Monday, February 15, 2016

Go ahead, get on the Fritzwagon

Taylor Fritz. (c) Jonathan Kelley, On the Rise
Jonathan Kelley, proprietor of On the Rise (a tennis blog), hereby requests the pleasure of your company, along with a guest, aboard the Taylor Harry Fritz bandwagon. The Fritzwagon.

Please reply by February 16, 2016.

(Regrets only.)

Look, I understand the hesitation. After all, you don't have to go back too far to see a plethora of young American tennis players who have been hyped -- hell, we'll say it: overhyped -- only to fail to live up to overwhelming expectations. They win a couple of matches on a big stage and all of a sudden it's "Future of American tennis!!!" this and "Next grand slam champion??????" that. And it doesn't pan out.

Who knows exactly why this happens? Perhaps the young player became too enamored with their own idea of celebrity in our celebrity-first culture. Perhaps they were crushed under the weight of hopes and expectations. Perhaps they weren't as talented as we hoped, or had insurmountable injury setbacks. Perhaps they took their foot off the pedal while other, less spotlit players from less media-saturated countries put their heads down and ... wait, I think I mixed metaphors there. Everyone: keep your head up while driving.

Anyway, for whatever reason, the greatest tennis country in history, the United States of America, hasn't produced any multiple slam champions -- and only one new single-slam champion -- since the legendary Williams Sisters broke through nearly 20 years ago. It's tough to get emotionally invested when you've been let down time and time again. Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me; fool me 28 times ...

So yes. Everyone, particularly those Big Media outlets, needs to weigh the benefits of that ESPN "Future Star" profile or Vanity Fair photo shoot or Very Special Hollywood Squares episode with Taylor Fritz. Give him, as Courtney Nguyen put it, space. And all of us, media and fans, need to keep our expectations in check. Don't be surprised or distraught if he struggles to win matches against players he "should" be beating handily, or finds himself in the midst of a bewildering losing streak come spring or summer.

But -- and I'm just talking to fellow tennis fans here, particularly once-bitten twice-shy American fans -- I'm here to say you should go ahead and get aboard that Fritzwagon. Because (AHSH* of course) Taylor Fritz is the real deal.

Here are 5 reasons why:

1) Talent. There are the pummeled forehands. The crosscourt backhand winners. The lob.
The footwork.
Seriously, though: he's got the size you want and a big-league serve. He plays impressive defense and explosive offense. He has a nice variety of shots and a good court awareness. Whatever holes are in his game are far from glaring, giving the field less to work with than with some other talented players.

2) Room for improvement. That said, he can definitely get better at net. He still is a bit coltish in his movement. His serve can get even better as can his backhand slice. He sometimes looks a little lost when Plan A isn't working. (But don't we all.) One thing is for certain: he can get better. And from what I have observed, he seems dead set on working on any and all weaknesses.

3) Attitude. Right after Fritz missed out on getting the USTA's Australian Open wildcard (by losing to Henri Laaksonen in the Champaign Challenger final), I interviewed him in the exercise room. He said he was disappointed, but motivated to work harder and he welcomed the challenge of going through qualifying. Flash-forward a couple of months: Fritz goes to Australia, wins a challenger, and after winning his first two Australian Open qualifying rounds, comes back from 0-4 in the final set of the final round to make his first grand slam main draw. I don't know what goes on in anyone's head, but from the outside Fritz definitely seems like a great self-motivator, who maintains a level head on and off court.

4) Playing well in big moments. It's not a coincidence that he took (a less-than-100%) Jack Sock to five sets in his first grand slam match. Nor that he is 3-1 in challenger finals. Nor that he is 10-2 in three-setters since the US Open (including 3-0 in third-set tiebreakers). Nor are his often gaudy break point saved numbers coincidental. At this point in his career, Fritz is more likely than not to play well in big matches, and at big moments in those big matches. Even if he doesn't win (see: Nishikori, Memphis), he will generally make his opponent play very, very good tennis until the end to beat him.

5) He's got company. Plenty of people have mentioned this, but Fritz is only the most advanced of a large group of American teens looking to make their mark in the ATP. Yes, Fritz has jumped ahead of his contemporaries in terms of results and ranking, but don't think that they're not still pushing him. Whether it's Jared Donaldson winning a challenger first, or Tommy Paul beating him in the French Open junior final, or Reilly Opelka beating him in the Wimbledon junior semifinals, or Stefan Kozlov beating him in the Kalamazoo semifinals, or Frances Tiafoe winning that Kalamazoo tournament, or Noah Rubin getting a grand slam win first, Fritz has been and will continue to be pushed by his fellow American teens for the foreseeable future. Between those guys and Michael Mmoh, Ernesto Escobedo, and Deiton Baughman (and Jack Sock and Denis Kudla and yes Ryan Harrison), we'll see plenty of other young Americans register impressive ATP accomplishments in the next couple of years. Those guys will help both divert some attention from Fritz and keep pushing him to excel.

All that is to say, dear fans of American tennis, that Taylor Fritz is worth score-following, worth putting aside a couple of hours when he's on TV (which he will be more and more frequently), worth investing some emotional cash in. Worth getting your reasonable hopes up for. Go ahead, root for him. There's room for everyone on the Fritzwagon, so long as you keep in mind the following: (1) he is still a teen, (2) he's playing for himself, not for us, and (3) being on the Fritzwagon (or any fanwagon) does not give you license to dump all over him if his results don't meet your expectations.

That said, welcome aboard, and enjoy the ride.

*Assuming he stays healthy.

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