HIGHLIGHTS: Fritz tops Tiafoe in all-American Tokyo final

Netflix is deeply embedded in tennis and rolling film, hoping to repeat the success of the streaming giant’s popular Drive to Survive docu-series, about F1. In the meantime, the most entertaining subject at the moment might be Taylor Fritz and Frances Tiafoe’s reprisal of the good old-fashioned buddy movie.

Think of them as the Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, but in tennis kicks and track suits instead of hand-tooled boots and dusters. Or Mel Gibson and Danny Glover in Lethal Weapon, but without all the guns, thugs, exploding vehicles or close-ups of Gibson’s facial pores.

In their latest escapade, Fritz and Tiafoe became the first two Americans to contest an ATP 500 final since Sam Querrey and John Isner in 2010 (Memphis). That Fritz won the Japan Open, arriving in Tokyo mere hours after concluding a seven-day quarantine in a South Korean hotel, was astonishing. That Tiafoe was his opponent in this friendly-fire incident was fitting.

“Frances laughed at me when I got here on Wednesday [Fritz was scheduled to play later in the day],” Fritz told an interviewer after winning their final, 7-6 (3), 7-6 (2). “He was like, ‘Oh, you’re crazy, you’re not going to play are you? And I looked him in the eye and said, ‘I’m not just going to play, I’m going to win.’”


Tokyo turned into a celebration of the top two American men's players.

Tokyo turned into a celebration of the top two American men's players.

If Fritz’s reaction sounded unrealistic or even arrogant, the label comes with a caveat. As Reilly Opelka, a friend to both Fritz and Tiafoe, said last August, “Taylor is so optimistic all the time. He’s always been like that—a bit delusional, and I don’t mean that as an insult.”

As for the exchange amounting to a “teachable moment” for Tiafoe, forget about it. He and Fritz, both 24, are so close that when they aren’t pushing each other toward further success they revel in pushing each other’s buttons, laughing at each other’s foibles or bonehead moments.

“Usually it’s just Tommy and Frances kind of cracking jokes, keeping things on a lighter note [in the locker room],” Fritz said at Laver Cup, where all three were on the victorious Team World. “I'm usually just there either, you know, laughing at it all—or making fun of Frances for being late, or whatever else he's doing.”


Tiafoe is famous for the general mess of garments and gear habitually strewn all around his chair on court, but he fingers Fritz as the biggest slob in the game.

“I have so much shit,” Tiafoe said at the Laver Cup, “I can't organize it. Takes a while. My stuff is like everywhere. [But] I know where things are. Fritz kind of doesn’t really care.”

Tiafoe might have landed the best cheap shot of the summer, during a group TV interview with the surging 25-and-under players from the U.S.—a quartet that also includes Opelka and Tommy Paul.

“Yeah, we have a good time,” Tiafoe said of their camaraderie. “These are all fun guys, great guys, and then you also have Taylor.”

It’s all towel-snapping, while in the more serious competition, Fritz leads the series with Tiafoe, 5-1. Before the Tokyo final, though, Fritz pointed out that their matches have been competitive going all the way back to their teens.

“It’s always very tight when we play each other…it’s one of those things where we’re really close friends but we’re also rivals. There’s been this ongoing rivalry between us since we were probably 16 or 17 years old.”

The contrast between the two ATP stars has helped propel their relationship beyond buddy-movie comparisons and into the realm of something sorely lacking these days—a feel-good story.

Fritz is a tennis blueblood from a privileged Beverly Hills background (Kathy May, his mother, once had a Top 10 ranking). Taylor is handsome, soft-spoken and laid-back. Perhaps more importantly, there’s something sincere and surprisingly benevolent about him.


It’s so good that we’re all having great times and playing the best tennis of our lives. I think we’re all bigging up each other. Frances Tiafoe on his fellow Americans

Tiafoe is, by contrast, the ebullient jester high on the short list for ATP class clown. He speaks quickly in a gravelly, rambling, mumbling basso profundo. But his quirky, kinetic game, his inspirational biography (his parents were refugees from Sierra Leone), and the emotional connection he makes so easily with fans are vital assets. And, of course, there’s that thousand megawatt smile that can illuminate Arthur Ashe Stadium for night play with no help from artificial lights.

Both men have had to deal with issues owing to their respective histories—Fritz because he was a prodigy (at age 18, he became the youngest American to reach an ATP final since the inception of the tour in 1990); Tiafoe because his inspirational journey and promising early-career results generated so much goodwill and attention that he got a bit lost in the funhouse.

One challenge both had was the need to manage the pressure exerted from all sides as an increasingly restless media and public, clamored for an end to a long dry spell of great American champions. Fritz said he’s learned to free himself from the corrosive stress that came with his early success.

“I think that back then it (the expectations) maybe got to me a little bit because I was so young and it just all came out of nowhere,” Fritz recently told an ATP correspondent. “I’ve learned now to just not really care.”

The attitude enabled Fritz to shed a harmful streak of caution that kept him from fully unleashing his magnificent forehand until this year. In late March, Fritz became the first American to win the Indian Wells Masters since Andre Agassi 21 years ago. He has an outstanding 41-17 record this year. The title in Tokyo vaulted Fritz into the Top 10 for the first time, at No. 8.


Frances Tiafoe has leveled up this summer, both as a title contender and fan favorite.

Frances Tiafoe has leveled up this summer, both as a title contender and fan favorite.

The missing ingredients in Tiafoe’s game have been consistency and the related ability to focus for lengthy periods while remaining true to his showman nature. Tiafoe may have cracked the code during the hard-court summer swing, culminating with a spectacular run to the US Open semis. After defeating Rafael Nadal, he lost a riveting, widely-viewed semifinal to eventual champion Carlos Alcaraz, but the general impression he left was that he stepped up to the next plateau as a player.

“Definitely I was in new territory during that tournament, but I was just so in the moment,” Tiafoe told reporters at Laver Cup. “Obviously, everything happened so fast, a lot of different distractions…I was just enjoying my tennis out there. I was just having fun, I didn’t really get too lost in that I just kept the main thing [as] the main thing.”

Tiafoe backed up the result and continued his second-half run in Tokyo. He’s 31-21 on the year and ranked a career-high No. 17.

Fritz won the Battle of the Buds in Tokyo, but it’s likely that their first meeting in a tournament final won’t be their last.

“It’s so good that we’re all having great times and playing the best tennis of our lives,” Tiafoe said of his cohort, including Fritz. “I think we’re all bigging up each other. We’ve got so much more to give to the game, so I’m super excited.”

You aren’t the only one, Frances.