity and comparison, touted in his teens as a stylistic successor to Novak Djokovic. Ranked as high as 33 in 2015, already having reached two Masters 1000 quarters, Coric had mildly sputtered the last couple of years, to the point where his current ranking was 49.
At the start, Coric held all the cards, playing the kind of crisp, airtight tennis that had seen him drop just nine games in his first three matches. At 1-1, Coric broke Fritz at 15. Two games later, Fritz now serving at 1-3, 15-30, the American lazily struck a backhand volley wide and shanked a forehand to surrender the second break and, ostensibly, the set. In 26 minutes, Coric had snapped it up, 6-2. It was indeed a Djokovic-like effort. Movement to the ball, footwork around the ball, sustained depth—scarcely flashy, heavily solid.
“He’s an extremely good competitor,” said Fritz. “You have to earn a lot of points.”
Fritz proves the premise, articulated by the likes of Pete Sampras, that tall, all-court players often take longer to put all the parts and pieces together. One part of Fritz is the athletic shot-maker, a big-serving man willing to strike boldly off both sides with superb depth, penetration and bravado. But Fritz throughout this tournament has also shown an ability to be patient, steadily grinding his way through long rallies.
But the second set saw the intrusive and metaphorically noisy arrival of a third opponent: The wind, a small flurry of a breeze that greatly accelerated throughout the second set and swirled in many directions. Artistry, vanity and bravado vanished, blown away (pun intended) by awkwardness, persistence and poise.
“It’s not going to be nice,” said Coric about the conditions. “You just go out there. You fight and you just try to win.” Said Fritz, “It was tough to manage.”
The wind, though, likely kept Fritz from getting steamrolled.
“It changed my momentum a lot,” said Coric.
With Coric serving at 3-4, 15-40, Fritz closed a 28-shot rally with a crackling crosscourt forehand winner. But at 5-3, despite holding a set point, Fritz faltered and soon enough it was 6-all.
In theory, a big server like Fritz, particularly on a Southern California hard-court, should hold the upper hand in a tiebreaker But as boxer Mike Tyson once said, everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth. Or, in Fritz’s case, the assault of wind and the sluggish footwork that accompanies nerves. Largely due to just sticking around, Coric went ahead 4-0. And then he tightened, flailing off both sides, badly missing groundstrokes. Down match point at 5-6, Fritz played an inspired point, crisply nailing an inside-in forehand that figuratively took the line with it. Two points later, a demoralized Coric missed a facile volley.
Yet despite going up 2-0 in the third, Fritz was unable to crack it open. Three reasons: Wind, the ultra-slow hardcourt and Coric’s own resurgent persistence. Fritz’s new coach, Tennis Channel analyst Paul Annacone, has often spoken about the value of selective amnesia in the heat of competition. Coric applied this principle proficiently. Even at 4-all, when the Croatian miscued on a pair of forehands to go down love-30 and, eventually, face a break point, he was able to hang steady; like Djokovic, the feet stirred, the cross-court barrage continued, Coric a steady pit bull.
“You don’t get too many freebies,” said Fritz.
But even then, Coric backed his way into the outcome. With Fritz serving at 4-5, 15-30, Coric lofted a superb lob that Fritz could barely touch before hitting it long—two match points. On both, Coric was exceptionally tentative, barely poking a forehand on the first, netting a return on the next. At deuce, though, Fritz showed that he indeed remains raw—a long backhand and then, on match point number four, every tennis player’s nightmare: double-fault.
“That was just a really tough one,” said Fritz.
This was only the second time these two had played one another, with Coric winning the prior match at Roland Garros in 2016. It’s likely that in the years to come they’ll play one another at least ten more times. The tantalizing uncertainty: At which stage.