A defiant Rafael Nadal has won an all-Spanish clash of the generations, taming teenager Carlos Alcaraz 6-4, 4-6, 6-3 to stretch his winning run to 20 matches and clinch a place in the Indian Wells final.
Nadal will take on American Taylor Fritz in Sunday’s championship in the California desert, where a victory would see the 35-year-old equal Novak Djokovic’s record of 37 ATP Masters 1000 titles.
Earlier, Fritz earned a spot in his first Masters 1000 final with a 7-5, 6-4 win over seventh seed Andrey Rublev and will try to become the first American since Andre Agassi in 2001 to lift the trophy.
While Alcaraz produced a much better showing than the 6-1, 6-2 beating he absorbed last year in his initial meeting with his childhood idol, Nadal signalled he is not yet quite ready to pass the torch to the 18-year-old.
“I was playing well at the beginning but it was just so difficult to stop him with his amazing shots,” said Nadal, who will contest his fifth Indian Wells final. “After that I can’t say I was in control because it is impossible to be under control against a player like him.”
Alcaraz sent a buzz through the stadium when he broke the 21-time grand slam winner to open the match with a thundering backhand winner. But Nadal would claim the final break to secure a fascinating open set.
While Alcaraz was efficient converting both of his two break chances Nadal kept the youngster under constant pressure with 17 break opportunities converting three.
In the second set, the two players battled each other and ferocious winds which had papers, water bottles and towels blowing across the court, with the chair umpire asking spectators to hang onto their possessions so play could continue.
With fans holding onto their hats Alcaraz had them on the edge of their seats during a 20-minute ninth game that was decided when he converted his seventh break chance and held serve to level the contest at a set each.
As the winds died down in the third set the quality of play from both players went up with Nadal raising his game just a little bit more than his fearless teenage opponent in a high-quality final set.
Nadal, as he so often has, refused to surrender, recording the decisive break to go up 5-4 then holding serve and raising his arms in triumph to a howling adoring crowd.
“In the second the conditions became crazy,” said Nadal. “It’s not fun playing in wind like this, it is sometimes a challenge and I can enjoy that. In terms of tennis it is OK but in terms of stopping all the time it is not good.”