Fritzing Felix – Taylor targets title

AS the lowest ranked player in this year’s ATP Finals, not too many would have predicted Taylor Fritz to reach the semi-finals. The first alternative in the singles race, replaced the injured world number one Carlos Alcaraz, but has more than proven he is up for the fight, qualifying for the knockout stage of the tournament. Advancing into the semi-finals for the Red Group, Fritz has strung together two wins – over Rafael Nadal on opening day and then Felix Auger-Aliassime overnight to ensure his place in the final four.

The ninth ranked player in the world joined Casper Ruud as the other qualifier from the group stage, and will face 21-time Grand Slam and six-time ATP Finals winner Novak Djokovic for a place in the decider. Against Auger-Aliassime, Fritz had to claw back from a second set tiebreak loss – having won the first set in the same fashion – to cruise to victory 6-2 in the decider and ensure a semi-finals place in his ATP Finals debut.

Both he and Auger-Aliassime had defeated Nadal, but lost to Ruud over the opening two matches, meaning the clash was a virtual quarter final. After the Canadian closed out the first set 7-4 in the tiebreaker, Fritz was on the ropes. He fought back to win the second set 7-5 in the tiebreaker, then stepped up in the third set. At 2-2, Fritz critically broke his opponent and that turned out to be the catalyst, as the American won the final four games of the match to take out the match in two hours and 44 minutes.

“I needed to serve well the whole time, I knew that,” Fritz said post-match. “It was frustrating throughout the match when so many points I was one away from break point. So many times at 15/30, 0/30 when I was returning, I got myself in the points and kept losing the points. I just tried to stay patient and not get frustrated and then I capitalised when I got the chances.”

Fritz won a massive 88 per cent of his first serve points, and only dropped 17 total service points for the match, weathering nine aces and three break point opportunities from his opponent. Auger-Aliassime was equally strong on serve with a 75 per cent success rate off his first serve points, but just 54 per cent off the second serve, leading to the only two breaks of the match coming in the final four games. Fritz said he was excited about playing the final four.

“It is huge,” Fritz said. From possibly not even qualifying to now be in the semis feels great. I felt like I was going to play well here. I feel that I always play my best tennis against the best players.”

In the other match, Nadal finished off his 2022 season with a win over Ruud that was ultimately a dead rubber. The Norwegian had already qualified for the semi-finals and will play the winner of Andrey Rublev or Stefanos Tsitsipas in the knockout stages, while the top seeded Nadal will rue going down to both Fritz and Auger-Aliassime. In their match though, it was the Spaniard who won 7-5 7-5, taking Ruud’s set record against top three ranked players to 0-19.

“I have been practicing well,” Nadal said post-match. Just probably not enough matches to be at the level that I needed to be. Not enough confidence, probably, after six tough months. That’s how it is. I accept that the season didn’t end the way that I wanted, [but] at least I finished with a positive victory.

“It’s important, the last official match of the season, so I am happy for that. At the end I am happy about that… I was able to win against a great player.”

Though he was not able to advance to the semi-finals, the fact Nadal finishes the year at number two – depending on what happens with Tsitsipas – and comes away from 2022 with four titles including two Grand Slams with a 39-8 ATP Tour record is something to admire considering the Spaniard was on the verge of retirement last year.

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