Putting on the Fritz

by: Steve Tignor February 15, 2016

Fritz may not have played like a tour rookie last week, but he still sounded and acted like one. (AP)

“I honestly felt he was unbeatable,” 18-year-old Taylor Fritz said of his semifinal opponent in Memphis on Saturday. “He was making me look awful. There wasn’t much I could do.”

What tennis colossus was Fritz describing? Which “unbeatable” player was across the net from him? Roger Federer? Novak Djokovic? The ghost of four-tme Memphis champ Jimmy Connors? No, the man who was making Fritz “look awful” was 5’9,” 79th-ranked Ricardas Berankis of Lithuania. Berankis is a fine player, but invincible he is not. Eventually, Fritz found a way to beat him, and to reach the Memphis final, where he lost a spirited match, 6-4, 6-4, to Kei Nishikori.

Fritz may not have played like a tour rookie last week, but he still sounded and acted like one. And that modest mien is a big part of this California kid’s appeal. How many other ATP pros, when challenging a call, look deferentially downward as they do it, as if they’re a little embarrassed about having to ask for a favor? How many, when a chair umpire confirms that their serve was out, nod respectfully, as if to say, “Yes, sir, thank you, sir"? If Fritz is following in the footsteps of a great American champion, they don’t appear to be those of John McEnroe.

So far the American champion who Fritz does call to mind is a young Pete Sampras. Like Pistol Pete, Fritz has the Southern California roots—he’s from Rancho Santa Fe, just north of San Diego—the long, lanky, classic tennis build (his parents were high-level players), the unassuming demeanor, and, most important, the easy-but-lethal service motion. The differences reflect their eras: Sampras was 6’1” and a serve-and-volleyer; Fritz is 6’4” (and presumably still growing) and a power baseliner. 

None of this, of course, is a reason to believe that Fritz is going to reach No. 1 or win a Samprasian 14 Grand Slam titles. In Memphis, much was made of the fact that Fritz reached his first ATP final in just his third event, faster than Sampras, Jim Courier, or Michael Chang. At a time when so few teenagers break through—there’s only one, 19-year-old Borna Coric, in the Top 50—that’s impressive. Yet if history still serves as a guide, there’s also not much time for Fritz to waste. By 19, Sampras had won the U.S. Open, Rafael Nadal had won the French Open, Novak Djokovic was in the Top 10, and Federer had a Top 5 win (over Carlos Moya). Even in this age of the ageless tennis player, the guys who stay at the top tend to establish themselves there early.

But let’s leave the Grand Slam talk for another day; as of this day, we can say that Fritz, who won the U.S. Open boys’ title last fall and is now ranked No. 102, is on a fast track, and there’s a lot to like about his game and his attitude.

“It’s amazing what four matches can do,” Fritz said with a smile after his semifinal win over Berankis, referring to the flood of attention his run had received. "I’m really excited that I just got to this level, and I’m proving myself on it quickly ... just proving to myself that I belong here.”

Like any good American, Fritz’s game revolves around his serve. But he’s more than just a bomb-throwing servebot. With a deceptively leisurely motion, he can hit 125 down the T, slide the ball short and wide, and vary the pace from one delivery to the next. Sampras’ second serve was particularly important to his game, and the same may be true for Fritz. Not many pros mix up the speeds and spins on their second deliveries as often and as widely as Fritz does.

Unlike most good Americans, though, Fritz’s baseline game doesn’t just revolve around his forehand. He hits big from that side, of course, and takes it as early and proactively as he can. But it’s his backhand that’s the wild card. Fritz’s two-hander is simple and smooth, and he can create a lot of flat power and crosscourt angle with it. His doubles partner in Memphis, 23-year-old Ryan Harrison, says he’s trying to learn from the way Fritz leans into that shot. 

Unlike most male pros, Fritz doesn’t finish many points by backpedaling across the court and crushing an inside-out forehand. His best combination is a sharp crosscourt forehand, followed by an even sharper crosscourt backhand in the other direction. Where Sampras controlled points at the net, Fritz controls them from the middle of the baseline. Again, though, Fritz is more than a ball basher. There’s a controlled sense of aggression to his attack, he has terrific hands when he’s on the run, and he seems to have mastered the topspin lob, a shot that has virtually disappeared from the game. 

The next, obvious question is: What happens when Fritz is pushed out of the middle of the court? This is where the improvement will have to come. At the moment, Fritz is all elbows and knees; when he fills out, there will be more strength in his legs. There will also be time for him to hone his footwork; right now, he looks like a player who is trying to adjust his movement after a growth spurt. As for learning to recognize a put-away ball and treat it with appropriate disdain, there will be time for that as well. Against Nishikori, Fritz failed to kill a few killable short balls.   

When it comes to Fritz’s game and how it matches up against someone at Nishikori's level, I thought Tennis Channel commentator Jimmy Arias summed it up well.

“Nishikori will be able to defend some of Fritz’s shots and stay at least neutral,” Arias said early in the first set of the final. “It’ll be a little bit more difficult for Fritz, if Nishikori gets control of a point, to find a way out of those points.”

And so it proved. Nishikori was able to win rallies by wrong-footing Fritz and forcing him to bend and reach wide. Fritz is good at controlling the ball when he’s stretched, but it’s not the optimal way to defend. Just look at Nishikori. He’s an offensive-minded player who can switch seamlessly to defense, and he rarely appears off balance.

“Defense wins championships”: It’s a cliché, but it has certainly been true on the men’s tour in recent years. Djokovic, Nadal, and Andy Murray, who together have won 20 of the last 25 majors, are all famous for their consistency and retrieving skills. To win at the highest level, Fritz may either have to follow them into the defensive trenches as best he can, or beat his opponents with a first-strike style that has proved difficult to pull off over the last decade. 

Thus far Fritz has shown an ability to adapt. In Memphis, he beat three seasoned pros in Steve Johnson, Benjamin Becker, and Berankis, all in close matches. Like any teenager, he had his lapses in concentration, but unlike most teenagers, he didn’t get down on himself or let his emotions destroy him—there was a bend-but-not-break quality to Fritz’s mentality last week. How many rookies can conclude that the guy on the other side of the net is invincible, and then find a way past him anyway?

You get the feeling that Taylor Fritz isn’t going to find too many opponents unbeatable for long.

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