Fritz seems almost certain to succeed substantially in the years ahead. There is every indication that he has the long range potential to take his rightful place among the great American players of his era. He just might become a champion at the majors. He has the right mentality to move steadily toward the top of his profession. He already has an outstanding serve, a crackling forehand, and considerable weight on his backcourt shots. The buzz surrounding this teenager in the tennis community has been extraordinary as of late, and that is why I set up an interview with him that just took place the day before his 18th birthday.
After his impressive twin triumphs at the California Challenger tournaments, he competed for a third consecutive week in Las Vegas, falling in the round of 16. He did not take a break after that rigorous schedule, going to Monterey, Mexico for yet another Challenger event. He had won his opening round contest there the night before we spoke by telephone. I commenced our session by asking about the influence of his parents, who both played top flight tennis in their younger years. His mother—the former Kathy May—was ranked among the American top ten for four consecutive years at the tail end of the 1970’s, reaching a career high of No. 6 in 1977. His father, Guy Fritz, was on the men’s tour in that era.
Asked to explain how each of his parents has contributed to his tennis education, Taylor Fritz said, “They both always knew what decisions were best for me because they have been through the whole process. As far as scheduling goes, how much I should play, when I should play, where I play, they know what is good for me. And as far as the actual tennis goes, they taught me very clean and compact strokes so I don’t have any big technical flaws.”
How do Fritz’s parents handle the ebbs and flows of his matches? Fritz responds, “I think my Dad likes it but my Mom has trouble watching me play. She works her way through it but sometimes she has to get up and leave if it is a really close match, which I understand.”
It has been well documented in other articles written on Fritz that his idol growing up was Pete Sampras, who concluded his career by winning the 2002 U.S. Open when Fritz was only four years old. Why did the exemplary Sampras have such a large impact on someone so much younger? Fritz replies, “I just loved the way he played. He was the best American player who ever lived so obviously he was a big inspiration for me. I just liked the way he handled himself on court and it is a lot like the way I like to do it. I have tried to make a lot of similarities in how I handle myself to the way he did it.”
The wave of American players who followed Sampras included, of course, Andy Roddick and James Blake. John Isner is today’s top ranked U.S. competitor. Have any of these fellows played significant roles with Fritz as he has moved up the ladder? He answers, “Of course. Growing up I watched Roddick and Blake and Mardy Fish quite a bit. Blake and Fish have helped me quite a bit whenever I needed some advice. They have reached out to me a lot. When I have a tough decision to make and need some help with it, I know I can go to them and they will give me their knowledge based on their experiences. That has been great.”
One tough decision Fritz had to take on was whether to turn pro or go to college. He elected to turn pro right before competing in the U.S. Open men’s qualifying event, bowing out in the first round. But then he took the junior title to end that summer fortnight in style. As he reflects on that choice, Fritz says, “I was considering going to college earlier in the year. It really was a tough decision. My Dad was pretty firm that he wanted me to go to college, but I thought I was ready to go pro. Winning the two Challengers is really reassuring to me in knowing I made the right decision. My Mom was more on my side in believing I was ready to turn pro.”
As he heads out into the professional game on a more regular basis, Fritz will still cross paths with other young Americans he has known all across his days in junior tennis, people like Tommy Paul and Stefan Kozlov and others. That will be a much harder competitive world in many ways, but Fritz is convinced he will remain on good terms with his compatriots. As he explains, “Nothing will change. We will all still be really good friends. It is not women’s tennis, not like the WTA Tour. I feel like the guys are more friendly while in the women’s it is more about your own concerns. We are all going to stick together through everything and we will move up in the rankings and that will not change anything about that.”
Meanwhile, Fritz will find himself facing some top of the line players from other countries as he embarks on his first full year as a professional in 2016. As he watches young stars like Borna Coric, Andrey Rublev and Alexander Zverev, how does he envision himself faring in direct combat against them? Fritz asserts, “I haven’t watched them too much but obviously I have seen their results. I think I am not too far off. I still have things to work on but I am getting there.”
As he progresses in professional tennis, Fritz will surely be bolstered by the support he will receive from his brothers Chris and Kyle. Neither one has played that much tennis, but, as Taylor recollects, “A long time ago, Chris won the National Mother-Son title with my Mom. I have no clue what year that was. Both [of my siblings] are pretty good athletes so they can play a little bit here and there.”
As Fritz worked his way through the minefields of junior tennis, it took time for his game to develop. That meant that he had to rely on family financial support for a long while, with no help then from the USTA. But Fritz has no complaints about that. As he points out, “I was handling most it it myself with my family. I didn’t really get backed by the USTA until about two years ago because I really hadn’t done anything and there were probably twenty kids in my age group who were better than me. Once I started doing better, I got the support from the USTA and since then they have been great to me. I didn’t deserve [their financial help] when I was younger. The USTA can’t help out everyone. They help out the best players and that is how it should be.”
