Tuesday, October 13, 2015

This is Sparta: Fritz beats Donaldson for first pro title

"If I enter Laconia, I will raze Sparta to the ground." - Philip of Macedonia

"If."- the Spartans

The term "laconic" derives from the Greek region Laconia, which included Sparta. Its ancient residents were notoriously men of few words. But they were fierce warriors, and defended their homeland with legendary valor.
Taylor Fritz. (c) Jonathan Kelley, On the Rise

If ever there was a tennis player of few words, budding American star Taylor Fritz is that player. Take his comically short speech at the trophy presentation, following his thrilling win over Jared Donaldson at the Sacramento Challenger. The loquacious Donaldson had just got done thanking the tournament, the sponsors, his supporters in the crowd, his supporters not in the crowd, and congratulating Fritz for his title. Fritz then stepped up to the mic.

"It's my first challenger title and I'm so happy to do it here because the tournament is so well run. The atmosphere is great out here, the crowd is great, and I loved every moment of it and I'm so happy ... so happy ... to accomplish what I did here."

That was it -- his whole speech. Spartan in its austerity. But sincere.

In interviews earlier in the week with Mike Cation, the nearly 18-year-old Fritz was similarly taciturn, whereas the barely 19-year-old Donaldson was his usual mile-a-minute self-analyst. Their game styles aren't dissimilar - they both have big weapons on both sides, a desire to dictate points, and the ability to end points on their terms; both also possess excellent defensive skills - but their public personas couldn't be more different, both on-court and off-. Southern California's Fritz embodies West-coast languidity while Rhode Island's Donaldson is all East-coast intensity. It's a fun contrast.

On Sunday, Donaldson played the part Pyrrhus of Epirus, launching assault after assault on Sparta. He earned a total of 16 break points in the match, using his punishing groundstrokes and speed to put Fritz in trouble again and again. But time after time, Fritz stood strong, using big first serves and his own massive groundies to fend off the would-be conqueror. Only once did Fritz fail to win an ad-out point, and in the final set, the 17-year-old held strong on all six break points he faced.

It was starkly reminiscent of Fritz's second round match against Dustin Brown, in which the American staved off all but one of 14 break points.  (I'd make a Brown/Xerxes comparison here, but Xerxes is - perhaps racistly - now considered a villain in the popular consciousness, whereas Brown is anything but.)

(Funny thought: perhaps it was Fritz's Spartan nature that prevented him from enrolling at Troy.) (Okay, this metaphor has gone on long enough.)

Overall, the match was entertaining, high-level tennis. Fritz broke at love in the first game thanks to a brilliant, clean crosscourt forehand off a neutral ball, a shot that set the tone for the match. He made that break hold up to take the first set 6-4. Donaldson drew first blood in the second set, going up 0-40 on Fritz's serve at 2-3. He thought he had an inside-out forehand winner to break, but the chair umpire overruled and called it out. Two points later, however, a huge return led to a long forehand from Fritz and a primal "COME ON" from Donaldson. That break was the difference in the 6-3 second set. It proved to be a Pyrrhic victory.

Sorry, couldn't help it.

Fritz had a medical time-out before the third set for his thigh and immediately faced a break point in the next game. But as he did all week, he stubbornly held serve, and the pressure kept mounting on Donaldson. Donaldson responded impressively in the very next point, surviving a 26-stroke rally in which both players showed off their wheels and wiles, causing Cation to exclaim, "If this is the future of American tennis, you have to be absolutely thrilled." (Watch below at 1:32:15.)

Donaldson kept fighting, even as he saw break points dissipate; he overcame his own 0-40 deficit at 3-4. Fritz then held for 5-4, at which point Donaldson called for a trainer for his left leg.

In the final game, the key point came on a game point for Donaldson. Up 40-30, he hit a big serve out wide, then followed up with a wicked forehand into the deuce corner. Fritz could only throw up a meek defensive lob that didn't reach the service line. Donaldson set up for a forehand winner to take the match to 5-5 ... and sent it wide. He repeatedly smacked his head, knowing the import of that shot. Two points later and Fritz had his title.
So what does it all mean? Is Taylor Fritz the Next Big Thing as so many want him to be? He's got the game, the confidence, and the demeanor. He wins big matches (see: U.S. Open juniors) and his upward trajectory can't be ignored - he's come so far in the last year. But there's no such thing as an inexorable rise in tennis these days, and after all, only one other name on the youngest-American-to-win-a-Challenger list won multiple major titles; neither Tommy Ho nor Jonathan Stark ever reached the ATP Top 20 (Ho topped out at #85).

And what of Jared Donaldson? Will his natural talent, fierce desire, and apparent work ethic take him to the very top? Or will his temper and hyperactive brain conspire to impose a ceiling (which is undoubtedly still well inside the Top 50)?

Tennis fans can only hope we see the two young men face each other many more times in the near future. Two immense talents bringing out the best in each other (similar to the Kozlov/Tiafoe Kalamazoo final this summer). I see very, very bright futures for both guys.

On Sunday, Sparta won the first battle of what we hope will be a very long, even epic war.

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