Are the next 12 months the major breakthrough that American tennis player Taylor Fritz has been working towards?
“I think I'm finally starting to come into it and I feel more comfortable on tour,” Fritz told Olympic Channel in an exclusive interview. “(I’m) starting to make big steps forward.”
The 22-year-old will look to turn those steps into strides in the coming weeks as he competes in the Western & Southern Open (traditionally held in Cincinnati) and the US Open, both scheduled for the Billie Jean King National Tennis Centre in New York City, as tennis gets back on track in this era of COVID.
“I think I'm playing the best tennis of my life,” said Fritz, ranked a career-high No.24 in the world when the tour was halted in March. “I worked harder than I ever have in my life (during lockdown) and never have been able to work this consistently because of the tennis schedule. I’m so excited to get back.”
Fritz aims to join tennis elite
A highly touted youngster, Fritz was the 2015 US Open boys’ champion and world no.1 junior.
With his thumping serve and booming forehand, the youngster earned comparisons with American great Pete Sampras.
But what was once a sport dominated by teenagers (Sampras won his first major at 19) is now ruled by the thirty-somethings, including No.1 Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and – until recently – Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka.
No one outside of that group has won a major since Marin Cilic's 2014 US Open triumph.
Enter Fritz. Though the 1.93m (6-foot-4) southern California native is a long shot to win Cincinnati or the US Open, he likes his chances to make a deep run – and also sees Tokyo 2020 in the distance as a major goal.
“I’d like to win a medal.” - Taylor Fritz on the Tokyo Olympic Games
As regards the next month in the United States, Fritz said, “It's tough to set expectations right now, but my expectations are so high. If I don't do really well at both tournaments, I'll be disappointed.
"I'm fully expecting to go in and go deep in both. Losing early just doesn't seem like an option for me, even though I know it is because you have bad days, you know… things happen. But that would be really disappointing. My expectations are very high."
In a wide-ranging interview, Fritz discussed those goals in detail, his love for the Olympics and Tokyo, how his coach has made him better, his family’s motivating factor and much more.
This interview is edited for clarity and length.
Olympic Channel (OC): Taylor, thank you for your time. You've said that you’ve been working hard in quarantine. In May you added a new trainer, Amoila Cesar. How have you used this time off from travelling?
Taylor Fritz: I've really stepped it up with this being the first time ever that we've had more than a month of not playing tournaments. I really feel like I've made big strides in my fitness on my game in the last two months.
I've been having three-hour practices and then some days go and do tennis again or go and do gym (a second time). It just depends if it's like a double gym day or a double tennis day. I've just been absolutely killing myself these last couple weeks.
OC: Tell us about your overall goals. What sort of future do you see for yourself in tennis?
Taylor Fritz: The next short-term goal is to be top 20 and hopefully be the number one American soon. [Fritz is currently No.2 behind John Isner, who is ranked No.21.] Then from there, I want to keep progressing to the top 15, top 10.
"The end goal, obviously, is to be number one in the world. I want to win a Grand Slam, stuff like that. I kind of have to take it one goal at a time until I get there."
Talkin' Tokyo 2020
OC: Let’s talk Olympics. What are your memories of watching them as a kid?
Fritz: Obviously watching Michael Phelps, I’m a huge fan. I remember always watching the gymnastics, you know, just like the big Olympic sports that are always shown on TV.
I was super into the decathlon. I thought that was really cool. I remember I would watch and then go do stuff like that in my backyard and I thought it was so cool. It’s really, really cool to actually be able to be a part of the Olympics now with tennis. I think that's awesome.
OC: Why are the Games so important to you?
Fritz: There's something about the Olympics. It's different from other tournaments because there is no prize money involved and no ATP ranking points. What's there is just the glory… it's… the Olympics, you know, the Olympics!
I had the chance to go in 2016 and I was like, "I don't feel that I have a chance at getting a medal, so why would I go?" That's how I looked at it. And now this time around, I'm hoping that I can be at the level playing well enough where that's a possibility. It would be so cool to have a medal playing for United States in the Olympics. It being the Olympics brings a whole different feeling.
OC: What’s changed in those four years since 2016? You’ve obviously matured a lot as a player and as a person.
Fritz: I'm just a much, much better player than I was at 18. I remember I was not playing that well during that specific time of the year. Now I’m physically stronger and I think I am much more able to beat a lot of these top guys.
Teamwork makes the dream work
OC: You’ve taken a lot of pride in playing Davis Cup, the team event, for the USA. What’s different there versus being on tour and playing for yourself?
Fritz: I think I've always played better when it's any situation where I'm playing for the U.S., for my country. I feel like I know I step up because you're playing for a team… the stakes are higher. You're playing for more than just like yourself.
So, there's more pressure and there's more intensity to it. I feel like I always play better (for a team), so the Olympics could suit me well.
OC: There is a whole crop of young American men – Reilly Opelka (world No.39), Tommy Paul (57) and Frances Tiafoe (81) – who are also your good friends and drive you to be better. How are you guys pushing one another?
Fritz: I think, first off, we’re all really good friends… probably my three best friends. It's like we all want to see each other succeed and we all want to do well. But at the same time, I'm sure we all want to do better than the other. At least I know I want to do (better than) everyone else.
We are early in our careers. Me and Frances, especially, pushed each other a lot in the last few years. I think there is a lot between he and I. Both of us always wanted to be better than the other. Now, it goes all ways with all four of us. I think we all push each other just to be the best and work harder.