These days, of course, Fritz is an increasingly good match player who is learning how to make the most of himself competitively. In his successful swing through the two Challenger events he captured, Fritz survived one critical moment that gave him the chance to flourish over that fortnight. He collided with the dangerously unorthodox Dustin Brown in the second round of Sacramento, winning that harrowing skirmish in a final set tie-break. That set the stage for his victory that week when he ousted fellow American Jared Donaldson in a three set final. The following week in Fairfield, he did not concede a set in five matches, handling Brown 6-3, 6-4 in the final.
Asked about the hard fought win he recorded over Brown in Sacramento that proved to be pivotal, Fritz says, “For sure, that win over Brown gave me a lot of confidence. I was down match points on my serve and pulled it out. There is such a big difference between losing second round and getting seven [ATP Ranking] points and winning the tournament and getting 100 points. So many things would be different now if I would not have won that match against Dustin Brown. It definitely helped me going forward.”
Reflecting on his smooth run through the draw at Fairfield, Fritz comments, “I was playing really good tennis there because my body felt fine. After playing so many matches the week before, I had some really good timing. I know that the way I play that if I am having a good day I can definitely do it. But it is not easy being ready consistently. Some days it is there and some days it is not quite there. I am getting more consistent with playing high level tennis.”
Asked to describe the difficulty of competing favorably at the top junior level to what he faces in Challengers, Fritz contends, “To be honest I don’t think it is that much of a difference. I think the biggest difference between the top juniors and the guys ranked 100 to 300 in the world is that it takes more out of you physically to play the Challengers. The other difference is confidence. The Challenger players are more mature, stronger and older. You just don’t know that you can compete with them. Obviously, Challengers are tougher than the juniors, but it is not crazy to think that you will have success at the Challenger level even if it is difficult.”
Having referenced the need to be in excellent condition as a prerequisite for winning at the pro level, Fritz now turns to the topic of the wily David Nainkin, with whom he has been working with on a regular basis for the past couple of months. What has Nainkin brought to the table that can propel Fritz toward loftier accomplishments? He answers, “The main thing we have been doing is going out for pretty much the first two hours of practice and all I am doing is running side to side, playing a lot of long rallies. It is exhausting and it absolutely kills me but that is what I need. Then we work on other stuff later in the day that I might not have in my game that will help me expand it. It is a good mix between pushing myself very hard and working on other things.”
Fritz will train with Nainkin during the off season at the USTA facility in Carson, California. “I will put in a hard month there and then I am not exactly sure when David will travel with me. I have another coach, Christian Groh, who will fill in when David can’t be there. He is here with me now in Monterrey and was with me in Vegas last week. They are both very important coaches for me and they work well together.”
What is the next step in the evolution of Fritz? His serve is the cornerstone of his game, but how does he see himself growing into a more diversified, complete and better player over the next year. “The big thing,” he says, “is to get physically stronger. If I can get stronger, everything will automatically improve. I will be able to move better, hit the ball stronger and add some shots that I don’t have now in my game. Some shots I will have to wait until I am physically stronger to improve.”
We return briefly to the subject of Sampras. I wondered if Fritz had an image of the Sampras serve in the eye of his mind as he developed his serve. He responds in the affirmative. “Yes, I actually tried to model my motion after how he serves. I try to serve in a pretty similar stance to how he serves. That was how I modeled it. I looked at tapes of him serving.”
In terms of short range goals, Fritz—currently stationed at No. 228—would like to crack the top 100 in the world by the end of 2016. “I am not sure entirely,” he says, “what a good goal to set is, but I usually set the goals pretty high and make them pretty tough for myself.” The next question was logical: what are his long term aspirations? Will he eventually make it to No. 1 in the world or win some majors? He says, “I don’t know. I am more worried about getting up there and then figuring things out once I am up there in the rankings; then I would take it from there. I don’t want to get ahead of myself, but it is definitely something to shoot for. I will try my hardest to be the best that I can be, but I am just taking it one step at a time.”
We turn to the inevitable topic of the luminaries in today’s world of tennis: Djokovic, Federer, Nadal and, to a lesser extent, Murray. How inspired has Fritz been by these players who have dominated the game for a decade? He says, “That is the group I have watched growing up. Basically what I know about professional tennis I know from watching all of those guys play. Federer is the greatest player of all time. They are all great players.”
Having asked him about those extraordinary men, I could not help but enquire about what it would mean for a young American like himself to become a serious factor in the upper levels of the game over the next bunch of years. The last American man to win a major in singles was Roddick in 2003, so the public in this country is craving a top of the line player that they can follow steadfastly and cheer on unabashedly. How important would that be for the fans in the U.S. and for boosting the popularity of the sport in our land?
“I think it is important that we have a group of players coming up, “says Fritz. “That’s because the excitement around tennis here hasn’t been as big as it was when we had a lot of players at the top in the U.S. It would be very good for the game for the fans to have someone who they can get behind, to have an American or some Americans that would make them want to watch the sport.”
Asked if playing a role in a scenario like that might make him even more motivated, Fritz replies, “No. Not so much. I play for myself and I am not thinking about that other stuff.”
That is just the way it should be. Taylor Fritz has the right set of priorities. Four or five years from now, tennis would be doing very well if he is among the elite, contending for majors, and making his presence known everywhere he goes. Don’t be surprised if that happens.