A year ago, Taylor Fritz was merely a face in the crowd, No. 941 in the men's tennis rankings, an especially young face at 17 in a sport dominated by athletes whose physical maturity and match toughness usually don't peak until they reach their mid- to late 20s.
Since then, thanks to his success on the ATP's lower-level Challenger tour, his U.S. Open boys' title last September and two wins over top-30 players earlier this year, the Rancho Santa Fe native has zoomed up to No. 81. At 18 years 4 months old, he was the 10th-youngest American man to crack the top 100, the same age John McEnroe was in 1977 and three months younger than Andy Roddick was in 2001.
That milestone followed an outstanding effort last month at the Memphis Open, where he became the youngest American since then 17-year-old Michael Chang to reach the final of an ATP World Tour event. And there likely will be many more such highlights for Fritz, the son of former tennis pros Kathy May and Guy Fritz.
"That was a huge moment for me," Fritz said of reaching the top 100 sooner than he'd imagined. "Around the time of the U.S. Open I was hoping, like, maybe a couple years. My goal after I lost in the U.S. Open qualifying last year was just to be back on my own ranking to play qualifying again, so top 250 in a year. I was ranked like 700-something. So I just wanted to be ranked, like, top 200 to play qualifying again.
"And then all the Challengers happened and I rethought my goals. And I expected that this year, going into this year, in January, I could be top 100. That was my goal, and now it's been done already two months into the year. So now I'm rethinking again. I want to be top 50."
Fritz, who trains in Carson, will take his first step toward that goal this week at the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells Tennis Garden. A year ago he got a wild card into the qualifying draw. This year he's in the main draw. Although he had an MRI on his knee last week to check out a problem he has dealt with for six months, he said he's fine and expects no problems on the rough, hard courts at Indian Wells, where he won the Easter Bowl boys' title last April
He still must add muscle to his 6-foot-4, 185-pound frame, but his serve is in the 130-mph range and he has a powerful two-handed backhand. He also has a knack for remaining calm under pressure: According to ATPWorldTour.com, he turned away 47 of 51 break points in winning Challenger events at Sacramento and Fairfield. When others might panic he sees things slowly, more vividly, an uncanny trait shared by great athletes across all sports.
"It's kind of just living for those pressure situations. I really enjoy that kind of stuff. Some people might be nervous or worried about it. That's when I'm enjoying it the most," he said last week. "I'm excited for those opportunities, to show that I can be clutch and come up in the big moments. I know what I have to do in those situations. It's always everything is clear in my head and it comes down to if I can execute it or not."
That mental strength might be his biggest asset as he ventures into tougher territory and faces greater expectations.
Because of his meteoric rise and raw talent, Fritz has been widely anointed the Next Great Hope of American Men's Tennis, the latest candidate to restore the long-lost glory of the U.S men's game. No American man has won a Grand Slam since Roddick at the U.S. Open in 2003; Roddick is also the last American man to be ranked No. 1 at year's end, also in 2003.
Fritz, 18-year-old New Jersey native Tommy Paul — who beat Fritz for the 2015 French Open boys' championship — 18-year-old Wimbledon boys' champion Reilly Opelka and 23-year-old Jack Sock are considered the cream of the latest crop, and they'll face expectations that could overwhelm them. Backing off while they become physically stronger and experienced would do more to help them progress, but it's unlikely to happen. Fritz has already learned to ignore the noise and conjecture.
"People need to just lay off and let it happen. But for me, I don't feel any added pressure. I play for myself," he said. "At the end of my career, when everything's said and done, if I don't live up to expectations I'm not going to be like, 'Oh, man, I let everyone down.' I'm going to be like, 'I let myself down.' I'm not worried about the expectations. I'm not playing for that. I'm playing for myself. I could care less."
BNP Paribas Open
Where: Indian Wells Tennis Garden.
Dates: March 7-20.
Defending champions: Men, Novak Djokovic. Women, Simona Halep. Men's doubles, Vasek Pospisil-Jack Sock. Women's doubles, Martina Hingis-Sania Mirza.
What's at stake: This is the largest Women's Tennis Assn. and Assn. of Tennis Professionals World Tour combined two-week event in the world. Prize money exceeds $10 million. Women's world No. 1 Serena Williams and her sister, Venus, are both scheduled to compete here for the first time since 2001, when their father, Richard, alleged they were targets of racially motivated comments after Venus' withdrawal from a semifinal match against Serena. Younger sister Serena returned last year but this will be Venus' first time back since then. Maria Sharapova (injured left forearm) has withdrawn. Men's No. 1 Djokovic is a four-time champion here, including last year. However, 2015 runner-up and world No. 3 Roger Federer withdrew because of a knee injury. World No. 2 Andy Murray, who lost the Australian Open final to Djokovic earlier this year, is entered, as are No. 4 Stan Wawrinka and No. 5 Rafael Nadal.