The number one US men’s tennis player discusses pandemic psychology, Paul Annacone, and his ascent through the ATP ranks.
Tennis is a lonely pursuit, and such isolation inevitably breeds a steady stream of mind games. Some are predictable, like the toll an exceptionally short offseason plays on a young athlete. Others, less so, like travelling across four time zones to discover you’ll be playing in the earliest match of a major tournament.
Naturally, the mind games one must navigate to survive in such a competitive, isolated, combustible environment aren’t for everyone. Not every athlete is fit to coach themselves out of a two-set deficit. Few have the mettle to endure watching their name constantly fluctuate across a turbulent ranking system. But every so often, a rare competitor emerges that not only endures the mind games but relies upon them, like fuel powering an engine.
At just 23 years old and already the number one men’s player in America, Taylor Fritz has become the youngest and most promising of such competitors.
Taylor Fritz, GLORY May 2021 digital cover
But attempting to enter the gauntlet of professional sports requires athletes to come to terms with the mind games far younger than 23, a daunting challenge that Fritz grappled with during his freshman year of high school.
He received an invite to work with the United States Tennis Association (USTA) in Florida at a time when he was in the midst of a basketball season and preparing for lacrosse not long after, leaving tennis far from his mind when the offer arrived.
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“I hadn’t involved myself with USTA that much, mainly because I felt like it was a lot of work and I knew I was going to be one of the worst players there out of the invitation,” says Fritz, laughing at the recollection. “But I think playing a lot of other sports made me realize that I prefer playing an individual sport where I don’t need to rely on anyone else. […] The results are up to me only.”
Willingly sacrificing one’s position as a big fish in a small pond in favour of becoming an exceptionally tiny fish in one of the world’s largest ponds is a prospect few teenagers would entertain, but to Fritz, the idea of competition eventually drew him to Florida, where he would immerse himself fully into the sport for the first time.
“The time I spent there when I was 15 or 16 years old was probably the most I ever improved,” he says. And with peers and coaches alike invested in his success, thus began a whirlwind series of events that saw Fritz climb up the rankings to become one of the most formidable young players in the world.
But while the mind games associated with embarking on his tennis career may have seemed unnerving, in the world of professional sports, the pressure only swells with expectations of grandeur.
America is, of course, a country that reveres individual triumphs and brash independence. So, as Fritz continued his ascension up the ATP (Association of Tennis Professionals) rankings, as did the country’s hopes for its next generational star. The US has a storied history of personable stars dominating the tennis spotlight, be it Andre Agassi or John McEnroe, but it’s now been 18 years since Andy Roddick took home the last American men’s Grand Slam tournament win at the 2003 US Open and, the longer the drought continues, the more desperate fans become to anoint the next great American star.
“There’s a lot of [pressure],” admits Fritz. “I felt more of it when I was 18 because that’s when everyone is really laying it on. […] Back then, things were just happening so fast. I went from being ranked, like, 800 in the men’s—I hadn’t really played any professional tennis at all—and then six months later I was top 100 in the world. I was absolutely shocked. Everything happened so fast that I couldn’t believe where I was. Since then, my personal expectations for myself went up so much that when I finally get these breakthroughs and reach these milestones—break top 20, break top 10—I’m not going to think, ‘Wow, I’m so happy.’ I’m going to think, ‘It’s about time.’”
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And although Fritz has had the privilege of sharing the mantle alongside the fellow rising stars of America’s tennis scene in Tommy Paul, Reilly Opelka, and others, as the country’s highest-ranked competitor, the eyes of the world—not just his home country—are now set upon him. They’re the type of lofty expectations that might root themselves infectiously in the psyche of a young star, but for Fritz, outside opinions are little more than background noise compared to his own critiques.
“I’m really hard on myself,” he says. “I just try to stay confident no matter what. I’m a pretty confident person. […] But it’s pretty easy to lose confidence on tour. People are good.”
But while Fritz’s decorated coach, Paul Annacone, urges his young star to employ the same short-term memory that his other pupil, Roger Federer, has relied on for years, the 23-year-old insists on the inherent value of internalizing his losses.
“It’s fine to hold onto [losses] if you don’t let it affect your confidence in the future,” he says in response to Annacone and Federer’s philosophy. “It’s perfectly fine. It’s good to lose a match and be so upset that it motivates you to work harder and get better. That’s how I always feel. But [Paul’s] taught me to just trust the process a little bit more.”
Still, the countless hours he and Annacone have put in only make the losses feel all the more visceral, a mind game that will become more challenging as Fritz continues to climb up the ATP rankings.
