The Sophomore: Taylor Fritz knows that the hard work has just begun

by: Steve Tignor | August 21, 2017

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What is the average, red-blooded, 19-year-old American male doing at 8 a.m. on a given day? If he has been in college for any length of time, he may have forgotten that there actually is an 8 in the morning. By his sophomore year, he’s probably learned not to schedule anything—let alone a tennis practice or a workout at the gym—before, say, 2 p.m. And as far as making major decisions about what to do with the rest of his life, forget about it: Those can be put off for another couple of years, at the earliest.

Please don’t tell any of that to Taylor Fritz. Rather than playing the role of Big Man on Campus in his sophomore year at school, the 19-year-old California native is deep into his sophomore season as a professional tennis player. After his impressive debut in 2016 which saw him nearly crack the Top 50, this husband, father and highly touted young talent understands one thing: Now comes the hard part.

By 8 a.m., Fritz has already made the half-hour drive through freeway traffic from his home in Palos Verdes, CA, to the USTA’s training center in Carson. He has a full day at the office ahead. Twelve hours’ worth, in fact. His jam-packed daily schedule goes something like ... well, he can tell you.

“I start out with physical therapy,” Fritz says. The left-knee injury he dealt with throughout 2016 was still nagging him at the start of 2017. “I’ve got to stay on top of it.”

Coming to terms with that fact may have been Fritz’s first, hard-earned lesson of life on tour. He knew he was hurt last year, but the magic carpet he was riding up the rankings—he zoomed from No. 694 to No. 53 over the course of 11 months—was moving too fast for him to get off. 

By the end of 2016, though, Fritz’s knee was costing him valuable time on the practice court and, as he tried to compensate, getting him into bad footwork habits during matches.

“I shouldn’t have played on it,” says Fritz, with an I-could-kick-myself shake of his head. “But I’m just too stubborn.” 

After his early jolt of physical therapy, Fritz loosens up with a little fitness work. By 9 a.m., he’s on the court.

“The first practice is two-and-a-half, three hours, and it’s really physical,” Fritz says. “The second practice starts after lunch at 1 p.m. We work on specific stuff, like coming to the net. After that, I play sets. Then I’m in the gym for an hour-and-a-half doing legs, upper body, and cardio. The day ends with another hour-and-a-half of physical therapy. But I’m not just lying on a table. I’m moving around a lot.

“I get out of there around 7:30 p.m., and try to go to bed early.”

How does Fritz feel about his grueling schedule?

“I love it,” Fritz says. “I mean, you have to.”

According to the man who’s on the practice court with him the most, veteran USTA coach David Nainkin, that feeling comes naturally to Fritz.

“He loves tennis more than anyone else I’ve ever worked with,” Nainkin says. “Playing it, talking it, being around it. He loves to practice. You can’t say that about everyone.”

Why wouldn’t Fritz love this life? Unlike college kids his age, he’s always known exactly what he wanted to do, and he doesn’t seem to have any trouble making big life decisions. The son of two high-level players—his mother, Kathy May, reached the Top 10 in the 1970s—Fritz turned pro at 17. Last spring, before the French Open, he proposed to his girlfriend, Raquel Pedraza, in front of the Eiffel Tower. In January, he flew back from the Australian Open for the birth of their son, Jordan Taylor Fritz.

Like many of today’s pros, Fritz’s father, Guy, was a tennis coach. Taylor can’t remember a time when the sport wasn’t at the center of his life.

“Wow, I really have no idea,” Fritz says when he’s asked if he recalls how he first fell in love with the game. “Maybe I was 2 years old. We had a court in our backyard, and I would mess around with the players on my dad’s team. I hit with two hands on both sides, which I didn’t stop doing until I was about 8.”

For most of 2016, Fritz looked like the tennis version of The Natural. At 6'4", long-limbed and clean cut, with every hair and tooth in its proper place, he could have played the lead in a tennis movie from the 1950s. More important, Fritz was fitting the time-honored mold of great California hard-courters. He has a powerful, versatile serve, and he can hit winners from either wing. Weapons are the first key to survival in the pros, and Fritz has them. The player he was most often compared to was his fellow long-limbed Palos Verdian, Pete Sampras. 

When Fritz reached the final of just his third ATP-level tournament, in Memphis, those comparisons didn’t seem entirely fantastical. 

Fritz broke out of the gates quickly, but in an era when 35-year-olds are winning Grand Slam titles, a tennis career is more a marathon than a sprint. And sophomore seasons have a notorious reputation for a reason: They’re hard. Instead of playing with nothing to lose, you’re defending ranking points. Instead of feeling invincible, your body has been banged around for a year. Instead of taking players by surprise, you’re facing opponents who have studied your weaknesses. 

As his ranking was slowly deflating in early 2017—by March, it was down to No. 136—Fritz was dealing with all of those second-season issues. 

“I’m all about progress,” Fritz says. “It’s tough when you struggle physically to meet your own expectations.”

Fritz has hired a physio, Scott Clark, to help him stay healthy, but he understands that there’s work to be done in rounding out his game.

“You know, the thing I’ve been struggling with lately is my movement,” says Fritz. "My ground strokes, my transition game at net needs work; footwork stuff, all of that needs to get better.”

“At this stage,” Nainkin says, “Taylor needs to work on his body. I’m not that concerned about his ranking. We want to see how he does physically against the top competition. I expect him to build on last year.”

Nainkin says there’s also more to be learned about the psychological challenges of life on tour.

“We want him to get more comfortable with pro tennis,” Nainkin says. “You have to get used to losing matches in back-to-back weeks, which is something he hadn’t experienced. Just because you have some good results doesn’t mean you’re fully developed. Taylor wants to have a long career, so we’re always trying to think long term.”

The challenge of staying positive through this long learning process is something that Fritz’s fellow American James Blake knows well.

“I think Taylor will be successful in tennis and probably in life because he does put so much pressure on himself,” Blake said at the Delray Beach Open in February. “There’s always a fine line between beating yourself up too much and expecting the best, and he’s really good at that.”

Right now what Fritz wants to do more than anything, he says, is recapture that rookie-year feeling. 

"I just want to get back to that level from last year, in Memphis and Acapulco," says Fritz. (In 2016, he came out of qualifying to reach the quarterfinals at the Mexican hard-court event.)

Fritz knows that while it's him and him alone on the court, he doesn't lack for support off it. Rather than slowing him down, he says that being a husband and father has helped him focus on what's important. 

"If anything, it's more motivation," Fritz says. "I'm training harder than ever before. Raquel has been great about handling everything and helping me do what I need to do." 

Loving what you do, unfortunately, is never enough. Now, Fritz knows, is when the work begins. 


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