Stars Of Tomorrow: Taylor Fritz
The Next Generation teen and his mother talk exclusively to ATPWorldTour.com about his rapid rise to the Top 100
“After the match, I sat in the same spot in the locker room for three hours. I didn’t stretch, I didn’t do anything. I just sat there for three hours thinking about what just happened. I spent so long thinking about that moment and training for it and it was gone in 60 minutes.”
Walk into the men’s locker room at the US Open and the first thing you will notice is the cacophony of smells. The hairs on the edge of your nostrils salute a mixture of sweat, soaps and salves as the door shuts behind you.
But the most pungent aromas of all are the intangible ones. Anxiety, anticipation and opportunity waft through the air, as players seek to live out their dreams and find glory on one of the biggest stages in sport.
On the first day of qualifying last year, another vivid fragrance was present as Taylor Fritz sat alone in the corner: A mix of disappointment and desire permeated the air around the American teen. A perpetual stream of players circulated through the locker room as he sat, motionless and numb, replaying over and over what had just transpired on Court 6. The hours passed. A static expression remained affixed to his face.
Sixty minutes. No more. No less. A lot can happen in exactly one hour. For Fritz, it felt like five minutes. A routine 6-3, 6-3 defeat to Luca Vanni in the first Grand Slam qualifying match of his young career had left the California native reeling. Years of hard work came down to this. And it was over in an instant.
“That loss made me think, ‘Wow, what am I doing?’” Fritz told ATPWorldTour.com in an exclusive interview. “It’s how I played that match that was so disappointing. It was horrendous. I couldn’t hit a ball. I was getting tired after a couple shots. I think I was nervous, but I didn’t feel nervous. I was playing like I was nervous. That’s definitely not something I’m known for now, being nervous and tight. It was so unlike me and to do it of all times in US Open qualifying. I thought I worked so hard to get there. It made me work that much harder.”
Every champion has a turning point in their careers: a sobering moment that provides a fresh perspective on how to take the next step towards greatness. Sixty minutes can breeze by in a blink. For Fritz, it was quick and painful. But those battle scars that seem indelible at first are nothing more than a reminder that it’s not how far you fall, rather how high you bounce that counts.
Fritz would go on to win the US Open boys’ title two weeks later, defeating close friend and countryman Tommy Paul in an all-American final. It was a fitting end to a stellar junior career, but it was just the beginning.
Taylor’s Titanic Rise
The transformation from teen to machine was already underway in New York. Where many would acquiesce to feelings of frustration and dismay, Fritz is wired differently. With 10 days between his qualifying defeat and the start of the junior tournament, he put in the hard yards, ratcheting up the intensity with 7 a.m. practices. Fritz immediately went home to California after lifting the boys’ trophy and re-dedicated himself at the USTA’s facility in Carson.
“I really started enjoying working hard. That meant going to the court and working so hard that I want to quit tennis, and then doing it again the next day. That’s my philosophy. You work so hard that you want to quit tennis. You get to the point where you are so dead and tired and you say it’s not worth it. Then you come back and do it again the next day and do it again and again and again.”
Fritz would begin a historic rise to the Top 100 of the Emirates ATP Rankings, joining elite company at every turn. An 11-match winning streak on the ATP Challenger Tour would kick-start his professional career, claiming back-to-back titles in Sacramento and Fairfield. He became just the second player aged 17 and under to win consecutive Challenger crowns, catapulting 462 spots to World No. 232.
Youngest Americans To Crack The Top 100
Age of Top 100 Debut
16 yrs, 3 mos.
|16 yrs, 5 mos.
|16 yrs, 5 mos.
||16 yrs, 7 mos.
||17 yrs, 3 mos.
||17 yrs, 8 mos.
||17 yrs, 11 mos.
||18 yrs, 3 mos.
||18 yrs, 3 mos.
||18 yrs, 4 mos.
|John McEnroe||18 yrs, 4 mos.
|Andy Roddick||18 yrs, 7 mos.
While Fritz’s sudden success caught the attention of many, it was the manner in which he won matches that was most striking. The Rancho Santa Fe native made an impact with his back against the wall, gaining a reputation for performing in clutch situations. He turned away a combined 47 of 51 break points faced en route to lifting the two ATP Challenger Tour trophies, including 15 of 16 against fellow American teen Jared Donaldson in the Sacramento final. As Fritz stresses, such a potent weapon gives him great confidence in knowing no deficit is insurmountable. It’s an innate trait.
