Taylor Fritz Is the Great (and Slightly Reluctant) Hope for American Men’s Tennis

Now, as he heads into the biggest clay court tournament of them all, the French Open, Fritz is coming off other setbacks: a pulled stomach muscle from April’s Monte-Carlo Masters and a recent bout of the flu. The top-seeded American man in the tournament, and the 13th ranked player in the world, he faces Argentinian qualifier Santiago Fa Rodriguez in the first round, on Monday May 23.

He’s hoping to fare better than he did at last year’s French Open, when he was wheeled off the clay after a second round loss to Germany’s Dominik Koepfer. Fritz had felt a pop in his right knee during match point, and once he sat down, was unable to stand again. He underwent surgery, and then spent three and half hours a day, six days a week, doing physical therapy. His meniscus was still intact, the damaged cartilage was snipped out, and Fritz adhered to a high-protein diet to minimize, purely inflammation for the sake of making it to Wimbledon on time. His dad is worried. “Everyone told him not to play Wimbledon, including me,” Guy says. “I begged him not to play. I thought the grass was too slippery.” Miraculously, three weeks post-op, Fritz waltzed into the third round of the tournament.

He knows he’s lucky that he hasn’t had to deal with a truly sidelining injury yet, the kind of perpetual frailty that certain players become associated with—think of Andy Murray’s hip or Roger Federer’s knee—and that can derail a good year, or worse, a promising career. “If you’re out for a couple months,” Fritz says, “it’s going to absolutely destroy your ranking.”

Off the court, Fritz splits his time between Miami and his native California, where he grew up in dreamy Rancho Santa Fe, California, 20 miles north of downtown San Diego. Fritz’s dad, now in his second stint as the head men’s tennis coach at the College of the Desert, in the town of Desert Springs, had him out on the family’s private backyard court at the age of 2. Fritz started with a two-handed toddler forehand grip, occasionally hitting balls into the side of the ball machine across the net. “He couldn’t even pronounce ‘ball machine’ yet,” says Guy, “so he’d tell me, ‘Daddy, I hit the ‘chine, I hit the ‘chine.”

In Fritz’s recollection, as a kid, he didn’t even like tennis that much. He loved to compete, but mostly in other sports—basketball, lacrosse, baseball, football. The slog of tennis practice was hard to get through. Both of his parents had been professional tennis players, though—his mom, Kathy May, was once ranked number 10 in the world, having reached the quarterfinals of three Grand Slams—and Fritz knew he wanted to be a professional athlete, too. So, at age 14, he dropped the sports he loved most for the one he showed the most promise in. Three years later he turned pro.

For anyone considering a career in tennis, playing the 110-degree court heat at the USTA training facilities in Boca Raton is a good litmus test, and at 15, Fritz started making the occasional sojourn to the famed headquarters. When he first arrived, he quickly fell in with two other young American players who were already living in the dorms together—Reilly Opelka, who would become known for his monstrous serve and staggering height, and Tommy Paul, lightning quick and deft on clay. “We were all practicing on clay,” Paul says, “and in California there’s not a lot of clay courts out there, so I remember him showing up and just looking all clumsy.” At one point, Fritz wiped out on a treadmill going 6.5 mph. “We saw him and were like, what a Cali kid. He was just super California.” Apparently Fritz was the only one at that age using hair gel. That, and he brought self tanner spray with him to Florida to maintain his “California glow.”

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