WATCH: Fritz rallied from a set down to defeat an inspired Sheldon and kick off his BNP Paribas Open title defense.

Taylor Fritz was flummoxed. The gusting wind, his opponent’s explosive game, the prospect of defending a thousand ranking points for the first time: It all seemed to leave him confused about what to do next.

On one return of serve in the first set, Fritz tried a forehand slice that floated long. He looked over to his coach and flipped his racquet in a topspin motion, as if to ask: Should I have hit that shot instead? On another return, the serve came too fast for him to react. Again Fritz looked over to this coach for advice. Should I move up? Should I move back? He shrugged as if he had no idea.

At Indian Wells on Saturday, Fritz was defending his biggest title, and at the same time he was facing the most exciting new player in American tennis, 20-year-old Ben Shelton, a lefty with seemingly limitless youthful power and energy. For a set and a half, with his crowd-pleasing, athleticism, Shelton looked like the future of tennis, and Fritz looked like he was just trying to hang on to the present, and his own status as the top-ranked American man, for another couple of hours.

Shelton began by firing first serves 140 m.p.h. and kicking second serves that nearly sent Fritz into the first row. Shelton whipped topspin forehands an inch inside the baseline and charged forward to end points with a forehand volley that he snaps off like an overhead smash. He was even digging out gets and turning them into perfectly placed lobs. It took just one brief slip-up, when Fritz let a 40-0 lead get away and lost his serve, for Shelton to break and run off with the first set.


“He’s really talented. He’s super dangerous if he’s playing well, just with the serve and the weapons that he has,” Fritz said of Shelton. “You make one mistake on my serve in the first set and drop it, and the set is over. He’s serving way too well.”

Shelton looked like the better player for the first eight games of the second set as well. But here’s where Fritz’s experience finally made a difference. Even if he couldn’t figure out how to handle Shelton’s serve, he knew how to do one thing: Make him earn it; make him play. Fritz is an underrated defender, and that’s what finally came to his rescue today.

With Fritz serving at 3-3, 30-30, in the second set, Shelton rifled a big, point-changing backhand down the line. All Fritz could do was lunge and bunt it back, but that was enough. On the next ball, Shelton tried to get a little too fancy on a sharp crosscourt forehand and netted it. Fritz reacted with a fist-pump, and held serve. Then, three games game later, with Shelton serving at 4-5, Fritz reached set point. Shelton uncorked a 140-m.p.h. serve, and again, all Fritz could do was bunt the ball back. So that’s what he did, and Shelton netted another forehand to hand him the set.


“I’m super happy with how I didn’t panic under the circumstances of being down a set,” Fritz said after his 4-6, 6-4, 6-3 win. “The guy’s serving bombs, not winning points on his serve, obviously defending champion, a lot of pressure, he’s playing well. I stayed calm. I changed some things around.”

“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.”

In the third, Fritz was able to come out of his defensive crouch and take the attack away from Shelton. By then, he didn’t need to ask his coach any questions about how to win on this court. Last year’s champ was home again.