“I surprised myself at first, but now it’s become something I’m known for,” Fritz admitted. “It’s an incredible thing to be known for, being clutch in those situations. It’s a huge honour to be thought of in that way.
“Having that ability to come up clutch in those pressure moments and competing well in those big situations is not something you can model after someone. It’s not something you can teach or learn. It’s something you either have or you don’t. I know a lot of people who were incredible practice players. The second they got to the match they just couldn’t perform in those situations. For me, the reason I play tennis is to compete like that. Someone might be nervous in those situations, but I’m excited for those opportunities. Those moments when there’s a big break point, I enjoy that.”
It should come as no surprise that Fritz’s idol is another steely server, Pete Sampras. Like 'Pistol Pete', Fritz prides himself on not just the power behind his delivery, but also the placement, disguise and execution.
“He’s the best American player ever. It makes sense that I really admire him a lot with his serve and athleticism. One moment stands out when I was younger. Honestly, I can’t remember what tournament it was or who he was playing. It was just his confidence he had in himself. He was up a break and didn’t care about his opponent’s serve. He let his opponent have those games, because he knew 100 per cent that he was going to serve it out with that one break. Some people are really nervous and pressing for a double break. He was so confident and there was no pressure at all. That’s something I saw and it impressed me a lot.”
Fritz left Sacramento and Fairfield soaring in confidence and in the Emirates ATP Rankings. A quarter-final finish in Monterrey, Mexico would put him on the precipice of the Top 200, but it was a chance encounter with Sampras that sent his trajectory skyward. The former World No. 1, who was competing at the concurrent ATP Champions Tour event, gave the teen the experience of a lifetime: a practice session on his 18th birthday. Fritz was in awe, but it was Sampras who doled out the superlatives.
“He’s got a great game,” Sampras told ATPWorldTour.com. “He hits the ball big, has a monster forehand. I haven’t seen him play that much, but he’s got a few big weapons. He’s a big kid. I was just talking to him a little bit about what it takes, that it's hard work and sacrifice. He’s on his way and he’s got the right attitude, willing to learn and listen. He’s got a great future.”
As the Challenger season moved to its finale on the indoor hard courts of Charlottesville, Knoxville and Champaign, it would be another defeat that further shaped Fritz’s future. The American who accumulates the most Emirates ATP Rankings in two of the three events is awarded the USTA’s main draw wild card into the Australian Open. Fritz came up just short of the prize, but he points to that loss as initiating a chain reaction that launched him to the Top 100.
Fritz entered his 2016 campaign with a third ATP Challenger Tour title, in Happy Valley (Australia), and opened Australian Open qualifying with a pair of victories over Hiroki Moriya and Michael Berrer. Trailing 0-4 in the third set of his final round clash against Mischa Zverev, Fritz showed his true mettle, reeling off six straight games to seal the victory and qualify for his first Grand Slam championship.
Fritz’s mother, Kathy, a former Top 10 player on the WTA Tour, never had a doubt he’d pull through.
“Taylor feels like he’s going to win no matter what. He’s very confident in himself and is just a real fighter on the court. I always told him that great players hate to lose more than they like to win. I think that’s true with him. He likes to win but he really hates to lose.”
Taylor says it was an experience that shaped his season.
“That’s just me, 100 per cent who I am. I’ve always had the heart to compete and fight no matter what. I’m going to fight to the very end. I’m never going to give my best effort and lose a match. If it has anything to do with losing, I’m not going to just throw in the towel. I was thinking that a lot people would throw in the towel and he’s probably hoping I’m going to throw in the towel. He’s probably hoping at 4-0 that I’m going to let him have this one. That’s what I’d be thinking if I was up 4-0. Once I got that first break back, then I felt the pressure was on him.
“When people ask me about losing out on the USTA’s wild card play-off for the Australian Open, I’m glad I lost out on it. Also the experience I had against Berrer, it was windy and rainy at 10 at night, on the last court at the Australian Open. I know it doesn’t sound very pleasant but those are experiences I wouldn’t trade anything for.”
Mother Knows Best
Some things are guaranteed in life. Park in an illegal spot, you pay a fine. Devour an entire pizza, you'll have indigestion the next day. Become the youngest American to reach an ATP World Tour final (in Memphis) in 27 years, and you'll have a lot of media commitments.