Taylor Fritz x Paul Annacone: "He's stuck with me"
OC: You’ve played three times in Tokyo. Is it right that you have an affinity for the city?
Fritz: I absolutely love Tokyo. I think Tokyo is one of my favourite cities to go to in the world. I'm so excited for the Olympics to be there. That’s one of the cool things to me about the Olympics, just being in Tokyo.
The food is incredible in Tokyo… I love the food so much. The people are so nice and it's really clean. I've always liked Japanese culture and all the cool things to do there. I was telling Reilly (Opelka) how much I loved it. And then he went and he's like, "Yes, my favourite place too."
OC: You’ve had Paul Annacone on your coaching team for a couple years now. He’s worked with both Sampras and Roger Federer in the past, helping them to Slam titles. What impact has he had on you?
Fritz: I'm seeing Paul every single day. He's stuck with me for at least two to three hours every single day working on the court (this summer). I think he's definitely given me different ways to look at things… a different perspective. I always think that I know best and that I'm right, but he tells me when I'm not. Obviously we go back and forth sometimes as I'm not the easiest to coach, but he is just someone whose opinion I really respect.
I think with him, we've improved on so many things, especially coming into the net and the attacking aspects of my game. Ever since he's been a part of my team I've only gone up. I definitely would never want to change a winning strategy.
OC: We’ve talked around the last few months a bunch, but how has it been for you? You were having a great run of form when the tennis tours went dark in early March.
Fritz: Yeah, I know I was. It was especially tough for me because I was just coming off of a really good result in Acapulco [Fritz lost to Rafael Nadal in his fifth career ATP final]. I was so excited to get to Indian Wells and Miami. I had not done well in those two tournaments last year so I had a really good chance to really take my ranking up with good results.
It was definitely tough to not play those events. At first it was nice to have some time off and just do nothing and that's exactly what I did. And then maybe like a month or six weeks in is when I started kind of getting back to work.
It’s now been close to three months of consistently hard, really hard work. I know I'm in by far the best shape my life. Paul last week said that it was the best week of practice we've ever had. I can just see the difference in my body and tennis.
"I'll probably post it at some point, but I took a 'before' picture how I was after about a month and a half of doing nothing and then one of where I am now. It's actually pretty cool how bad I was and how far I've come now."
US Open bubble: "I don't mind it"
OC: There has been lots of discussion in tennis about how strict the US Open 'bubble' is going to for players, only being allowed to be on the grounds of the tournament and then where you’re staying. How does that impact you?
Fritz: The good news about the bubble is it suits people like me who love to just stay in the (hotel) room and just watch shows and do nothing. I actually think it's going to give me a bit of an advantage.
Obviously I do like to go out to dinner and stuff in New York; it’s a place that has such good restaurants. I'm gonna be bummed not being able to go to my favourite spots. But, I'm not going to have too much trouble with the bubble. I think staying in the room and ordering in every night and relaxing… I don't mind it. It will be more boring, but it's actually not going to be too different to what I normally do at a tournament anyway.
OC: Your son, Jordan, is three now. What has fatherhood taught you about tennis? And vice versa?
Fritz: Good question. I think I've definitely learned a lot about time management. Just trying to balance the two, especially because I'm so tired after practice or a match. Jordan loves when I read to him, so I’ll be reading and then falling asleep because I’m so tired.
It's tough to be away and travel and not see him as much as I want to. But no, I think it's taught me a lot of a lot of time management I would say.
OC: What else is he into other than books?
Fritz: Jordan loves baseball, soccer, tennis, basketball. He loves to read, loves to play with his Lego, love loves the Legos. I think he has every Lego set that I could possibly find and buy. He loves cars, doing puzzles. Jungle gyms, too… stuff like that.
Family impact... and FIFA
OC: Your parents have been very impactful, too, on your tennis, with your dad as your coach for so long and your mom (Kathy May) being a former top 10 player on the WTA.
Fritz: You know, my dad was my coach my whole life up until basically when I turned pro and I felt like I kind of just needed something different because… my dad and I would just… well, he’s my dad.
We were getting into too many fights. And I just needed someone I would be motivated to work hard for.
My mom was always there. I think the biggest thing that they did for me was help me make the right decisions with my career… going to play this tournament, or not playing that tournament… going to school, all of that. They helped me make educated decisions. For them, it was ‘been there before and done that,’ so I think they got me in the right direction for sure.
OC: There’s a story about you and your mom playing in a mother/son tournament. She’s with you on tour now sometimes, too.
Fritz: My mom never really pushed too hard. I think with the tennis, she kind of left my dad to take the lead. And I don't think my mom really cared too much if I played or not. But always, like I said, she helped steer me in the right direction.
OC: Finally, you’re known as one of the best video-game players on the tennis tour. Earlier this spring you actually won a couple of virtual events when they were happening online. What’s the gaming scene like on the tennis tour?
Fritz: I'm not sure what everyone else is doing right now, but a lot are playing Call of Duty. That's a pretty standard, basic game that everyone likes. Nick (Kyrgios) is unreal at it. He’s 100 percent better than me when it comes to that.
But if anyone on tour wants a game of FIFA, I'll give it to them and I can guarantee I won't lose. No one can beat me.
Actually, I haven't played too many video games lately to be honest. I've been so busy and tired. It's actually been the least I've ever played in my life. Last two weeks. But, Call of Duty, Fortnite, FIFA… I think that’s it.