Taylor Fritz Holds High the American Flag

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Bill Simons

NOBODY BEATS TAYLOR FRITZ NINE TIMES IN A ROW? The John Cain Arena was packed. In every corner blue and white flags flew. Greek fans cheered mightily for their man, Stefanos Tsitsipas, who’d reached last year’s Aussie Open final, and again was putting on a display. His flowing shots and balletic movement impressed.

In contrast, Californian Taylor Fritz was backed by only a modest portion of the fans and his strokes were hardly elegant. And, unlike Tsitsipas, Taylor had never reached a Slam final. Plus he’d lost four of the five times he’d played Stefanos.

But for many American fans, the 6′ 5″ Taylor is an increasingly heroic figure, who over his nine-year career has consistently put in the hard yards and done the right things. He was a considerable junior champion who went on to try to perfect his craft. He traveled far and wide and rose steadily in the rankings, scored a feel-good 2022 Masters win at Indian Wells, rose to No. 5 and succeeded John Isner as the leader of the American pack. 

Yes, he’s had plenty of coulda-shoulda-woulda moments. He came close to beating Rafa to get to the 2022 Wimbledon semis. And, of course, he and Alex Michelsen are the latest products of a storied American tradition of tall, powerful Southern Californians with big serves and forehands who impose their might. Think Jack Kramer, Pancho Gonzales, Stan Smith, Sam Querrey and a lanky kid named Pete Sampras.

But Fritz just hasn’t been able to break through to the very top. He’s never reached a Slam semi and he hasn’t claimed an Olympic medal or a Davis Cup title. His career-high ranking of No. 5 had slipped to No. 12. 

Yes, he’s a remarkable force, but he’s hardly the fastest player you’ll see zoom around a court. At times he looks a little mechanical. But, boy, does he have devastating power, admirable intent and unblinking professionalism. Goodness, in the first round he came back from a badly twisted ankle that he suffered early in his match. His “I’ve been around the block a time or two” experience is becoming a real asset. 

Going into his Sunday match against Tsitsipas, Taylor knew he was the last American standing. Tommy Paul, Ben Shelton and Seb Korda had all suffered gut-wrenching losses. Plus, Fritz knew well that that he had never beaten a top ten player in a major and he’d had only one victory in five matches against the fleet Greek, the No. 7 seed.

But Taylor unleashed all his weapons: big serve and forehand, improved backhand and return of serve, good anticipation, and an unblinking warrior mentality. He stepped in, sprinted fast, blasted backhands, attacked Tsitsipas’ backhand and, towards the end, said he “turned it on, like I was in a trance.”

After Fritz downed Stefanos 7-6 (5), 5-7, 6-3, 6-3 to reach his first ever Aussie Open quarterfinal there wasn’t a single soul who would dare say, “That guy’s just a good-looking NetFlix star with a pretty girlfriend who rocks it on social media.” 

Yes, Taylor’s win was a feel-good triumph. But now Fritz will have the dubious pleasure of taking on a Serb who chomps on Yankees for lunch. Novak Djokovic has downed Americans 31 straight times and has an 8-0 record against Taylor. Last September at the US Open, Nole won 6-1, 6-4, 6-4. Taylor has only won two sets against him.

In his press conference, the Serb didn’t try to hide his confidence. Taylor understood: “I mean, if I beat someone eight times in a row, I’d be pretty confident too…I can’t really fault him for that.”

Obviously, Novak will be the prohibitive favorite in the quarters. After all, the ten-time Aussie winner just demolished the No. 20 player in the world, Adrian Mannarino, 6-0, 6-0, 6-1, in 79 minutes, in a rout that drew laughter. Recently, when Nick Kyrgios was asked, “What does anyone have to do to beat Djokovic?” the Aussie replied, “You just book your plane with the best price possible.”

But big-hitting Fritz does have a chance. He’s getting better and better. Taylor said, “I’m trusting my shots more than ever.” He told the press that he had hope. 

After all, before Vitas Gerulaitis turned around a dismal losing streak to Jimmy Connors, the beloved late New Yorker defiantly proclaimed, “Nobody beats Vitas Gerulaitis 17 times in a row.” Certainly, Taylor’s most zealous fans down at the Hawthorne Boulevard Starbucks in Rancho Palos Verdes are saying, “Nobody beats Taylor Fritz nine times in a row.” 

EAT YOUR HEART OUT, COCO GAUFF: Coco might have imagined that she’d be the only 19-year-old to shake things up in Melbourne. Well, think again. Czech Linda Noskova scored the shock result of the tourney when she ousted Iga Swiatek.

SAY WHAT? Gauff is favored to win the Aussie Open, but Aryna Sabalenka’s the defending champion, who’s lost just 11 games in four matches so far.

