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Fritz title defense alive in Indian Wells after battling past Shelton in three sets

In the marquee matchup of the BNP Paribas Open so far, at least from a local perspective, Taylor Fritz and Ben Shelton did not disappoint.

Fritz is a California native and the Indian Wells defending champion. Shelton is one of the tour’s rising stars and perhaps the United States’ top prospect on the men’s side. Their all-American showdown during second-round action on Saturday afternoon went Fritz’s way via a 4-6, 6-4, 6-3 decision. Fritz withstood an early Shelton onslaught to keep his title defense alive and advance after one hour and 52 minutes.

In slow, windy conditions that have made it difficult for players to showcase their best tennis this week, Fritz vs. Shelton delivered not only huge hitting but also mostly consistent quality. Each of the two compatriots served at an incredible 84 percent or better and combined for eight aces compared to only two double-faults.

“I feel really good,” the world No. 5 said afterward. “Just getting through that match…I think that was an incredibly tough first match for me to play. He’s really tough. All it took in the first set was one break point, one break, and I never really had any other chances to get onto his serve.”

One break also decided each of the next two sets, and in those instances both went to Fritz. Shelton did well to save a match point at 2-5, 30-40 in the third, but Fritz held serve easily one game later to get across the finish line.

Thus the 25-year-old’s bid for back-to-back titles at what amounts to be his hometown tournament is successfully of the ground and still intact. Does Fritz’s status as the defending champion give him an extra confidence boost, or does it pile on pressure?

“I’m trying not to think too much about defending 1,000 points,” he explained, “because how all the players like to think, I would say–how I think–is every year you start over at zero. The race is the race. That will be the rankings at the end of the year. Yeah, I’m defending 1,000 points, but I’m also No. 6 in the race this year. Let’s just have a good result. Let’s keep moving; let’s keep a good position in the race and we’ll go from there.

“It felt great…walking out on court and the crowd cheering. That brought back really amazing memories from last year, and just kind of like playing my home tournament I was very happy to be back. I’ve been happy all week to be here. I’m trying not to stress too much about the defending 1,000 points.”

Surviving such a difficult first-round test should only loosen Fritz up and have him poised to make another run in the desert. Things may get even more difficult at the business end of the tournament, but Sebastian Baez in round three and possibly either Marton Fucsovics or Alex Molcan in round four aren’t any tougher than Shelton on paper.

Speaking of Shelton, the 20-year-old reached the Australian Open quarterfinals earlier this season and is projected to break into the top 40 of the rankings for the first time following the conclusion of Indian Wells. Count Fritz among the former University of Florida star’s growing legion of fans.

“He’s really good,” Fritz assured. “I think it’s a really dangerous thing that people do putting crazy expectations on young American players, (but) he’s really talented. He’s super dangerous if he’s playing well–just with the serve and the weapons that he has. Like I said, you make one mistake on my serve, make one mistake on my serve in the first set and drop it, and the set is over. He’s serving way too well.

“He definitely has a really bright future. He’s got a super explosive game and he has a lot of stuff that he will improve on.”

Ricky contributes to 10sballs.com and also maintains his own tennis website, The Grandstand. You can follow him on Twitter at @Dimonator.