The fourth-ranked American in the ATP rankings is currently 21 years old, stationed at No. 40 in the world, and stands imposingly at 6’4”. He is an immensely ambitious individual. Taylor Fritz is very upbeat about his current status and what might be ahead.
Fritz opened his 2019 campaign at the majors with a third-round appearance at the Australian Open, toppling the formidable Gael Monfils before losing 6-2, 7-5, 6-2 to Roger Federer. On the heels of his straight-sets defeat against the Swiss, he headed back to home soil immediately and won the Oracle Challenger Series tournament in Newport Beach, California, picking up 125 ranking points in the process.
Not long after that triumph, I spoke with Fritz by telephone, and he was proud to have won that title so soon after leaving the land “Down Under”. After a first-round bye, he nearly lost in the second round against his countryman Marcos Giron, the world No. 249 at the time. Fritz battled admirably from behind, saving a match point on his way to a 2-6, 7-6 (6), 7-6 (7) victory. After climbing out of that corner, he never looked back.
I asked Fritz if Giron caught him off guard.
He replied, “Not at all. I have practiced with him before and toward the end of last year he won a Challenger. I was just getting off a flight and there are different courts, different balls. I knew I was definitely in for a tough match. It is tough to go from playing Roger on the Rod Laver Arena in Australia to playing a Challenger in Newport Beach when I was jet-lagged. But I regrouped, competed really hard and had a good attitude. I played my way into the tournament and got better with every match.”
Asked to speak about his meeting with Federer in Melbourne, Fritz responded, “I need more experience at that level on that kind of stage to play my best tennis. I honestly don’t think I played very well. I wasn’t really penetrating much. I made too many errors. I was leaving the ball too short and not serving that well. Roger takes the ball so early and punishes any shot you don’t hit well, so it really highlights the not-so-good shots you hit. But I did not play as well as I thought I could.”
That was not to say that he did not appreciate the opportunity of sharing a court with Federer on such a storied arena.
“It was incredible to be on the court with him. It is crazy that I am on the court with a guy I grew up watching when he was the best player in the world. But I wish I could have performed better. I know I am better than that.”
Fritz is remarkably experienced for his age. As long ago as the early part of 2016, he was in the final of Memphis. He made it to No. 53 in the world in late August of that season. But he was often playing hurt, and that led to declining form and a drop in the rankings.
As he reflects, “At the end of 2016 I had a knee injury and I kept playing on this bad knee because my ranking was good then. The knee was pretty bad for most of 2016. It started bothering me during the clay season. At the end of that season I finally did rehab. I realized that to compete at the top level you have to be pretty much one hundred percent. I couldn’t move as well or serve the way I wanted to.”
By the end of the 2017 season, Fritz was down to No. 105 in the world. Some may have believed his 2016 marriage to Raquel Pedraza and the birth of their son Jordan in January of 2017 were partially responsible for his lesser results, but Fritz dispels that notion.
He asserts, “I don’t think that had anything to do with me dropping in the rankings. It is obviously a big change in my life but nothing off the court has ever affected my on-court performance. I wasn’t any less committed to the sport. The biggest thing was the knee.”
He switched to a slightly heavier racket for a while. Retrospectively, he believes that was a mistake.
He explains, “I had been using the lightest racket on the tour of any man or woman player, so it seemed like the right thing to do. I barely went up on weight but it made a big difference. I could not control the ball. In 2017 I hit forehands and would sometimes miss like I never had before. When I switched back at the end of 2017, I started feeling really good again.”
Speaking of his rise into the Top 50 last year—he finished 2018 at No. 49—Fritz says, “I played two Challengers at the end of 2017 with the old frame and then went into 2018 and played well all of last year. When I look back, my 2016 year was obviously very good, but the 2018 year should have been basically the 2017 year. I just had that one year stutter, all because my knee kept bugging me even after the rehab.”
As 2018 unfolded, Fritz felt like himself again.
“I know how good I am. It was a really good year and I put myself back where I belong. When I hit a career high in the Top 50, it felt so good because I had been stuck at a career high of No. 53 since 2016. I pushed past that and now it is like, okay, I am better than I have ever been before.”
Reaching the Top 40 as Fritz did after Newport Beach will afford him new opportunities.
As he says, “The most important thing is I will now get seeded at a lot of [ATP] 250s with my No. 40 ranking so that will give me opportunities to go farther in draws and get more points. It will be easier to maintain being at 40. It is tougher to maintain 50 or 60 because you are never going to get seeded and constantly there are tough draws.”
