As the North American hard-court swing continues to heat up this week at the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati, some of the country’s biggest stars will be looking to build on their recent success on home soil.
Taylor Fritz, Reilly Opelka and Tommy Paul currently sit inside the Top 35 in the Pepperstone ATP Rankings and are part of a wider group of 13 players from the United States who are currently in the Top 100. While the relationships between many of those in the American contingent are strong, the bond Fritz, Opelka and Paul hold is extra special.
When the trio were teenagers, they trained together at the USTA base in Florida. It provided them the opportunity to work on their games, while crucially also allowing them to develop and build the foundations of friendships that remain stronger today than ever. Opelka remembers their junior days well.
“We first met when we were around 13 years old and we have been training together since then and we started hanging out then, so the relationships naturally formed,” Opelka told ATPTour.com. “At that age, it is an interesting time. We had a weird setup because we didn’t have any parents around.
“It was us three living together, so we didn’t have as much direction. It was like a free for all. There are not many guys aged 13 who have this massive freedom and could do what we had. This is kind of what we had when we were living in the dorms.”
After arriving at the USTA centre in Florida from San Diego, Fritz quickly clicked with Opelka and Paul, who had already known each other for a year.
“The first time I actually met them was when I went to USTA when I was like 15 years old and we lived together in Boca,” Fritz said. “I feel like that really brings people together, because there is not much to do after tennis. We all just were kind of hanging out, killing time together and we got on straight away. We just have become really good friends since then.”
From trips down to the beach to hours spent on the basketball court, the trio enjoyed life as they balanced competing on the ITF Junior Circuit with an array of other sports and hobbies.
Opelka believes their similar upbringings and interests resulted in the trio quickly bonding upon arrival in a highly competitive environment in Florida, ultimately helping them to succeed in pressurised moments.
“We trained twice a day for two or three hours each time and it was intense, but then the rest of the time we could just chill out and do we want,” Opelka recalled. “We did a ton of different things. It was all in South Florida. It was a happening area with nice weather all year round.
“We still had other interests. At 14, Tommy was skating and playing basketball more than tennis even and Fritz was in public school in 10th grade, I was in ninth grade. We were more traditional American kids.”
While friendships blossomed away from the court, on it, the desire to win remained high. As Fritz sat next to Paul in the canteen following an opening-round win in Eastbourne in June, he reflected on how his first encounter with his countryman left him feeling deflated.
“The first time Tommy and I played each other was in a national tournament, and I guess, these guys were way better than me at the time. These guys had like a competition, maybe Frances [Tiafoe] as well, they went on to play at the same time, they had a competition who could finish faster,” Fritz said. “Tommy wasn’t even taking the match seriously with me. ‘Let’s see who can beat the idiots quicker’, was the situation. It wasn’t great, I needed to improve.”
A decade on and the improvement Fritz has made has been clear for the world to see. Sat at No. 13 in the Pepperstone ATP Rankings, the 24-year-old is the current American No. 1, highlighted by his first ATP Masters 1000 title in Indian Wells earlier this year.
Paul has also flourished on Tour over the past year, capturing his first tour-level title in Stockholm in November, before he climbed to a career-high No. 31 in August.
Four-time ATP Tour champion and Top 20 star Opelka is not surprised by the success both are having.
“Taylor is so optimistic all the time. He has always been like that,” Opelka said. “A bit delusion and I don’t mean that as an insult. You look at Wimbledon last year. After Roland Garros in 2021 he had a procedure on his knee and the doctor and physio said no. And he said, ‘No, I will be fine’, and that is him. He is very optimistic, which is why he is such a competitor.
“Then Tommy is a great athlete. Physically he is very good. He has got stronger and has taken the natural athletism he has to another level. His natural tennis ability is off the charts. It just took him a bit of time to get the discipline.”
Opelka believes that the key to their success has been the different paths they have taken in the sport. Although this has reduced the time they have spent together in recent years, the 24-year-old feels it has been beneficial to their careers.
“We all have got older and now all have our own coach. Taylor and I still share a physio. Taylor just moved to Miami, so I see more of him. We have gone our own directions, which is normal evolution,” said Opelka, who is not competing in Cincinnati due to injury. “Different coaches and training setups and just doing the essential things for our career. You have to prioritise.”
However, with the trio travelling the Tour together every week, the opportunities to hang out in a range of cities remains.
With Fritz a video games fanatic, Opelka interested in fashion and Paul into water sports, they immerse themselves in a range of different activities when they do spend time together.
“We have similar interests and different interests at the same time,” Paul told ATPTour.com. “Reilly is big into fashion and art and Fritz loves his video games. I have never been too into that but I get involved with them.
“I had my time playing games during quarantine. I played a little bit online with Taylor, Call Of Duty, Fortnite. Their interests have in some ways worn off on me. Sometimes I will play video games with Fritz, sometimes I will go and see art with Reilly. It has been cool. I am very happy to have close friends on Tour and it has always been a tight group.”
With spirits high, the trio will be targeting further success throughout the rest of the season and beyond as they look to break new ground. That is the nature of playing professional sport. However, Fritz believes their success to this point must also be celebrated.
“We have been through so much,” Fritz said. “It’s crazy to think you grew up with a lot of people playing tennis, and not many of them end up making it professionally and we all were able to come up and be on Tour together. It is great.”