Taylor Fritz reached the third round of the Australian Open after winning a gruelling, five-set war of attrition against fellow American Reilly Opelka. His reward after withstanding 43 aces and four hours on court against his best friend en route to a 4-6, 7-6(8), 6-7(4), 7-6(5), 6-2 victory?
A third consecutive third-round berth at the Australian Open – and one of the toughest tasks in tennis. On Friday, Fritz will have to find a way to defeat World No.1 Novak Djokovic, the eight-time champion, at his happiest hunting ground: Melbourne Park.
“It’s Novak. And it’s Novak here at the Australian Open,” Fritz said, neatly summing up his conundrum. “But for me, I’m just going to have to play my best tennis. Luckily for me and my game, I possess the ability if I’m on, I can serve well enough to where I won’t get broken and I can be extremely aggressive on the groundstrokes and I can take control if I’m on.
“I just have to do everything I possibly can in the next couple [of] days to give myself the best chance of playing my best tennis.”
It’a familiar position to be in for 23-year-old Fritz, who has reached the third round at a Grand Slam five times. But has yet to advance after running up against in-form opponents. At last year’s Australian Open, Fritz pushed finalist Dominic Thiem to four sets before bowing out. The year before that, it was a clash against Roger Federer in the third round, falling to the former World No. 1 in a battling straight-sets defeat.
Rather than rue his luck, the 2019 Eastbourne International champion is determined to make the best of his regular run-ins with the world’s best.
“It’s just another chance to prove myself,” Fritz said of his upcoming clash against Djokovic. “I keep making third rounds and I keep having extremely tough opponents in the third round, but that’s what happens when you’re a 25 to 32 seed. You’re guaranteed to play a top eight player.
“This is my third year in a row in the third round here in the Australian Open, and my third round opponents have been Roger, Dominic and now Novak. It’s just another chance to prove myself.
“I’ve got nothing to lose, and I’m going to go out and I’m going to have a lot of fun and I’m going to play extremely aggressive tennis and see what I can do.”
Fritz will be looking to claim his first victory against Djokovic on Friday and cut down on his opponent’s 2-0 ATP Head2Head lead. Djokovic won both clay-court encounters during Fritz’s breakthrough 2019 season, winning in the Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters and Mutua Madrid Open comfortably.
“I [have] played [Fritz a] couple of times, but on clay,” Djokovic recalled. “Obviously, he’s a better player [on] hard courts. He grew up in [the United] States playing on hard courts. That’s what he loves,” said Djokovic. “[He is] a big server, also a bit flashy, unpredictable. Big forehands and backhands, flat. I need to stay solid and focussed and obviously wait for my chances.”
Indeed, the American prefers his odds on hard courts, his favourite surface and the one that best suits his game. All five of Fritz’s Top 10 victories have come on that surface. The only downside? It’s Djokovic’s best surface, too.
“The biggest things for those two matches, especially Monte Carlo, [was that] it was windy and it was hard for me to pinpoint my spots. I had to play with more margin, and that’s definitely not something I can get away with when I’m playing him,” Fritz reflected. “[In] Madrid, a bit of altitude, a bit faster, I was able to attack more and play more aggressive and had a bit of a closer match.
“I just know what to expect and I know what I need to do, and I know that even though I lost the last two matches pretty handily, I know that now we are playing on a fast hard court, which suits my game more than anything else.”