At the moment, John Isner—whom Fritz defeated in Auckland at the start of the year— is the top-ranked American at No. 9 with Frances Tiafoe next in line among the Americans at No. 30. Steve Johnson is No. 34. Fritz is not far behind Johnson, but Tiafoe is his friendly target.
Fritz says, “I can definitely see me and Frances getting up to somewhere between 10 and 20 in the world this year easily. I feel like we will be close in the rankings regardless. I am sure we will end up between five and 10 spots of each other. Who knows which one of us will finish higher? I don’t know what kind of year John is going to have. But Frances and me will be pretty close in the rankings.”
The two Americans stay in close contact and spur each other on.
As Fritz comments, “We were texting each other the other day. I said, ‘Good job in Australia’ [Tiafoe was a quarterfinalist] and he texted me and said ‘Good job in Newport Beach.’ We were both saying this is our year. And I said, ‘No excuses. Both of us finish Top 20 this year.’ We have this friendship/rivalry where we build off of each other and push each other. It has always been this way since we turned pro. We are really determined. We really want it and will work hard for it.”
Fritz took stock of 20-year-old Stefanos Tsitsipas’s semifinal appearance in Melbourne, and says, “It shows me and Frances for sure that we both know we can do that, too. I would say Tsitsipas getting to that semifinal of the Australian Open was reassuring that we are capable of that.”
No doubt Fritz is fortunate to have two first-rate coaches guiding him toward his goals. One of them is David Nainkin of the USTA. The other is Paul Annacone. This accomplished coaching duo of the astute Nainkin and the cerebral Annacone cover the spectrum for Fritz.
As Annacone told me, “David has been with Taylor for four-and-a-half years now at the USTA. He is a great coach. When I started helping at the end of 2017, we just went for a couple of months to see how it would go. David and I know each other a long time. He coached Sloane Stephens before I did. He has coached Mardy Fish and a bunch of players. He is awesome and egoless with a great tennis mind.”
How does Annacone assess his role?
“My emphasis has been the macro growth. One of the hardest things for a young player like Taylor is to get out of the way of your emotions and realize you are still developing. Play with passion and play with emotion, but don’t let those two things guide your decision making and the process you have set up.”
Annacone continues, “I love Taylor’s conviction of thought, but as a 21-year-old you don’t know everything. Sometimes you have to trust the people around you even if you are not sure you are wrong about something, So the partnership for David and I has been great because we have the same coaching philosophy and we are very similar in terms of delivery. We help Taylor understand macro versus micro while still emphasizing that we want him to do well today. As he gets better at understanding the areas of the game that he needs to improve, and realizes that improvement is not a three-week fix, then he will make leaps and bounds of developmental progress.”
Having said that, Annacone is very impressed the strides Fritz’s has made already.
”He understands what it means to unconditionally compete. He doesn’t go away. He is better mentally than just about anybody his age. Taylor has got an unbelievable two-handed backhand and he needs to find a new level of consistency in managing how he uses his forehand. He needs to get more accurate with his serve, but the first serve has gotten much better over the last year. He is making good progress.”
Annacone believes, along with Nainkin, that there is one crucial aspect of the game that will determine how far Fritz goes in the game.
He explains, “He has to get way better from three feet inside the baseline to three feet inside the service line. That is going to be the difference between whether he is a Top 10 player or a career No. 38 player. So we are spending a lot of time in practice on the transition game. To be totally honest, I am not that concerned if he is 38 in the world at the end of the year or 18. The focus is for Taylor to get better.”
Fritz is asked about his largest goal beyond gains in the rankings.
He replies, “One big thing is staying healthy. The knee has been good recently. It hasn’t been an issue that has kept me out of any tournaments in the last year. I did have some ankle problems last year. The next goal is to keep competing hard and improving my game, get better on my transition game and have a good clay season this year. I want to have a really good year all around.”
In the final analysis, Fritz is looking to gain as much ground as he can over the season ahead. He genuinely believes in himself. Annacone is optimistic as well.
“Taylor loves to play, which is awesome. One of my biggest themes as a coach is you can’t be afraid to win and you can’t be afraid to lose. That sounds simple but it is not. Sometimes players don’t even know how that manifests itself. I want him to reap the benefits of feeling some result-oriented success. That is what drives players. But David and I are dedicated to helping Taylor get from a good pro to a great pro. If he keeps getting better at managing his in-match passion with in-match pragmatism, the balance of that is when his game will go to new heights.”
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