Fritz Feeling Good About His Tennis After Reaching St. Petersburg Final

Taylor Fritz (photo: St. Petersburg Open)

ST. PETERSBURG/WASHINGTON, October 30, 2021 (by Michael Dickens)

St. Petersburg has always been a mecca for cultural, historical and architectural landmarks. Perhaps, it should consider adding tennis, too. The week in Russia’s second city, host of the St. Petersburg Open, can be characterized by its lively presentation of dancers and musicians during changeovers, its laser light shows as players walk out on the court – and, yes, there’s been some pretty fine tennis on display, too. Even if all of the Russians have been eliminated from title contention.

With No. 1 seed Andrey Rublev gone, not to mention Aslan Karatsev and Karen Khachanov, the No. 4 and No. 6 seeds, respectively, it leaves an American who was feted on court by tournament organizers with a birthday celebration, a German who has enjoyed a resurgent week, a former Top-10 Croatian who has regained his enthusiasm and an up-and-coming Dutchman left to battle it out for the St. Petersburg Open title this weekend.

Taylor Fritz, for one, has been on a tear this week in St. Petersburg. He’s taken on and beaten all comers. In quick order, the newly-turned 24-year-old from Ranchos Paulo’s Verdes, Calif. has defeated Emil Ruusuvuori of Finland, doubles partner Tommy Paul of the United States and Australia’s John Millman. He’s the only seeded player (No. 5) remaining in the final four competing for the title in this ATP 250 indoor hard court tournament at Sibur Arena.

On Saturday in the first semifinal, the 28th-ranked Fritz took on Jan-Lennard Struff of Germany, seven years his senior and 25 places below him in the rankings at No. 53. Struff, reached the semifinals with a quality 6-4, 6-3 win over No. 2 seed Denis Shapovalov of Canada on Friday. Earlier in the week, he took out James Duckworth of Australia and followed it with a win over No. 7 seed Alexander Bublik of Kazakhstan.

Confidence is an amazing thing in tennis and Fritz showed plenty of it as he rallied from a set down to beat Struff 5-7, 6-1, 6-3 and advance to his first final of the season on Sunday. It was a well-deserved victory for Fritz, who fired 10 aces, won 81 percent (44 of 54) of his first-serve points, converted five of 10 break points and outpointed Struff 98-77.

Fritz was challenged during his first couple of service games by Struff but came through in flying colors and got the first break of the match to take a 3-1 lead, combining powerful groundstrokes with good decision-making skills. However, Struff recovered nicely and his swift, backhand volley winner at the net got the break back in the next game. Next, after saving a break point to hold for 3-all, the two combatants settled in for a series of service holds. Then, Struff rallied from 40-15 and won four straight points to break Fritz for a second time to surge ahead 6-5. He closed out the 51-minute set and won 7-5 with a bang, hitting his first ace, along with a solid forehand winner and a backhand volley winner coming into the net. It was the first set that’s gone against Fritz all tournament long.

Soon, Fritz calmed down and reset. Like the first set, he got the first break to go ahead 3-1 in the second set. A quick hold increased his lead to 4-1. Then, quickly he went up a double break with a chance to serve out the middle set and send it to a decider. Fritz closed out the 30-minute set with a flourish as he hit a pair of aces and won with a backhand winner that froze Struff.

With Fritz trying to go a step further than he did a couple of weeks ago in Indian Wells, when he beat World No. 4 Alexander Zverev en route to the semifinals, and Struff looking to reach his first final since Munich in April, the American broke through in the opening game of the third set and consolidated the break for a 2-0 lead. Later, Fritz’s second-serve ace – his ninth of the match – enabled him to hold for 4-2. Then, after an easy love hold for 5-3, Fritz broke Struff for the fifth and final time to close out the one-hour and 56-minute victory.

Finally, Fritz had something to celebrate and to feel good about – a trip to the St. Petersburg Open final – which brought a big smile to his face.

“I played pretty well for a lot of parts in the first set,” Fritz said during his on-court TV interview following his victory. “A few things didn’t go my way. I went up a break but then didnt’ have the best service game and got broken back. I had another chance to break and then got broken from 40-15 up, but I recovered and brought it together and played a really solid second and third sets.”

During the interview, which was interpreted in Russian, Fritz acknowledged the Russian fans, who were cheering for him. “It’s amazing to have people cheering for me when I’m so far away from home. I love all the support,” he said.

The other semifinal paired former World No. 3 Marin Cilic of Croatia, now settled in at No. 35 but looking to crack the Top 30, again, against upset-minded No. 69 Botic van de Zandschulp of the Netherlands, who had reached an ATP Tour-level final four for the first time in his career and recently enjoyed an unexpected quarterfinal run at the US Open.

As it happened, it was all Cilic as he won 6-3, 6-3 in 69 minutes, in back of nine aces while taking advantage of three service breaks. He outpointed the low-energy van de Zandschulp, 58-40, to reach the St. Petersburg final for the second time. He won the title in 2011.

Cilic is also into his second straight ATP Tour 250 title match after reaching the final at Moscow last week in the VTB Kremlin Cup and third final of the season overall after winning the Stuttgart grass-court title in June.

“I even surprised myself today with how many balls I managed to get, namely in the last game at 30-30 I ran down that drop shot and hit the ball down the line. I was a great winner, lots of them today,” Cilic said in his on-court TV interview.

“Russia is my second home. I think this is an invitation for me to come every single year. I will definitely consider it and I always enjoy playing here. It would be amazing to win the title tomorrow, but playing against Taylor, who has been showing amazing tennis over the last several weeks is going to be difficult. But I’ll just try to enjoy, I’ll try to play like I did today, and try to improve obviously and have fun.”

Cilic and Fritz have met once before, in 2017 at Indian Wells with the American prevailing.

Around the St. Petersburg Open

No. 4 doubles seeds Andrey Golubev of Kazakhstan and Hugo Nys of Monaco pulled out a 6-4, 2-6, 10-4 semifinal victory over Rohan Bopanna of India and Denis Shapovalov of Canada to advance to Sunday’s final. Golubev and Nys, who have strung together three wins this week will face No. 1 seeds Jamie Murray of Great Britain and Bruno Soares of Brazil in the title match.

Sunday’s St. Petersburg Open order of play

“Quotable …”

“In Croatia, we do not attach such great importance to round dates as in Russia. Here, however, a special case: Ten years have passed since I won in St. Petersburg. This is amazing. When I came here, I did not think ahead. I didn’t think about the final, I tried to show my best tennis, played match after match. But it’s great that I’m in the finals again 10 years later.”

Marin Cilic of Croatia, the 2011 St. Petersburg Open singles champion, asked during his post-match press conference if there was any significance to this being the 10th anniversary of his 2011 title victory.