Column: Taylor Fritz hoping to make a big leap in abbreviated 2020 tennis season
Fritz has been on the rise since 2015, when he reached the French Open junior final and won the U.S. Open junior title at 17. He affirmed his promise a year later by reaching the final of the 2016 Memphis Open, only his third tour-level event, and he hit No. 53 in the world rankings six months later. The ATP tour designated the Rancho Palos Verdes resident its 2016 Star of Tomorrow and included him among its Next Generation stars.
His journey since then hasn’t been linear, though that’s not unusual for young players as they seek consistency and physical strength. His runner-up finish at Memphis put him into higher-level tournaments against giants and became an awakening. By the middle of 2017 his ranking had fallen to 135.
“He got to 55 in the world and I’d say maybe a little too young,” said David Nainkin, who coaches Fritz daily in Carson. “Physically, he wasn’t ready for that because it put him into some big events in Europe on red clay. Then he goes two months without winning a tennis match and is playing Stan Wawrinka and Roger Federer. He had some tough draws. That takes a bit of a hit on your confidence.
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“He’s winning in the juniors, winning at the Challenger level, then suddenly he’s playing on grass and had some tough calls, and in two, three months people are talking, ‘What happened to Taylor Fritz?’”
By necessity Fritz went back to playing qualifiers and in lower-level Challenger tournaments, where he fortified his game and his confidence. “I wouldn’t even say it was a humbling experience because that’s where he knew he needed to play,” Nainkin said. “He wanted to get the matches and he didn’t mind grinding it out and getting some wins and he knew he was getting better.”
Fritz finished 2017 ranked 104 and climbed to 49 a year later. He met his 2019 goal of winning an ATP title by prevailing on grass at Eastbourne, England, and was No. 32 at year’s end. He hit a career-best No. 24 this year after he defeated fellow American John Isner in the semifinals and lost to Rafael Nadal in the final at Acapulco in late February, a ranking frozen when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and shut down tennis. As the sport ramps up its return with the start of the Western & Southern Open on Thursday in New York, Fritz is poised to make the big breakthrough that has so maddeningly eluded him.
“I’ve definitely been around for a while, but I’m still really young,” he said “I’m still in the beginning part of my career and I’ve never doubted that I will be a top-10 player.”
Before the pandemic hit, Fritz was optimistic about his chances at marquee tournaments in Indian Wells and Miami. It was small consolation that he went into the enforced break at a competitive peak. “I was playing my best tennis going into a lot of big events. I was very excited to keep the momentum going,” he said in a phone interview. “But in terms of my mental state, it was good that I was at a ranking that I was happy with the whole time.”
With no indication when tennis might resume, he took a month off from training and indulged his passion for e-gaming. An investor in the e-sports conglomerate ReKTGlobal, he plays a lot of “Fortnite,” “FIFA” and “Call of Duty” and won a charity virtual tennis tournament paired with social influencer Addison Rae.
“With quarantine happening and all that, the whole gaming industry has really been booming lately. So it was a good investment and it is one of the things that I enjoy doing in my time off,” he said. “I’ve always thought it makes sense with an athlete’s lifestyle because it’s something to do that’s fun. It’s competitive and it’s just good rest and recovery, which everyone needs.”
Refreshed by his break, he was motivated to train again. He also played World Team Tennis, allowing him to experience what he calls “the situational points and nervous points” that practice can’t simulate. He got fitter, stronger.
“For young players this is a time when you can still improve, and for Taylor that was the messaging we wanted to get across,” said former tour player Paul Annacone, Fritz’s other coach. “It wasn’t a time to stay the same. This was a big window, a big opportunity to improve without having to worry about a tournament right around the corner.”
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Fritz will return to play at the Western & Southern Open, which was moved from Cincinnati to the U.S. Open site at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in New York. Both tournaments will be played under tight safety protocols designed to guard against the spread of COVID-19. With draws of 56 for men’s and women’s singles, the Western & Southern Open will be a dress rehearsal for the larger, 128-player U.S. Open draws.
U.S. Open champions Nadal and Bianca Andreescu won’t play this year, Nadal cited concerns about travel and safety, and Andreescu said the pandemic slowed her recovery from a knee injury. The men’s field also will lack No. 4 Roger Federer, who is recovering from knee surgery. Tennis fans will miss them, but Fritz has no time for sentiment.
“If Nadal doesn’t want to play, I’m not going to call him and tell him he should play,” Fritz said. “Maybe the tournament loses a bit of the prestige because all the top players aren’t playing, but I’m just looking at it in terms of how it benefits me, and it definitely benefits my chances of going deeper in the U.S. Open.”
Fritz’s strengths always have been his big serve and scorching forehand. Annacone wants Fritz to improve his transition game and become more effective on his second serve points. Annacone said Fritz’s athleticism will be the last element to develop as he grows into his 6-foot-4 frame. “That’s another 24, 36 months away, to me, to where he needs to be,” Annacone said, “but gosh, he’s doing great and making great progress along the way.”
Progress often is measured in small steps, as Fritz has learned. He’s hoping those small steps have positioned him to take a big leap soon. “I always have believed I will be top 10. But I think now I’m kind of realizing, ‘Wow, I can do that now,’” he said. “It’s not like, ‘I will do that in the future.’ It’s like, ‘Wow, that’s where I believe I’m at now.’”
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