FRITZMANIA!

Taylor Fritz

I’m starting to get a bit excited about one Taylor Harry Fritz. Who is Taylor Harry Fritz? He’s an 18-year old American who just lost to Kei Nishikori in the final of the Memphis Open. OK, the Memphis Open is an ATP 250 – small potatoes on the tour. Why am I excited about Fritz? Is it only so I can come up with such a ridiculous term as Fritzmania? (You heard it here first, by the way.) And aren’t I jumping the gun?

Well, let’s consider a few things. As of Monday, February 15, 2016, here are the dozen highest ranked Americans with their current age:

11. John Isner (30)
23. Jack Sock (23)
31. Steve Johnson (26)
58. Donald Young (26)
61. Sam Querrey (28)
65. Denis Kudla (23)
89. Rajeev Ram (31)
102. Taylor Fritz (18)
103. Austin Krajicek (25)
129. Tim Smyczek (28)
130. Ryan Harrison (23)
147. Bjorn Fratangelo (22)
148. Dennis Novikov (22)

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As you can see, Fritz is not only the highest ranked American teenager, but the highest ranked American who is not legal to drink alcohol, or even yet 22-years old. After Fritz, here are the next six highest ranked American teenagers:

159. Jared Donaldson (19)
177. Francis Tiafoe (18)
245. Noah Rubin (19)
249. Tommy Paul (18)
334. Ernesto Escobedo (19)
341. Stefan Kozlov (18)

Donaldson, Tiafoe, and Rubin have all gotten some buzz, but as of right now Fritz is the only young American who is on the move and within striking distance of a spot within the Top 100. Donaldson is almost exactly a year older,  and has been stagnating for a bit in the 101-200 range, first breaking into the Top 200 a year ago; Tiafoe, on the other hand, is steadily moving up. Kozlov is another who has received some recognition as a prospect, but he’s not playing much. Plus, he (and Tiafoe) only turned 18 just a couple weeks ago, so we can forgive them if they don’t start demanding attention this year.

Who is Taylor Fritz? Well, he played his first ATP tour at the Aegon Open event in June of 2015 at the tender age of 17, winning his first match against Pablo Carreno Busta before losing to Feliciano Lopez. He officially turned pro in September after winning the Junior US Open against Tommy Paul, and then quickly rose hundreds of positions within the rankings by winning multiple Challenger events, finishing his first year at No. 174 in the world.

This year he is showing lots of promise. He beat No. 100 Dudi Sela in the Happy Valley Challenger final, then made it through the Australian Open qualification rounds, losing to No. 22 Jack Sock in the first round, although in five sets. Finally, he just made it to the Memphis Open final, although lost to No. 5 Kei Nishikori.

Understand that this is a kid who is 18 years and 4 months old. Fritz is listed as 6’4”, 185 lbs – a tall kid, although not quite in the range that often entails physical issues (knock on wood). Steve Tignor say of Fritz that he “has an aggressive mindset and his shots have a natural pop,” but also warns that “he doesn’t move or hit as smoothly as [Alexander] Zverev,” comparing him to the German 18-year old prospect.

In my mind, that “aggressive mindset” is particularly encouraging, a quality lacking not only in recent American players, but young players in general. I can live with him not being fully polished at 18, but we’ve seen a lot of talented and smooth-playing young players over the last few years without the requisite mindset to be a champion – Grigor Dimitrov comes most readily to mind, but consider other and older underachieving talents like Ernest Gulbis, Richard Gasquet, and David Nalbandian.

The other aspect that excites me is the American factor. We have not seen a Top 5 American player since Andy Roddick, and he couldn’t quite live up to the great Americans of the 90s – namely Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, and Jim Courier. Since the retirement of Agassi, American men’s tennis has been a shadow of its former dominance in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. After Roddick we’ve seen Mardy Fish, John Isner, and disappointments like Sam Querrey, Donald Young, and Ryan Harrison. But no perennial Top 10 players and no Slam winners since Roddick’s 2003 US Open title.

Fritz is actually now No. 98 in the live rankings and poised to move up with a good showing at the Delray Beach ATP 250. If he wins the tournament he’s on the verge of the Top 50. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves yet.

Regardless, the point is that Fritz is rising fast. Even if he goes out early at Delray, he’s still situated where he is likely to continue rising quickly. Being in the Top 100 means more than just bragging rights; it also means a player bypasses qualifications and enters the first round of Grand Slam events.

Let’s assume that Fritz not only makes it into but stays in the Top 100. He would do so at the age of 18, although would end the year at age 19. Here are the American teenagers who have finished the year in the Top 100 during the ATP rankings era (1973-present):

2011: Ryan Harrison (#79, 19)
2007: Donald Young (#100, 18)
2001: Andy Roddick (#14, 19)
1991: Michael Chang (#15, 19)
1990: Pete Sampras (#5, 19), Michael Chang (#15, 18)
1989: Michael Chang (#5, 17), Andre Agassi (#7, 19), Jim Courier (#24, 19), Pete Sampras (#81, 18)
1988: Andre Agassi (#3, 18), Michael Chang (#30, 16), Jim Courier (#43, 18), Pete Sampras (#97, 17)
1987: Andre Agassi (#25, 17)
1986: Aaron Krickstein (#26, 19), Andre Agassi (#91, 16)
1985: Aaron Krickstein (#29, 18)
1984: Aaron Krickstein (#12, 17), Jimmy Brown (#100, 19)
1983: Jimmy Brown (#45, 18), Aaron Krickstein (#94, 16)
1982: Jimmy Brown (#97, 17)
1978: John McEnroe (#4, 19), Eliot Teltscher (#42, 19)
1977: John McEnroe (#21, 18)

That list covers 43 years of ATP rankings and includes 11 American players who have ranked in the year-end Top 100 as teenagers. As you can see, a promising American teenager wasn’t uncommon from the 70s into the 90s, but after the great 90s generation of Agassi, Sampras, Courier, and Chang, we’ve only seen a few – and only Roddick turned into an elite player.

Fritz will almost certainly be the 12th American teenager to finish a year in the Top 100, with at least Tiafoe having a good chance of being the 13th.

Of those 11, we have:

3 All-time Greats: McEnroe, Agassi, Sampras
3 Slam winners: Courier, Chang, Roddick
2 Good Players: Teltscher, Krickstein
3 Mediocre Players: Brown, Young, Harrison

So of those 11, most (6) have gone on to win at least one Slam and three won 7 or more; 8 of the 11 were at least good players, with only three being mediocre.

It should go without saying that we cannot really predict Fritz’s future performance based simply upon his ranking relative to his age. By that logic, he could just as easily be another Ryan Harrison as he could be Pete Sampras, or more likely somewhere in-between. But what we can say is that Fritz is joining a small group of Americans, most of whom went on to be at least good players and more than half of whom won Slams. So just on that there’s room for optimism. And perhaps most of all, Taylor Harry Fritz is – as of this writing – the most promising young American men’s tennis player since Andy Roddick.

Finally.

Addendum
Fritz is one of several young players—including Zverev—who I’m watching and am excited about. After I finish up my Open Era Generation series, look for a blog or two about this new generation, and the quest for the next great men’s tennis player.

Cover Photo (Creative Commons License): mirsasha

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About Jonathan Northrop

Jonathan Northrop is the resident in-house analyst of numbers, trends and how they can be applied with an eye on tennis history. You can contact Jonathan via: eldude@tennisfrontier.com
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