They were born 75 miles apart in a span of eight years, and live a mere ten miles apart today. Both right handed with a two handed backhand, and both exactly the same weight and nearly the same height, Steve Johnson and Taylor Fritz will find themselves just 78 feet from each other – one baseline to the other – when their showdown begins today at the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells.
It’s not that they’ve never played each other, of course, but it’s never shaken out like this. Johnson and Fritz will meet for the third time on the ATP circuit, splitting the first two in Memphis ’16 and Houston last year. But those were deep into the tournament. Today, these #TeamSoCal superstars will meet in front of a home crowd on center court in Round Number One – the loser making a hasty exit from a major tournament.
The exit will be brief, however. Just a short time later on an adjacent court, the two will meet again in the first round of doubles competition. Johnson pairs with Dominic Thiem while the mild-mannered Fritz joins forces with the volatile Aussie Nick Kyrgios. Does that sound like a potential barn-burner?
Let’s hope so. Both Johnson and Fritz have been floating around the ATP Tour the last few years, occasionally showing signs of sheer brilliance, only then to fall off radar for a few months.
Johnson is a former Trojan whose accomplishments at USC are those of legends. He played four seasons of college ball as the team won championships all four years, due in great part to Johnson’s success. During those four years, he notched two NCAA singles titles and ended his career with a whopping 72 consecutive singles match wins. On tour as a pro since 2012, he broke the top 100 in his second pro year and that year played all four Grand Slams. After a few years of ups and downs, working through injuries and crafting his game among the world’s best, Johnson broke through with his first ATP tour win in 2016 at Nottingham. A year later he hoisted his second trophy in Houston, and defended the crown in 2018. He ranks today as the #38 player in the world.
Fritz, on the other hand, opted to forego a collegiate experience. A world #1 junior, he turned pro as a teenager in 2015, and a year later was ATP Newcomer of the Year. In only his third pro tournament, he reached the finals at Memphis, knocking off the very same Steve Johnson in the second round before falling to Kei Nishikori in the final. He was the youngest American finalist since Michael Chang, and his ascent in the rankings pinnacled at #40 this past January as he notched monumental wins against John Isner and Gael Monfils. At the Australian Open this year he reached the Round of 32 to face off with a fairly well known Swiss guy named Federer. Not bad. Not bad at all.
Johnson by design is a family man. He was coached from a young age by his father of the same name, a legendary figure on courts across Southern California. The son of the father continues to adjust to life on the circuit in the absence of his dad, who passed away suddenly in 2017. The loss was a very public one – everyone knew Steve and his son, “Stevie.” Johnson continues on, adjusting still, trying to regain the magic that took him as high as #21 in the world rankings in 2016.
From a tennis pedigree, Fritz has been around the game his entire life. His mother, Kathy May, was a top tier player on the women’s circuit, three times a Grand Slam quarterfinalist and unbeaten in seven WTA tour finals. Guy Fritz, his father, is a longtime Southern California tennis coach. And Taylor was already a touring pro when he married wife Racquel, herself a veteran of the junior Grand Slam circuit, in 2016. They have a young son, Jordan, who could well be next in the competitive lineage of this tennis family.
These things all come to a head on Friday in Indian Wells. Johnson and Fritz will play in front of a home crowd, eager to witness a familiar brand of Southern California tennis from two athletes who learned and developed their skills just miles apart. They will trade aces and winners in head to head combat, only to face each other mere hours later in such an unlikely rematch in doubles play. They’ll do it under the watchful eye of family, childhood friends, next-door neighbors, and SoCal tennis fans eager to cheer their hometown heroes. Here’s hoping it’s twice as nice when the dust settles at Indian Wells.
This time around, there really is a chance that everybody goes home a winner.