Back In Memphis, Fritz Looks To Act On Lessons Learned
Had any other 18 year old experienced such a year, it would have been a dream debut season. During Taylor Fritz's first full year on the ATP World Tour, the American reached the final of the Memphis Open presented by ServiceMaster in only his second ATP World Tour tournament. He went on to make the quarter-finals in Acapulco and Atlanta.
The #NextGenATP star finished the season even stronger, ending the year as the youngest player in the Top 100, which earned him the ATP Star Of Tomorrow presented by Emirates award.
“That was a big thing for him to get the award from the ATP [World Tour],” said David Nainkin, Fritz's lead coach.
Yet both Fritz and Nainkin look back at 2016 with measured applause. Fritz experienced incredible moments, such as his final run at the Memphis Open. But he also struggled to adjust to a full 10-month ATP World Tour schedule and the physical play that dominates the ATP World Tour these days.
“I think 2016, to sum it up, was a big learning year for him. It was his first time playing a full European clay court, grass court, playing the full, big circuit. And I think he had a real taste of what it takes,” Nainkin said. “I think he had an OK 2016, to be honest.”
Fritz struggled with a nagging left-knee injury that bothered him for much of the second half of the year. The 6'4" right-hander was unable to strongly push off his left leg and sometimes had to favour his right leg during matches.
The injury contributed to his up-and-down debut year, during which he finished 15-22, and picked away at his confidence. But Fritz believes the knee injury is behind him now, and he's returned to where his memorable first year began, at the Memphis Open. Here, he hopes to ignite another good start in his home country.
“It was just a really good week for me. I want to have more weeks like that, and now I'm back again and it's really nice to be back,” Fritz told ATPWorldTour.com this week. “It just feels really good being here because I know I played so well last year. Everything feels right when I'm here.”
Fritz roared into the 2016 Memphis Open. He had finished 2015 as the No. 1 junior in the world, and he had raced through the ATP Challenger Tour, winning back-to-back Challengers in Sacramento and Fairfield.
He arrived in Memphis already in the Top 150 of the Emirates ATP Rankings and the top Next Gen ATP American. Fritz's run to the final only increased the buzz around his big game. “Last year was just a really big breakthrough for me. It definitely got me started,” he said of his Memphis final.
The right-hander backed it up with a quarter-final in Acapulco and by qualifying and making the second round at the Miami Open presented by Itau, an ATP World Tour Masters 1000 tournament. But when the season shifted to clay, Fritz's knee injury flared up and puzzled him at the start.
It had bothered him in past months, including during his Memphis run, but it had always been treatable. Yet as the season wore on, hours on the physio table could no longer make the pain go away. Multiple MRIs didn't provide any more helpful information, either.
Fritz's mobility was limited but he could still play, although his results suffered. He couldn't replicate his Memphis final run and, even when including qualifying contests, he didn't win more than two consecutive matches again until the Shanghai Rolex Masters in October.
The American endured his share of unlucky first-round draws as well. He drew Borna Coric on clay at Roland Garros, Stan Wawrinka at Wimbledon, Jack Sock at the Australian Open and the US Open and Roger Federer in the second round of Stuttgart.
The losing stretches dented his confidence. “When you're used to winning as much as he did in juniors, ending No. 1 in the world and then dominating at the Challenger level, suddenly being beaten by guys that are just a little stronger and better at that time was probably a little bit of an adjustment for him,” Nainkin said. “When it happens to you for the first time... you do lose some confidence but that's just natural.”
Nainkin and Fritz, however, were both encouraged by his Asian swing results. Fritz won three consecutive matches against Top 100 players for the first time in his career, and he matched his best result at a Masters 1000 by making the second round of the Shanghai Rolex Masters.
Fritz knows it was no coincidence that he went through “a ton of rehab” on his left knee before heading east. “We think it's just weakness, just kind of wear and tear,” he said of the injury. “It felt really good for Tokyo and Shanghai. And towards the end of the year it felt pretty good, so I think [rehab] was the answer.”
He focused his off-season on his health, taking four weeks off from tennis and working on strengthening his body, particularly the knee. He's applying those lessons to this year as well. Fritz finally gave in to co-coach Mardy Fish, a former Top 10 player, who's been telling him to hire a full-time physio for the past 18 months.
“He's been, every single day, relentless, telling me to stop being cheap and get a physio,” Fritz said.
The 19-year-old California native has gleaned broader, everyday lessons from his first 12 months on the ATP World Tour as well. “Every single week you just have to be on it, be ready to play your best tennis. You can't get by, you can't really win matches if you're not playing your best tennis,” Fritz said. “That's what it felt like. It's just constant, a lot of playing and you always have to be at your best. You always have to prepare and do all the right things on and off the court.”