“It’s crazy what winning four matches does. I’ve probably heard the same question about the group of young Americans 30-40 times. About the group and how we drive each other and the pressure it puts on us. I’ve heard that one so many times. I’ve done about six full interviews on the phone now since Memphis and I was doing a couple a day there.”
It is this respect for the entire process both between the lines and outside them that comes from Taylor's mum. After a lengthy career on the women’s Virginia Slims circuit in the 1970s, Kathy May Fritz had much to impart on her son.
“One thing I told him in Memphis, after he beat Steve Johnson in the second round, was that it was a great win but don’t let your guard down. You have another match tomorrow. You can celebrate for a little bit, but you have to re-focus. That’s one thing I found after a great win. It was hard for me to re-focus and come back and do it again the next day. He was able to do that. At this point it’s great that he’s not satisfied. After a great win he wants to get as good as he can possibly get and I really admire that.”
Also a quarter-finalist at three Grand Slams, including the 1978 US Open, Kathy reflected on Taylor as a child. Despite being a precocious, active boy, he didn’t take to tennis immediately.
“When he was first handed a racquet, he didn’t like it, but he always had unbelievable hand-eye coordination. When he was two years old, he’d go out and hit a golf ball and it was incredible. Everything he did was with a ball. He’d have unreal hand-eye coordination. Back then, kids always did what their friends wanted to do, so my husband invited over local boys for a tennis clinic. That’s how he got interested in it.
“He made the goal to be World No. 1 from a young age. He’s always set goals for himself, even throughout the juniors. He’s met every one of them. When he sets his mind to something, he’s always been able to achieve it.”
A sports fanatic, Fritz spent much of his childhood moving between playing basketball, tennis and lacrosse. At the start of his sophomore year of high school, he made the commitment to tennis, but it wasn’t smooth sailing at first. The dedication to working hard and pushing himself to be the best was absent. He revealed that taking the leap wasn’t an easy process. At age 15, Fritz was invited to the U.S.T.A. training facility in Boca Raton, Florida, for a month-long training camp with top players in his age group. The right-hander concedes he was the worst of the bunch. In desperate need of a push in the right direction, he identifies it as the moment everything changed.
“To just go to this camp I had to quit the high school basketball team I was playing on. I wanted to see how I compared to all these guys. I knew they were all better than before going, so I thought it was great practice for me to get a lot better. It was tough. I couldn’t compete with them, I couldn’t move on the clay courts. I wasn’t good enough. I was missing everything. It just put everything into perspective of where I was at. I wasn’t near as good as those guys. Then I started moving up and I got to the top group of guys and just stayed with them.
“My idea of tennis was an hour of practice a day and zero work in the gym. That was the time where I had to make the decision. All these guys beating up on me is going to be the end or I’m going to accept it and come back stronger. I decided to stick with it and here I am three years later and I’ve improved so much and come so far.”
Looking To The Future
While Fritz now works with David Nainkin, former personal coach of Wayne Ferreira, on a full-time basis, he looks back on his time with Christian Groh as being the most beneficial in cultivating his game from its infancy. It was his time with Groh that helped build the necessary foundation to grow his career.
“For about two years, I’d be with Christian three or four times a week. He played a big part in getting me to work hard and helping me to catch up with the other guys. Practice with Christian meant I’m going to work hard and this was a time when I didn’t enjoy it. I was still learning then about what it really took. Working with Christian taught me that.”
With a run to the final at the ATP World Tour event in Memphis last month, in just his third tour-level tournament, Fritz became the youngest American to reach a title match since then 17-year-old Michael Chang won the Wembley (London) crown in 1989. Add Sampras, Andy Roddick and Andre Agassi and you have the list of every American aged 18 and under to reach an ATP World Tour final in the past 30 years. Elite company to say the least.
“I keep thinking that before he turned pro in September he was ranked around No. 900,” Kathy added. “He hadn’t played many pro tournaments and after that it was a whole new level. It’s incredible.”
Following a quarter-final finish in Acapulco, Fritz already achieved the goal he set for himself just two months ago: cracking the Top 100. That was his target for the entire season. With just 35 Emirates ATP Rankings points to defend between now and September, it’s time to set the bar even higher.