Below is the cover story for the January/February 2022 issue of Long Island Tennis Magazine.
At the French Open this year, American Taylor Fritz had to be taken off of the famed red clay in a wheelchair. Fritz felt a pop in his knee during the second-round clash with Dominick Koepfer, and the results from an MRI the next day revealed a torn meniscus.
He would be forced to fly home to California and have surgery. Despite that, Fritz made a commitment to himself to be ready in time for Wimbledon, which happens only a few weeks after the French Open.
“The day I got the MRI, a day after I tore my meniscus, was 28 days away from the start of Wimbledon, and I was told some people can come back from this in about a month,” Fritz told ESPN in an interview back in June. “So I thought, ‘Well, it’s possible.’...I was just really determined and I kind of had this goal. I’m a very stubborn person, so when I put in my mind that I want to play Wimbledon, that’s all I could think about. So I was just really motivated and determined.”
That determination led to Fritz working hard to recover and rehab, and he was indeed ready to return to action at Wimbledon. There, he won his first two rounds before running into Germany’s Alexander Zverev in an exciting third-round clash. Zverev would win in four tough sets, and while Fritz’s run at Wimbledon would come to an end, his dogged determination to recover from injury, and the toughness he showed, served as a seminal moment not only for his season, but also his career.
Following that defeat at Wimbledon, Fritz, who is still just 24-years-old despite being on the professional tour for six years already, put together a dominant end of the season.
At the U.S. Open in Queens, he outlasted Alex de Minaur in five sets, before falling to compatriot Jenson Brooksby in a physical, four-set affair that lasted more than four hours.
While that defeat was a difficult one for Fritz to bear, it would set the stage for a career-altering final few months of the year. In an interview with ATPWorldTour.com in October, one of Fritz’s coaches, David Nainkin, discussed that loss and what it would mean for Fritz moving forward.
“The summer’s been probably below-par for him. He hasn’t done as well as he thought,” Nainkin said. “Losing to a good Jenson Brooksby, that was a great match. But since the U.S. Open, we had three great weeks of training. He’s in a really good place with is game. He’s been practicing well, and I think he’s in a good place going into the next five weeks of tournaments.”
That statement would prove to be prophetic, as Fritz closed out the 2021 season playing the best tennis of his career. It began in Indian Wells at the BNP Paribas Open, where he knocked off Italians Jannik Sinner and Matteo Berrettini, before a Wimbledon rematch with Zverev in the quarterfinals. Fritz fell behind 2-5 in the third set, but showed fight and toughness to come back from that deficit to stun Zverev.
In doing so, Fritz advanced to the first Masters 1000 semifinal of his career.
“I was really down and out but I kind of found a way to put myself into it,” Fritz said. “I was able to get back into the match. It just feels really great to play well with the pressure on. It’s amazing, such high emotions until the very end, with the crowd. It’s a dream come true, really.”
While he would lose in the semifinals to Georgian Nikoloz Basilashvili, reaching a Masters 1000s semifinal was a milestone for him, and one he would build on. The following week, he reached the finals in St. Petersburg, and then defeated sixth-ranked Andrey Rublev on his way to the quarterfinals in Paris.
In all, Fritz finished his year with wins in 12 of his final 16 matches, which brought his ranking to a career-high of 23rd in the world, and thus will enter 2022 as the highest- ranked American man.
It’s a big step for the young American, but just one of many he plans on taking in his career.
“[It’s] obviously a goal that I’ve worked for my whole life so it’s amazing to see it happen,” Fritz said while back home in California competing in World TeamTennis. “But you know I’m ranked 23 in the world right now, and I want to go so much higher. So being the number one American is cool but the next goal and next step is to see myself in the top 10.”
Fritz will now headline the list of American men aiming to end the decades-long Grand Slam champion drought. Not since Andy Roddick won the U.S. Open back in 2003 has an American man won a major title. The mantle of the next great American man has been bestowed on a number of players before, both fairly and unfairly, but it seems as though Fritz has moved up to the next level of his career. After scoring wins over multiple players in the Top 10 this season, including pushing top- ranked Novak Djokovic to five sets at the Australian Open back in January, Fritz is now ready to continue rising up the ranks.
Beginning the season as the top- ranked American comes with its pressures, but the easy-going, California-mentality that Fritz possesses helps him shrug off some of that weight.
“He’s one of the best competitors I’ve seen and his game has actually evolved and improved,” said Nainkin. “It’s been a battle over the past three or four years trying to break into the top 20, top 15. He’s kind of bumped his head in the third round of majors. I’d say that’s the biggest hurdle for him, that he hasn’t really gotten through that.”
Moving to the next stages of majors is the next step for Fritz in his development, and the American has proven he has the ability to play with any opponent. American tennis fans have been spoiled by the success of the women over recent years, notably Serena and Venus Williams, but also Sofia Kenin, Madison Keys, Sloane Stephens and more. But they still crave a men’s champion, or at least the hope of having a men’s champion, and at this point in time, that hope may rest on Fritz’s shoulders.
Brian Coleman is the Senior Editor for Long Island Tennis Magazine. He may be reached at email@example.com.