By John Delong
WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (July 31, 2017) – Taylor Fritz came to the Winston-Salem Open a year ago riding high at a career-best No. 53 in the ATP World Tour rankings.
Then 18, he would go on to win the ATP Star of Tomorrow Award at the end of 2016 as the youngest player to finish in the Top 100.
But 2017 has been unkind to the 6-4 Californian, no thanks to a knee injury that shelved him for six weeks at the start of the year and then what has clearly been a sophomore jinx ever since.
He is currently ranked No. 127 after falling all the way to No. 136 in February, and he is 14th in the Race to Milan standings, facing an uphill battle to make the top seven and automatically qualify for
the #NextGen ATP Finals.
The good news is that Fritz has tons of potential and may just be the most-promising of a strong contingent of American #NextGen hopefuls.
Fritz considers the roller coaster ride to be part of the growing up on the ATP World Tour, and while he’d love to be ranked higher right now, he is taking it all in stride.
“As for the ranking, I’m 19,” he said recently. “I’m not so concerned about where my ranking is at the moment. I’m just concerned where I’m going to be in a couple years. I think I’m headed in the right direction.”
Brad Gilbert, who once again will be part of ESPN’s coverage of the Winston-Salem Open this year, is expecting a return to form the rest of the year, especially now that Fritz has added Mardy Fish as one of his coaches.
“Obviously he’s the most talked-about of the young Americans and has had some success at the tour level,” Gilbert said. “There’s about eight or nine young Americans that turned pro about the same time, and he was the first to have success at the tour level. I still think that he can get a lot better. Hits the ball big off both sides, has a big serve, just struggled a little bit the last six months. But I think he’s going to get a lot better and I think having Mardy Fish coach him can only help him.”
Gilbert says one good tournament – like Memphis last year, when Fritz made it all the way to the finals – could be all Fritz needs to regain his confidence.
“With a lot of these young guys, a big word that comes up is confidence,” Gilbert said. “The only way you can gain confidence is to win matches and keep improving your game. He just hasn’t been winning as much lately. But I do think that he’s going to find his way back into it.”
Fritz had a fabulous junior career, capped by his US Open Boys 18 title in September of 2015. He turned pro shortly thereafter and went on to win two Challenger titles (Fairfield and Sacramento) by the end of the year. He won another Challenger title in Happy Valley, Australia to open the 2016 campaign and then it was a fast rise up the rankings from there.
His first big splash on the ATP World Tour came in Memphis, when he knocked off Steve Johnson in the second round and made it all the way to the finals before losing to Kei Nishikori. That was followed by trips to the quarterfinals in Acapulco and Atlanta.
At the 2016 WSO, he beat fellow #NextGen star Frances Tiafoe in the first round and then lost to veteran Fernando Verdasco in three tight sets in the second round.
Adversity hit at the end of 2016, when he experienced knee problems that still haven’t been accurately diagnosed.
“I have never really gotten a for-sure answer about it,” Fritz said. “There’s nothing, like, wrong with my knee, because I have had all the scans, everything. There is nothing actually wrong with it. But, you know, I’m not making stuff up. I don’t know, sometimes I get this pain. I think it’s just the way I use my muscles. I think I put too much stress on that knee.”
The six-week layoff clearly hurt his conditioning, and he says he paid the price throughout the early months of 2017. There was a bit of success when he beat Marin Cilic at Indian Wells for his first match victory over a Top 10 opponent, but going into the summer he was still trying to regain his health and his 2016 form.
“The stronger I get, the faster I’ll move and the better I’ll hit the ball,” Fritz said. “That’s something I lost when I went out with my knee injury. The knee is the worst. You can’t do anything. I lost all my conditioning in my muscles. It really set me back.”
At the same time, Fritz is learning to deal with the burden of expectations. By bursting on the ATP scene the way he did, it comes with the territory.
“It’s always easier to play when you’re first on the tour,” Fritz said. “You’re new to it. You’re not expected to win. You can go out and just play really free. So much is being able to play free – hit your shots, no expectations. Now that I’ve done it, now I’m expected to come up with certain results. When there are things people are expecting you to do, it gets tough. I’m just trying to play free. I’m getting back to doing what I do best – not tightening up, not worrying about things.”
And while he insists he is not too concerned about his ranking right now in the big picture, he is definitely mindful of the Race to Milan standings. Even if he doesn’t make the top seven, there is an eighth and final spot that would go to a wildcard.
“I do want to be there,” Fritz said. “It’s something I feel like it would be a huge honor to be there, because there’s so many people that came up at the end of last year and this year, and the whole #NextGen campaign. So many new, amazing players that just make the race so much tougher. It’s something I just really want to do, I really want to make it for the first year. I think it would be really cool to be in it the first year.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: The Winston-Salem Open has showcased great up-and- coming players throughout its history from Kei Nishikori to Grigor Dimitrov to Jack Sock to David Goffin. The trend is sure to continue this year with a large group of #NextGen players jockeying for position in the ATP World Tour’s Race to Milan. This is the seventh in a series featuring #NextGen players who could be on hand for the seventh-annual WSO Aug. 19-26.