Six years ago, Americans Tommy Paul and Taylor Fritz each shined in the juniors. In 2015, Paul beat Fritz in the junior finals of Roland Garros. At the end of that summer, Fritz extracted revenge in the finals of the US Open. This week, at the BNP Paribas Open, each has taken major steps forward with his pro career, proving the overlooked notion that, in many cases, a promising junior needs time to sharpen his arsenal.

Though only Fritz remains in contention in Indian Wells, Paul will surely feel good about what he accomplished in the desert. Just over two years ago, Paul held a triple-digit ranking. But in early 2020, he hired Brad Stine, who’s coached such notable hard workers as Jim Courier and Kevin Anderson. As expected for a Stine charge, Paul labored hard to improve in all departments and by the time he arrived at Indian Wells had climbed up to a ranking of 60.

Enhanced fitness and movement have given Paul the chance to stay in rallies longer and more consistently deploy his wide range of shots. At Indian Wells, Paul’s versatility and improved problem-solving skills surfaced brilliantly. In the first round, Paul dispatched crafty veteran lefty Feliciano Lopez, 6-3, 7-6 (3). Next, Paul handily beat 28th-seeded Dusan Lajovic, 6-2, 6-3. Then came the biggest win of Paul’s life, a 6-4, 3-6, 7-5 struggle for the ages over fourth-seeded Andrey Rublev. In today’s round of 16 match versus tricky lefthander Cam Norrie, Paul didn’t quite have enough, losing 6-4, 4-6, 6-2. But this was unquestionably a first-rate week for Paul.

The 39th-ranked Fritz is also playing excellent tennis. For the second day in a row, he beat a high-powered Italian. Yesterday, the win came versus ’21 Wimbledon finalist Matteo Berrettini, 6-4, 6-3. Today, Fritz beat world #14 Jannik Sinner by the same score. Said Fritz, “It's big especially to have a good win against a really good player yesterday, then kind of come back and play even better today against another really good player.” Call this a major improvement attribute: sustainability.

It was intriguing to watch the way Fritz won this match. Early on, he appeared to be seeking to overpower Sinner, a theoretically fatal strategy versus one of the hardest hitters in the game. Then again, Fritz had practiced with Sinner twice and admitted he felt comfortable exchanging shots with him. As Fritz said, “But both times have been I feel like I left the court and, ‘Wow, that was such a high-level practice.’ I feel the way he hits the ball feels really good for the way I hit the ball. I like the pace and the spin. I don't know how to really describe it. I feel like both of us hit the ball well off of each other's balls. I definitely knew or expected to play well today.”

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Wednesday afternoon Fritz struck the ball arguably better than he ever has in his 6-4, 6-3, win over Sinner.

Wednesday afternoon Fritz struck the ball arguably better than he ever has in his 6-4, 6-3, win over Sinner. 

It took a while, though. With Fritz serving at 2-4, 15-all, Sinner feathered a forehand drop volley and appeared primed to take a commanding lead. But on the next point, Fritz charged forward to punch a forehand volley winner. “I'd love to be able to finish more points at net, feel more comfortable with it, because I hurt people with my power, kind of back them up,” said Fritz. “Coming to net can add another layer to my game.”

From there, Fritz sprinted ahead, amazingly enough taking eight straight games to go up 6-4, 4-0. This was a Taylor Fritz in comprehensive control. The serve has always been massive, but his baseline game today was exceptionally sharp. Time after time, Fritz hung with Sinner in rallies and lasered his share of forehands and backhands, including a sharp crosscourt backhand passing shot winner on set point in the first set. Sinner, usually used to dictating, began to feel smothered and discouraged. Though the Italian rallied in the second set – even taking a 15-40 lead when Fritz served for the match at 5-3 – it wasn’t enough. On match point, Fritz drilled an untouchable down-the-line backhand to reach the first Tennis Masters 1000 quarterfinal of his career.

I must admit I have frequently been wed to the notion that a promising junior should swiftly step into the top ten. We in America have been spoiled by the precedent established by such precocious competitors as Andy Roddick, Michael Chang, Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors. So as Paul and Fritz labored over the first three-four years of their career, my default mode was to figure each had settled into a certain performance level.

But that was hardly fair. Many factors affect a tennis player’s development – fitness, emotions, as well as the blossoming of a playing style. Baseliners typically come out of the box with the batteries included, equipped and ready to grind away (Chang was an excellent example). But history has shown that attacking all-court players such as Paul and Fritz can take longer (Roger Federer).

As Fritz said yesterday after the Berrettini match, “I will probably be playing my best tennis when I'm, I don't know, somewhere between 26 to 30 years old. So I'm just trying to work as hard as I can, put myself in as many opportunities I can to have big weeks, breakthroughs, just kind of get myself in a good position for when I'm playing my best tennis where I can really have a big breakthrough. Yeah, it happens at different times for everybody, and I know that I'm nowhere near playing, you know, the best tennis that I'm going to play. I know that I have a lot of improving to do, and I'm working extremely hard to do it.”

That’s not a bad approach for anyone in any field.