Fritz Proving Everyone Wrong This Clay-Court Season
The critics and doubters be damned, Taylor Fritz was going to prove to everyone that he could play on clay this season.
For years, the American with a relatively flat, powerful game thought he had never reached his full potential during the European clay-court swing. Two years ago, he skipped the entire stretch to train, and in other years, he started playing midway through the swing, only finding his best game as the main clay-court season ended.
“He's trying to prove to us that he loves the clay,” Nainkin told ATPTour.com.
His coaches listened, entering him into a tournament every week of the clay-court swing, and Fritz has become a man of his word: The 21-year-old American has beaten some of the game's leading clay-court players, including Argentine Guido Pella, this season's clay-court wins leader and Brasil Open champion, and Internazionali BNL d'Italia semi-finalist Diego Schwartzman, a two-time clay-court titlist.
Fritz has brought his high level to Lyon this week as well. Fritz beat Czech qualifier Jiri Vesely in straight sets to make the second round, received a walkover against Richard Gasquet (back) and, on Thursday, he beat Doha champion Roberto Bautista Agut to make his first tour-level semi-final of the year.
“I think that people just work it out in their heads that [clay] is not for me, even though the results will say otherwise,” Fritz said. “I'm glad I listened to myself... because it's working well.”
The 2018 Next Gen ATP Finals qualifier has a few theories as to why people have thought of the clay season as a good time for him to train or rest rather than play and win.
No. 1: He's from the United States, which has struggled of late to produce clay-court champions who can win “Big Titles”. For instance, Andre Agassi was the last American to win a clay-court ATP Masters 1000 title, in 2002 (Rome).
Fritz, with his big serve and big forehand, also hardly has the game that conjures up a clay-court champion, someone sliding around the red dirt and chasing down every ball.
But the 6'4” right-hander was the 2015 Roland Garros junior boys finalist, and he's always felt comfortable on the surface.
“It suits my game a lot. It surprises people, but it doesn't really surprise me, especially with the more I'm learning on clay,” Fritz said.
He can produce more spin on his forehand on the red dirt, and the ball bounces up higher, teeing up his best shot. The slower bounce off the clay also helps him stay in more rallies.
“It puts more emphasis on the groundstrokes, which, from the baseline, when I have time, is one of my best strengths as a player,” he said.
Nainkin, one of his coaches, says Fritz's increased strength, which has helped him stay in longer rallies, and his clean ball-hitting abilities also especially help him on clay.
“He's got great timing and great timing leads to the ability to change direction earlier than your opponent, which puts you in an offensive position,” Nainkin said. “The men's game gets to a point of, who has better positioning and who can go down the line first with more authority? And when Taylor is playing his best, that's what he produces, even on the clay.”
In past years, though, Fritz has hardly had a chance to show off those strengths on clay. During the last three years, he's played only nine clay-court events, a number he'll nearly match this year alone. So far, the American has played all seven weeks of the main clay-court season, with Roland Garros still to come.
He started in Houston, then went to Monte-Carlo, Barcelona, Estoril, Madrid, Rome and now Lyon. Fritz is 6-6 so far, with his best run coming at the season's first Masters 1000 on clay, the Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters, where he beat Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Schwartzman before falling to No. 1 Novak Djokovic in the third round.
Four of Fritz's six losses have come to Djokovic and No. 7 Kei Nishikori of Japan.
“It's a little bit upsetting to constantly be losing to these guys, but I just need to keep working. I think once I beat one of these guys the floodgates will open, and I'll start doing it more consistently,” said Fritz, who is 2-12 lifetime against Top 10 players.
Watch From 2017 Uncovered: Fritz Introduces His Family
Through the wins and the losses, though, Fritz has had company. His wife, Raquel, and their two-year-old son, Jordan, have been with him the entire time he's been in Europe.
They have made proving everyone wrong and playing well on the clay that much more enjoyable.
“By this time, I would have been really missing my family and missing being with Jordan, so it's good that every single day I can see him at the courts, be with him as much as I possibly can,” Fritz said.
“I'm always in a good mood... It's impossible for me not to be smiling and happy when he's around, because he's just so funny. He's at that age where he's talking a lot. He's so cute and so funny. It's just been a big help.”
Editor's Note: This story has been updated to reflect Thursday's Lyon results.