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Heart, hustle and hope: Taylor Fritz's unforgettable 12-month stretch
Last year's unlikely Indian Wells champion has become the unquestioned top dog in American men's tennis.
Published Mar 03, 2023
MATCH POINT: Fritz tops countryman Tiafoe in Acapulco
It isn’t often that, in the blink of an eye, a career-threatening injury morphs into a career-boosting moment. But that’s just how, over the past 12 months, Taylor Fritz came to be the first American man to crack the ATP Top 5 since Andy Roddick in the fall of 2009.
Last year at this time, during a morning hit before his championship match with Rafael Nadal at Indian Wells, Fritz experienced a severe bolt of pain in a previously injured ankle. He cried out in pain, hobbled off the court, and collapsed against the back screen (the entire sequence is captured in the Netflix tennis documentary, Break Point). Fritz’s team, led by coach Michael Russell, advised him to forfeit the match instead of risking further damage.
Fritz knew that his odds of beating 22-time Grand Slam singles champion Nadal, who was undefeated up to that point in 2022, were remote at the best of times. But the 25-year old Californian told his crew that there was no way he would limp away from such an enormous opportunity in what amounts to his home tournament. His intransigence paid off in a stunning upset that also filled Fritz’s tank with inspiration. Over the ensuing months, he vaulted from a No. 20 ranking into the Top 10. Fritz had just one ATP title to his name before the monumental win at Indian Wells. He now has five.
“It was definitely a career-transforming injury and experience,” Russell said of the Indian Wells episode in a recent interview. “Everyone was saying, ‘Wow.’ It was kind of a shocker and people wondered if Taylor could sustain it. He showed that he could, because he didn’t get complacent, and he’s a very competitive guy.”
Not only competitive, but hard-headed, as the ankle incident demonstrated.
“He’s a very stubborn kid, always has been,” Tennis Channel analyst Paul Annacone, the top adviser to Russell and Fritz, told me in an interview. “And his level of competitiveness is just a joke.
“Sometimes when we’re playing practice sets with someone I literally have to, like, grab his shirt and say, ‘Hey, dude. I don’t care that you’re down 3-1, this is just practice. So let’s focus on what we’re practicing today.’”
Oddly enough, the incident at Indian Wells was the second time that Fritz turned a catastrophic moment into a bright new beginning. At the 2021 French Open, Fritz tore the meniscus in a knee on the final point of his second-round loss and had to be taken off the court in a wheelchair. He made a surprisingly quick recovery from surgery—barely five weeks later, he was competing at Wimbledon, where he lost a tight third-round match to No. 4 seed Alexander Zverev. It was a bitter pill, but it sparked a strong finish that set up Fritz for 2022.
While the feel-good elements in the recent adventures of Taylor Fritz are appealing, the Californian has also had to do some heavy lifting on both the mental and physical aspects of his game. Going into 2022, he was still struggling with a tendency to perform better as an underdog than a favorite. He was unable to capitalize on seven opportunities to surpass the third round at Grand Slam events. He was also battling fear—“I was too scared of losing to play the way I wanted,” he told me last year. He had yet to find his identity as a mature player.
“That’s one of the biggest things,” Annacone says. “You have to be clear and confident about who you are.”
Fritz figured out who he is through the course of 2020, with ample help from Russell, Fritz’s full-time coach since late 2021. At a superficial glance, Russell and Fritz make an odd couple. Russell tops out at a compact, muscular 5’8”, while Fritz stands a lanky 6’5”. A 17-year veteran of the ATP trenches with a career-high ranking of No. 60, Russell achieved a measure of fame as a wolverine-grade grinder who favored sleeveless shirts, his shorts often telling of wipeouts on red clay. Fritz’s own gun show was limited to booming serves and forehands, his laid-back manner and neat appearance suggesting that he was to the manor born. A former top-ranked junior, Fritz created a sensation when he reached an ATP final in 2016 as an 18-year old wild card.
Has some of Russell’s grit and staying power rub off on Fritz? Annacone didn’t miss a beat, answering, “110 percent.”
In a mid-February interview with ATP media early this year, Fritz was candid about the price of success, and the level of commitment required to make a partnership with Russell mutually satisfying.
“I’ve had so many days where you just question why you’re even doing it,’ he said. “That’s how hard you need to be pushing yourself all the time. You need to be working so hard that it’s not fun. . .But I love what we do and it’s definitely worth all the sacrifice to be where I am right now.”
Pondering his relationship with Fritz, Russell said, “I am strict. I like to push, but at the same time I think I’m empathetic. We always clicked, communication-wise. There can be some complexities and difficulties when I’m pushing someone, so it requires flexibility. But the fitness knowledge and game experience I have, and my passion for seeing Taylor succeed, that translates into Taylor buying into what I am telling him. The synergy has been great.”
While always willing to work, Fritz’s coaches said he didn’t always have a consistency of vision, or have a firm grasp of what he needed to improve. Annacone said that more than being a proponent of hard work, Russell is adept at “smart work.”
According to Russell, the work the men did has made Fritz “more explosive.” Another benefit to enhanced fitness: a greater willingness by Fritz to move forward into the court. They have focused on the ability to finish points empathically.
“We’re going after that,” Russell said. “Using the serve-plus-one, looking for the forehand (Fritz’s most potent groundstroke), wanting to take the racquet of an opponent’s hands.”
Russell believes that Fritz himself has some of the best hands he’s ever seen, citing his “amazing” eye-hand coordination. But he did not always have the footwork to compliment it. Now Fritz’s positioning and weight transfer are more stable, Russell says. “That has increased the speed and the RPMs of Taylor’s average rally ball.”
Those assets enabled Fritz to make an excellent showing in the final event of the year—the elite, eight-man ATP Finals in Turin, Italy (he survived the round-robin portion, but lost two tiebreakers in the semis to Novak Djokovic). Not long thereafter, Annacone warned Fritz about the challenge awaiting him as a Top 10 player: “There will be speed bumps. How many guys break into the Top 10 and then stay there and keep getting better without dropping back first? Not many.”
Fritz got off on the right foot this year, helping the U.S. triumph at the new United Cup mixed team event with quality wins over Next Gen sensation Jiri Lehecka, Olympic gold medalist Alexander Zverev, Hubert Hurkacz and Matteo Berrettini.
Although Fritz was upset in the second round of the Australian Open by Aussie wild card Alexei Popyrin, he bounced back with good results in the winter on U.S. hard courts, showing impressive flexibility at a time of year with numerous variables—different balls, indoor and outdoor events, different playing surfaces. Fritz went 6-1 with one title (Delray Beach) as the tour moved to Mexico and the California desert—back where Fritz’s transformational year began.
Fritz is demonstrating that years of seasoning have helped him meet this moment, and hitting his stride relatively late has had certain advantages. Experience will certainly help him navigate the coming months. Pam Shriver, the Tennis Channel and ESPN analyst, told me in a recent conversation, “Remember, Taylor’s success didn’t come out of the blue as it did for, say, Emma Raducanu (who won a Grand Slam event in just her second try and has struggled since). Taylor has gotten where he is through a lot of hard work, and a really nice progression.”
There is no joyful homecoming in tennis, even for those lucky enough to be defending a title. However satisfying the memory, the pride is always leavened with a heavy dose of pressure. Fritz won’t be able to avoid the stress at Indian Wells, but he seems well-prepared to deal with expectations—his own, as well as those of others.