© Peter Staples/ATP World Tour

Taylor Fritz and Frances Tiafoe are both projected to finish the year inside the Top 50 of the ATP Rankings.

Fritz & Tiafoe Leading American #NextGenATP Charge

Both Americans on course for Top 50 year-end finishes

Frances Tiafoe and Taylor Fritz have both had breakthrough seasons on the ATP World Tour in 2018, qualifying for the prestigious Next Gen ATP Finals. They are also on track to finish the year inside the Top 50 of the ATP Rankings for the first time. The last time two Americans aged 21 and under have done that came 15 years ago, when Andy Roddick, Mardy Fish and Tiafoe’s coach, Robby Ginepri, accomplished the feat.

That’s a massive achievement, and for more than the reason you’d expect.

“When I was 14, 15, if you would’ve asked me if Taylor would play tennis, I would not have believed it,” Tiafoe joked.

To an extent, even Fritz thought along the same lines. Tiafoe lost just three games against Fritz in a junior final in Tulsa, Oklahoma five years ago, after all. Fritz, the son of Kathy May Fritz, who reached the Top 10 in the world, went to regular high school in California at first.

“I always thought I was probably much better than I actually was when I was at that age, like, 14, 15 years old,” Fritz said.

Then he moved to Florida to train at a USTA facility. And that’s when he saw that there were players his age who could not only match him, but beat him.

“That's when I realised that, wow, if I actually wanted to be a pro, I'm going to have to be better than those guys. And so I really went to work, and I had those guys to build off,” Fritz said. “I just worked really, really hard. And, they will all tell you Tommy [Paul], Reilly [Opelka], [Stefan] Kozlov, Frances, I wasn't even close to being in the same league as those guys.

“It's crazy, I guess, looking back now at where I am now and all the things I expect of myself now, and back then it seemed so far. All of this that I'm doing right now just seemed impossible.”

In a way, Tiafoe’s rise was not all that likely, either. The story has been told plenty — growing up in Maryland, Tiafoe spent much of his time at the Junior Tennis Champions Center in College Park, where his father was a janitor. He’d wander the facility as a young boy, watching players train while trying to understand their coach’s tips, then going to hit against the wall daily to try to learn the sport.

And now, Tiafoe is someone who other kids are looking up to. The 20-year-old became the youngest American ATP World Tour champion in more than a decade earlier this year at the Delray Beach Open.

Tiafoe’s coach, Ginepri, has been in his shoes, and in a sense, has been where his charge wants to be, climbing as high as No. 15 in the ATP Rankings and lifting three tour-level titles.

“It kind of comes back full circle in a way. I try to coach Frances with a lot of experiences from when I played, the do’s and the don’ts. But it’s just been a lot of fun working with him,” Ginepri said. “He comes every day with a smile on his face and works pretty hard, so he’s been improving. It’s been a great year for him. He’s the second-youngest after Andy [Roddick] to win his first title, in Delray. So it’s a good shadow to follow. He’s got a big upside career in front of him if he keeps putting in the work.”

And Ginepri also knows what it feels like to be moving towards the top of the game with other compatriots. Roddick finished that 2003 season World No. 1, and Fish would eventually reach the Top 10, too. They pushed each other to greater heights.

“Frances kind of pulled out in front of Taylor a little bit this year, but Taylor’s right behind,” Ginepri said of the pair, as the friends are now separated by just seven spots. “He’s had some injuries, some setbacks, but his game’s just as good as Frances’ so they’re going to be neck and neck and hopefully we’ll get a few more Americans up there.”

Last year, for instance, Jared Donaldson qualified for the Next Gen ATP Finals. There are currently eight Americans 23 and under inside the Top 200 of the ATP Rankings. And they’re all pushing each other forward.

And it hasn’t always been easy. Fritz, currently at a career-best World No. 47, climbed as high as No. 53 in 2016, when he was named the ATP Star of Tomorrow presented by Emirates. Injuries then slowed his progress and forced him outside the Top 100 before building back up again.

Fritz’s coach, David Nainkin, says that inevitably, friends know how one another is performing. And when one does well, the other sees that.

“It’s great to see Frances break out and win an [ATP World Tour] 250 in Delray,” Nainkin said. “They’re definitely great friends, but great rivals. They want to see each other do better, which will certainly push them.”

While Tiafoe is in Group A and Fritz is in Group B in Milan, both still have opportunities to reach the semi-finals, as they each hold a 1-1 record in round-robin play. And while the Americans hope to fly their flag high the rest of the week at the Fiera Milano, they know that there is still more to come for them in the future.

“Hopefully me and Taylor don’t get complacent,” Tiafoe said. “I think there’s way more me and him can do. I’m going to be pushing him.”