“If you’re doing all the right things, if you’re training your ass off, eating healthy, if you’re doing everything right, and then you just go play an awful match, it does test you,” he continues. “You’re like, ‘Why am I doing all of this?’ But it’s really important to always trust the process, regardless of the result and know that you’re doing all the right things and headed in the right direction. […] You can turn that frustration into a positive by letting it motivate you.”
He exudes the levelled maturity one might expect to hear from a veteran of the game, not a 23-year-old just scratching the surface of his potential. And if the psychology behind his game seems beyond his years, it’s because it is. It was one instilled by his parents, his mother a former top 10 tennis player in her own right and his father, a former player and distinguished coach.
“My dad taught me to never focus on the results,” says Fritz, recalling his earliest introductions to the game. “I’d lose to someone who would just push me to death and we’d get in the car, I’d be upset, and he’d say, ‘Don’t worry, you’ll be better than that guy in a couple of years if you just keep playing the way you’re playing.’ He taught me to keep doing what I’m doing and I’ll see the results. I listened and believed him.”
It’s this self-disciplined approach that fuels Fritz’s confidence, a confidence that, in turn, feeds his remarkable individualism. Even in a sport defined by its independence, the California-native remains exceptionally autonomous, to the point where it might be the greatest differentiator between him and his peers. In a one-on-one scenario, his ability to analyze opponents and critique his own mistakes has become increasingly valuable, but it’s also an advantage some competitors seek to erase through controversial in-game coaching.
“Part of playing tennis is being able to figure it out by yourself,” he says adamantly. “I’ll always stand by the fact that I couldn’t be more against [in-game coaching] because that’s the second you make tennis no longer an individual sport. […] I could be biased because obviously, it works in my favour – being able to develop my own strategies and not having someone else have their coach tell them what they’re doing wrong – because when I’m doing something wrong, I know what I’m doing wrong. When I need to figure something out, I’ll figure it out. If I lose a match, it’s not because I didn’t know what I needed to do.”
As for Fritz’s coaching relationship with Annacone, the two share an unconventional dynamic that both pays respect to Annacone’s years of expertise while recognizing his player’s cerebral approach to the game. Instead of taking a coach’s word as law, Fritz believes more players should advocate for a back-and-forth discourse that includes strategic sparring matches.
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“If the players are smart and intelligent about the game of tennis and know what they’re talking about, they should one hundred percent have a say,” he urges. “Certain players respond better to just doing whatever the coach says and they maybe don’t understand the game as well. I think I have a very high tennis IQ and I understand what’s happening on the court. Ninety-five percent of the time, when I miss a ball on the court, I know exactly why I missed it and I know exactly what I need to do to not miss it again. If I don’t know what I’m doing wrong, which isn’t often, then I’ll ask. I explain to Paul, ‘It’s not me arguing. I want you to understand what I’m thinking.’”
To Fritz, these dynamics aren’t part of a power struggle, but instead, yet another strategic decision meant to strengthen the bond between player and coach.
“Being able to speak my mind and him being able to coach me is really important because I’ve literally never fired a coach,” he says. “My coaches stick because I’m able to talk about things myself and make decisions, so when I lose, I don’t ever feel like I’m pushing the blame onto them.”
But even the most cerebral and independent of players aren’t immune to more threatening mind games, the mind games that don’t simply affect those vying for top 10 status in the ATP but spread universally across the globe.
In an already-individualized sport made even more isolated due to COVID-19 precautions, Fritz details just how far-reaching mental health issues can be in the tennis realm and beyond.
“I’m very fortunate as far as never having any kind of mental health issues throughout the pandemic,” says Fritz. “But the mental health of the players travelling week-to-week, bubble-to-bubble, stuck from their rooms to their practice courts, […] everyone’s hurting because of COVID. A lot of the players are losing the will to do all this and […] aren’t playing on tour right now because their mental health isn’t okay.”
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While Fritz continues to dominate the psychology of the sport, the most daunting mind game–mental illness amid a global pandemic–remains far beyond his expertise. Over a year after Fritz’s career momentum was detailed by the COVID-19 shutdown, the ATP continues to try to recover. Arenas remain half-empty, tournaments are still largely in question, and a return to normalcy still feels far in the distance. And yet despite the turbulence he’s been forced to confront early in his professional journey, few would bet against Fritz in the years to come, because such turbulence eventually becomes advantageous to those equipped to endure it.
From abandoning his comfortable high school bubble to embark on the unknown to becoming the top ranked American male athlete in tennis, his journey has been one defined by mind games and the constant psychological strain it takes to succeed in them. Few would willingly invite such mental gymnastics, where critiquing oneself becomes a part of everyday training, but to ask Fritz, he’d insist he wouldn’t want it any other way.