As other ATP hopefuls sputter, Taylor Fritz is scaling the ranks

As other ATP hopefuls sputter, Taylor Fritz is scaling the ranks

The 21-year-old American recently won his first title, earned a first-round victory at Wimbledon, and has a newly solidified game.

“He was a thrower; now he’s a pitcher.”

The phrase comes from baseball, and was, as far I know, first used in the mid-1960s to describe the evolution of legendary Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Sandy Koufax from a raw rookie into a polished Hall of Famer. But the concept has also crossed over into tennis. The teenage Rod Laver, to name one prominent example, was a wildly explosive player, bug it wasn’t until he learned to control his natural power, to change speeds and spins, to hit his targets—to pitch, rather than throw—that he became a Grand Slam champion.

The same phrase came to mind while watching 21-year-old Taylor Fritz this spring. Three years ago, this casual-looking Californian made his natural talent obvious by bolting to the Memphis final, and bolting up the rankings, as an 18-year-old fresh from the juniors. The height—he’s 6’4”—the lanky build, the slumped shoulders, the deceptively easy power on his serve and forehand: it was enough to remind many hopeful U.S. fans of another West Coast product, Pete Sampras.

Unlike Sampras, though, Fritz didn’t win the US Open at 19. Instead, he did what most male tennis prodigies do today: he fell back to earth. More specifically, he fell out of the Top 100, fell out of ATP main draws and into Challenger events, and mostly fell off the media radar. But Fritz took his lumps and kept going to work everyday with coach David Nainkin, and he logged as any matches and miles as possible on tour. Unlike so many other U.S. players, he didn’t shy away from the European clay season, which he has diligently slogged through each spring, despite the frustrations that always come to Americans on dirt.

More important, Fritz and Nainkin added Sampras’ old coach, Paul Annacone, to their team. Since then, progress has been slow and steady, but it’s been earned. Last week, Fritz won his first tournament, in Eastbourne, and improved his ranking to a career-high No. 31. Unlike with his last, more meteoric ascent, this peak doesn’t feel as if it’s going to be followed by a valley.

“I just felt like I needed someone I thought could take my game to the next level, someone who I really respected and thought highly of,” Fritz told last year.

Fritz has praised Annacone’s high standards, his intense focus, his emphasis on improving both his strengths and weaknesses, and on the simple but underrated art of not making errors.

“We’ve worked a lot on my serve consistency,” Fritz said after his straight-set win over Sam Querrey in the Eastbourne final on Saturday, “because one thing that’s been a problem about me winning a title or go going deep is that I’ll serve good, serve good, serve good, and then just have one day where I can’t put a serve in the court. We’ve worked a lot on that.”

All of the work paid off in Eastbourne, where Fritz beat the No. 1 and 3 seeds, Guido Pella and Kyle Edmund. Annacone has stressed the idea that Fritz needs to learn to win when he’s not at his best, to compete rather than just play, and Fritz showed off his resilience last week. Perhaps the most impressive thing about his run was how many break points he saved along the way.

“I feel like I can always come up with my best in the big moments,” Fritz said. “Or if I’m not playing my best, I can just kind of find a way to tough it out and come through in those moments.”

Still, every week is a new one on the pro tour—you start at the bottom of the mountain again. On Saturday, Fritz was lifting his first winner’s trophy; on Tuesday he was just another of the hundreds of players swarming the All England Club lawns. And the draw gods didn’t seem to have done him any major favors, either. Fritz began his Wimbledon on little Court 16, against Tomas Berdych, a former finalist here, and someone who had reached the semis as recently as 2017. The previous day, two of Fritz’s fellow Next Genners, Alexander Zverev and Stefanos Tsitsipas, had made first-round exits. If Fritz followed them out, would all of his hard work have been for nought?

But again Fritz was as good as his word; he found the right shots at the right times. He stole the first set by breaking Berdych late; he bailed himself out of half a dozen tricky situations with unreturnable serves; and, most important, he didn’t try to do too much with his return. He broke Berdych again in the second and third sets by blocking the ball back low and making the tall man bend and move. It was enough to give him a no-frills, no-dips, veteran-style 6-4, 6-4, 6-3 win. 

Has Fritz found a new favorite surface? He’s not so sure himself.

“I don’t know,” Fritz said Saturday when he asked if grass suited his game best; but he sounds like he’s warming to the idea.

“I’m someone who doesn’t really doubt their shots. I see my chance and I like to take it, so I guess grass does reward the quick-thinking and no-hesitation game that I like to play.”

Wimbledon won’t get any easier from here; Fritz’s next opponent is Jan-Lennard Struff, a towering German who has been enjoying his own semi-breakout season, and who, if anything, hits bigger than Fritz.

A few more wins on these grounds, and will the Sampras comparisons begin again? If so, they’ll still be too soon. These days, climbs up the ATP mountain tend to be marathons rather than sprints. But after a few years in the minors, Fritz seems ready to make his pitch, and join the rotation of stars on the rise.