TO EACH HER OWN: Before the Victoria Azarenka vs. Jelena Ostapenko match, ESPN gave us one of those behind-the-scenes looks at the players. Azarenka, intense and all fired up, was doing one of those uber-intense, move-your-feet, torque-and-toss ball drills. Then, perhaps cruelly,  Ostapenko was shown standing still, staring out into space and methodically chomping on a snack.       

TENNIS, ANYONE? As well as being a tennis event, the Aussie Open is seen as an entertainment destination. It’s said that 40% of the tourney’s visitors don’t even watch a game of tennis. Saturday’s event drew 100,000.

TRAVEL TIP OF THE DAY: Rennae Stubbs observed, “A carnival – that’s how to describe the Australian Open. If you’re cold at home, get down here. Or if you’re tired of watching tennis at 3 AM, get down here.” 

OF MICE AND MEN: For the first time in his career, 20-year-old Carlos Alcaraz played an opponent who was younger: 18-year-old Juncheng “Jerry” Shang. Shang trains in Florida, but, because he’s Chinese, he draws lots of attention. His homeland has 1.4 billion people but has never produced a top ATP star. Not surprisingly, Jim Courier said it would be good for tennis business if Shang emerged. For his part, John McEnroe reminded us that Juncheng was named after the mouse in the classic cartoon series, Tom and Jerry.

HAPPY ABOUT THE HAPPY SLAM: Orange County’s gangly Alex Michelsen, 19, has had an incredible rise. Last year his ranking was in the 500s. Last July he reached the Hall of Fame Open final. In Melbourne he battled his way to the third round before he fell to the No. 6 seed, Alexander Zverev.    

THE IRON MAN: Djokovic has a slew of records – and here’s another one: he’s the only player in history to have played 100 matches in all four Grand Slams.

LITTERBUG: Darren Cahill said, “There is no other player more than Jelena Ostapenko who can litter up the stat sheet [with errors] and not care about it.”   

TENNIS TIP OF THE DAY: Ostapenko is famous for pouting, and protesting calls by tennis’ electronic scoring devices that deliver calls against her. So Rennae Stubbs offered this tip: “When the little machine calls ‘Out!’ you just keep playing!” 

THE FINEST FAN? Who should get our “fan of the tourney” award? The man who dresses as the King of Poland, with his golden crown and red and white robes? There were those French fans who wore head gear to make them look bald, in order to honor the world’s finest bald player, Adrian Mannarino. Then again, there’s nothing quite like Jannik Sinner’s fun-loving Carota Boys, who get all decked out in their bright orange carrot outfits and travel the world to back their Italian star. 

SUSHI-GATE: Sloane Stephens was given a code violation for taking too long to eat her sushi and down her smoothie during a changeover.

PEARLS OF WISDOM: It seems like just about every time she opens her mouth Coco Gauff offers insights. Today she said, “What you do at your workplace doesn’t define you as a person.”

QUOTEBOOK 

“It’s like Ostapenko eats nails for lunch. She’s so tough!” – The AO show

“Change the world with your racket.” – Coco Gauff’s motto, which she has emblazoned on her shoes

MAMA MIA: There were ten moms in the draw: Naomi Osaka, Victoria Azarenka, Angie Kerber, Caroline Wozniacki, Elina Svitolina, Tatjana Maria, Taylor Townsend and Yanina Wickmayer. Only Svitolina and Azarenka are still playing.

A CURIOUS REVELATION: Chris Evert could always read Martina Navratilova’s state of mind. Chrissie said that if Martina was chatty and talkative she was confident. If she was quiet she was nervous.

AMERICA WATCH: Gauff dismissed Pole Magdalena Frech 6-2, 6-2 to win her eleventh straight major match and reach her first Aussie Open quarterfinal, where she’ll face Ukrainian Marta Kostyuk. Amanda Anisimova is coming off an eight-month mental health break, during which she hung out with her friends, went to college and enjoyed painting. Early at the Aussie Open she’d been painting the lines as she made a run to the fourth round and a match against Aryna Sabalenka, whom she’d beaten in four of their five meetings. But the No. 2 seed and defending champion won her eleventh straight Aussie Open match, ending the inspiring run of the 22-year-old Floridian.

MOVIE IDEA OF THE MONTH: Pam Shriver said that Jelena Ostapenko’s handshakes with her fellow competitors (that are always rich with ’tude) would be worthy of a mini-series.

MAKES SENSE: When the Tennis Channel’s Martina Navratilova was asked, “Can you remember the most memorable moments of your rivalry with Chris Evert?” Martina replied, “Yes – that’s why they are memorable.”

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