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Taylor Fritz wants to be more than the best American men’s tennis player

At No. 13, Taylor Fritz is the highest-ranked American men's tennis player. (Maansi Srivastava/The Washington Post)

Taylor Fritz is coming to the Citi Open during the most eventful year of his burgeoning career.

The Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., native defeated Rafael Nadal in straight sets at the Indian Wells final in March to claim his first Masters 1000 title. He also reached the fourth round of the Australian Open and the quarterfinals of Wimbledon, falling to Nadal in a fifth-set tiebreaker.

A tournament win and a close Grand Slam loss to arguably the greatest player ever are ostensibly huge results for a 24-year-old American with just two ATP titles under his belt. With Andy Roddick being the last American man to win a Grand Slam in 2003, it has become a bit of a cliche question on the tour: Do you think having great young Americans on the tour will help grow tennis in the United States?

But when Fritz, the highest-ranked of those young Americans at No. 13 in the world, encountered a version of that question during his first practice day at Rock Creek Park Tennis Center, he veered away from the standard answer: He just wants to win.

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“I mean, maybe,” said Fritz, who opens play Wednesday against Alexei Popyrin. “But it’s a big deal to me more for the personal goal, for sure. I’ve wanted to be a top-10 player my whole entire life, you know? So I think it’s definitely more personal goals.”

Fritz is aware of the increased attention his success brings to U.S. tennis. In his words, American sports fans are used to being “the best at everything,” so his quests to break into the top 10 and win a Grand Slam will, by extension, help draw Americans into the sport, just as the Williams sisters and other great players have done on the women’s side for years. His quarterfinal loss to Nadal at Wimbledon was a prime example.

“So many people that aren’t tennis fans watched that, and they watched an American that they’d probably never heard of play Nadal, who they’ve heard of,” he said. “That’s the kind of match that’s going to gain a lot of fans in the U.S.”

But no matter how much that match affected the greater landscape of American tennis, it didn’t change the fact that Fritz was crushed after he lost. Walking off the court at the All England Club, his eyes weren’t twinkling with patriotism, nor were they checking Twitter to see how much engagement live updates of the contest had received.

He had just lost a winnable match against an all-time great and missed a chance at his first career Grand Slam semifinal.

“If I stop now, I’d be pretty upset with my career,” he said. “I have a lot of improvements left to make, and I feel like I’m going to become still so much better as a player.”

It’s part of the reason Fritz wanted to play in the Citi Open despite nursing an injury — a stress fracture in his left foot suffered during the French Open that affected him during his Wimbledon run. He knows the more winning tennis he plays, the higher his ranking will climb.

Fritz, like his compatriots among the top 50, knows winning pulls eyeballs to the sport. But attention isn’t their motive — greatness is. Those young Americans — Fritz, Reilly Opelka, Tommy Paul, Frances Tiafoe and more — are friends with one another, but when playing against each other, they are fiercely competitive.

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Their mission isn’t to be the best American — it’s to be the best. To Fritz, “highest-ranked American” seems like a participation trophy. It was certainly hard-won, but breaking into the top 10 and winning a Grand Slam tournament are bigger prizes, and you must beat more than Americans on those paths.

“I don’t feed off of how many [Americans] we have in the top 50 — it’s an individual international sport,” Opelka said. “I mean, it’s nice having them around just to hang out with … [but] they don’t push me more than [Daniil Medvedev] or [Stefanos Tsitsipas] or one of those guys. It’s the same.”

While Fritz isn’t aiming to be the savior of U.S. tennis, he is making himself more accessible. He streams himself playing video games such as “Apex Legends” and “Fall Guys” on Twitch to engage with his fan base. He tweeted at “SportsCenter” in 2019, calling out ESPN’s highlight show for a lack of tennis expertise in a bid to give Americans better knowledge of the sport.

He also agreed to be featured in a new Netflix series that follows a year in the life of the ATP’s and WTA’s highest-profile players, similar to the smash hit “Formula 1: Drive to Survive,” which helped grow the racing circuit’s fan base in the United States and endear drivers to a viewing audience.

“These cameras are on me all the time. I may come off even as cocky, but it’s in a very joking kind of way,” Fritz said of the experience. “And I’ve really held nothing back in front of the camera. I’m trying to just be myself as much as possible.”

But to Fritz, TV cameras, tweets and Twitch streams take a back seat when it’s time to be a tennis player. All the engagement in the world won’t push him into the top 10 or give him a Grand Slam title. Only his hard work and drive can do that.

Fritz’s career up to now isn’t enough for him. He wants to be the best, and if American tennis comes along with him, so be it.

“As a kid, I would have thought it was crazy, so it’s really cool when you kind of take a step back and think about it,” he mused. “But I still have so much more that I need to do.”

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