Two 18-year-old rising stars squared off across the net during the first round at Indian Wells, and the outcome screams for a change in the recent narrative on the future of American men’s tennis.
Frances Tiafoe of College Park, Md., walked off the winner over Taylor Fritz of Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., after three hard-fought sets, 6-4, 2-6, 6-3, in the desert.
It was quite a battle between these teen prodigies, but as I watched the match on Tennis Channel, I was stunned by something one of the commentators said midway through the third set.
Tiafoe, who is black, had defeated Fritz, who is white, in each of their previous three matches as juniors.
The impact was like an overhead smash to the forehead!
What?! Whoa. Stop the presses. The Fritz presses, that is. Or, at least slow them down.
If you haven’t been following the 2016 season, you are unlikely to know about the emergence of Fritz on the men’s professional tour and all the hype over his having reached a tour final and leapfrogged to number 80 in the world after turning pro just last year.
Tennis commentators have raved about the kid’s game and his meteoric rise. And he now stands at the forefront of the “next generation” of ATP tennis.
So what does that say about Tiafoe’s potential, if he has beaten Fritz three times as a junior and now in their first contest as professionals at the prestigious Indian Wells tournament, a 1000 Masters event also known as the fifth Grand Slam?
Shouldn’t Tiafoe at least be sharing top-billing in the Who Will Be The Next American Men’s Tennis Star drama?
That’s not to say there hasn’t been some buzz about Tiafoe over the past couple of years, but he almost has become a forgotten young man amid the adulation being heaped on Fritz.
Give former ATP player and Tennis Channel analyst Justin Gimelstob credit for acknowledging during a post-match interview with Tiafoe that Fritz had been getting all the attention and suggesting Tiafoe should be in that limelight.
Now some may ask why does it matter.
The answer is simple. Endorsements. Admen are always on the lookout for the next big thing, a new face to put on the front of cereal boxes or magazine covers.
Marketing feeds off media. So whomever dominates the media spotlight has a chance of making a ton of money.
I have watched Fritz play and certainly agree he has game. At 6′-4″ he has a howitzer serve and haymaker groundstrokes. He vanquished three top-100 players, including 35th ranked American Stevie Johnson, on his way to the Memphis Open final.
Tiafoe entered Indian Wells ranked 177, the youngest player inside the top 200 players in the world. Before defeating Fritz, he had notched just one ATP-level match. But he has several juniors titles, including the USTA boys’ 18 national championship that earned him a wild-card berth in the 2015 U.S. Open.
If I had to compare the two based on the match I saw last week, I would say Fritz has the edge on serve, while Tiafoe has an advantage in speed and agility. They both possess ferocious groundstrokes.
But in tennis, mobility can be the difference-maker.
So maybe it is time for the analysts to begin mentioning Fritz and Tiafoe in the same breath when asked who will be the next American to surface to the top of men’s tennis.
Tiafoe likely will benefit from his association with rap mogul Jay Z, founder of Roc Nation Sports that has the highly talented teen under contract. Yet it wouldn’t hurt if he got a plug or two from the TV pundits.