Young Guns: Americans to Watch at the US Open

Taylor Fritz, Francis Tiafoe and Noah Rubin lead the new generation of American male tennis players.

Taylor Fritz, Francis Tiafoe and Noah Rubin lead the new generation of American male tennis players.

As the red, white and blue fades from a sport that is graying around the world, there are growing hopes for the future of American men’s tennis but none brighter or shinier right now than Taylor Fritz.  

Fritz, an 18-year-old from Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., won the boys’ tournament at last year’s U.S. Open and then soared up the professional ranks at breakneck velocity, nearly unheard of in an era where 30 really is the new 20 and teenage prodigies are no longer the norm. He reached the final of just his third ATP tournament, last February in Memphis, and he’s the youngest man in the top 100, where he has comfortably staked out residence at his current ranking of 54, his career best. Fritz will be the youngest man directly entered into this year’s U.S. Open on merit of his ranking, a position he says he could not have imagined a year ago.

“I think I was just like, ‘Wow, I’m surprised my level—my average level—is where it’s at,” Fritz said. “Once I got to the ATP level I was also surprised. ‘Wow, I can compete here, too.’ ”

At 6-foot-4, Fritz plays fluidly, with easy power, but believes his strengths can improve.

“I’m finding that I need to make a lot of improvements in my movement, strengthening up my weapons—my serve, my forehand, my groundstrokes—to take that next step where I can start beating that next level of players on a more regular basis.”

Fritz hasn’t shied away from the toughest competition, either. Instead of picking sparsely attended hard-court tournaments in Asia where he could have propped up his ranking even further, Fritz spent the spring with the games best at the Masters events on slow European clay.

“I even actually asked Roger [Federer] about scheduling when I ran into him at a basketball game,” Fritz said. “From every one, the consensus was, ‘What are you talking about? Play up.’ Anyone who had been a top player couldn’t see the reasoning of wanting to play down when you could play up. And I thought about that, and it’s true. If you want to be the best and you want to be a top player, you can’t be scared of going to the biggest stages and competing at the biggest stages when you can.”

Fritz, who later lost to Federer in three sets at a grass-court tournament in Stuttgart in June, got to a bigger stage against then-No. 5-ranked Stan Wawrinka at Wimbledon, where he played on Court 1, which seats 11,360.

“I can match their level or stay at their level for points, for games, certain times for a set, but I can’t keep that level throughout the whole match,” Fritz said. “Anyone could have seen that against Wawrinka.”

Wawrinka, the 2015 French Open champion, was impressed, though, and practiced with Fritz in Ohio as they prepared for the Cincinnati Masters.

“He has great potential,” Wawrinka said of Fritz. “He’s really young, and he has a lot to do, but he’s already there.”

Wawrinka was also impressed that Fritz has enlisted the help of recently retired former American standout Mardy Fish, who in addition to his veteran coach David Nainkin, has served as a mentor for Fritz this year.

Fish, who is working as an adviser to many young Americans on behalf of the United States Tennis Association, said he could tell that Fritz’s parents—both professional tennis players themselves—had fostered a rare, innate talent.

“He’s got a great tennis mind far beyond his age,” Fish said of Fritz. “He’s got a really good feel for the game of tennis, and he’s got incredible strive. He wants to be great, not really good. He wants to be one of the best of his generation, which is impressive at that age. You don’t find them really understanding professionalism and work ethic and what it takes.

“He’s 18, so he’s not going to know everything, but you get a good sense of how good he wants to be at the game. It’s pretty impressive at his age. As far as his actual playing is concerned, it’s incredible what he’s done so quickly.”

Despite the praise and the eagerness for a young American hope now that the nation is again without a single representative in the ATP top 20, Fritz is careful to keep himself in check.

“When all these people say these great things are going to happen in the future, it’s easy to think you’ve already made it,” he said. “It’s easy to get a big head and think because they’re saying it that it’s going to be true. But because they’re saying it, that’s even more reason to put your head down and work hard.”

Fritz occasionally betrays his age—he’s at level 23 of Pokémon Go and is eager to find the Asian regional exclusives when the tour shifts to there this fall—but a thoughtful maturity is clear. From that comes a clarity of purpose which can at times catch observers off guard, never more so than in June when he proposed to his girlfriend Raquel Pedraza in Paris. The two 18-year-olds married weeks later in July.

Fritz said he appreciated the stability that having her accompany him on tour brought him off court and thought that it was a commitment worth making with Pedraza, whom he had dated for three years and who decided to postpone college to continue to travel with him. Fritz also, again, looked in emulation of the so-called “Big Four” of men’s tennis, all of whom have been in long-term relationships during their time at the top.

“You look at the best players in the world, and they’ve all been with the same partner their whole lives,” Fritz explained. “Or at least from my age or so, from their teenage years: [Novak] Djokovic, [Andy] Murray, Federer and Rafa [Nadal], all from very young ages. I think that shows something. If you have someone on your team who understands your career and understands what it’s like and supports you, I think that’s a huge, huge help. I think that just says a lot. I think it keeps you focused, and you can’t argue with the fact that that’s one thing all those guys have in common.”

Fritz counts many more of the young Americans among his closest friends, including the one he said there is the greatest rivalry with: Frances Tiafoe, an 18-year-old Marylander who has surged toward the top 100 this summer—and who beat Fritz in their first ATP Tour-level match earlier this year at Indian Wells.

For Tiafoe, who gained attention for his brief partnership with Jay Z’s management agency Roc Nation, preternatural professionalism did not come as easily. 

“I don’t think I got bigheaded by any of the hype by any means,” Tiafoe said. “It takes time for everyone, and everyone comes at a different time. I think now is my time. 

“It takes adjusting to—I’m still young and like to have fun, but you have to take accountability for yourself and know the times when you can joke around and when you can be serious,” Tiafoe said. “This time is pretty serious for me, going into the Open, and knowing I can win the matches and get inside the top 100, making the big jump for the next step of my career.”

Though he has not played frequently at the ATP level, Tiafoe’s physicality has left an impression on many of his international peers. Alexander Zverev, a 19-year-old German wunderkind who has beaten Federer this year, held match point against Nadal at Indian Wells and is closing in on the top-25, was cited by Fish as someone Fritz could look to for motivation beyond the other Americans. Zverev himself, though, was quick to cite Tiafoe when asked about other young Americans.

“Fritz is top 100, but I really like the way Frances Tiafoe is playing,” Zverev said. “He’s a very aggressive player. He’s still young, so he has to learn a little bit, but I think he’ll be very dangerous in the future.’

Though Fritz and Tiafoe may be the ones with the more natural gifts, the cavalry of American tennis is deep. Twenty-year-old Noah Rubin of Long Island, who won the Wimbledon junior title in 2014, missed this year’s grass season with an ankle injury but remains one of the best competitors in this rising generation.

“There’s a very fine line between wanting to be patient—which is great because you’re going to have a long career—but you have to be impatient every day. Every day you have to fight for it and act like it’s being taken away from you. No matter what, you have to keep pushing every single day,” Rubin said, adding that he believes the other Americans can feed off each other’s company.

“We have a great group of guys that can push each other. That motivation will keep everybody on edge and pushing for more. It’s definitely beneficial for the progress of a tennis player.

“I’m excited to see where everybody is a year or two years from now. Hopefully we’re all at the top.”