Winner will become first American champion in Tokyo since Sampras in 1996
Longtime friends and recent Laver Cup teammates, Taylor Fritz and Frances Tiafoe will renew their ATP Tour rivalry in Sunday's Tokyo singles final.
The 24-year-olds have matured together as professionals after first crossing paths on the junior circuit, with lofty expectations thrust onto both as hopes for the future of American men's tennis. But both finalists have thrived this season by blocking out the noise and focussing inwards instead.
For Tiafoe, pressure has led to diamonds of late on the court, with the American winning 13 consecutive singles tie-breaks, including one in the Tokyo second round. Similarly, the weight of expectation does not weigh him down.
"As far as expectations that I have, so to speak, right now... I don't really feel that way. I just want to win," he said in a Tokyo press conference. "I don't really care about what other people think I should be doing because I had recent success. I've been on Tour for seven or eight years now, and none of that really moves me.
"I want to win for me. I'm not trying to achieve anybody else's goals or [caring] what they think of me. I'm just trying to be the best I can be and enjoy this. It's been great. The US Open, Laver Cup, to be here now. I'm just having fun with it. I'm confident and I'm just enjoying life, so I'm going to keep doing that."
Fritz made remarkably similar comments after his semi-final victory against Denis Shapovalov, a win which ensured he will make his debut in the Top 10 of the Pepperstone ATP Rankings this coming Monday.
"Now with all the pressure coming in from media, American tennis, all this stuff, I don’t really care any more," Fritz said. "I feel like I stopped caring a long time ago.
"I think when I was 18 and I kind of was the first one to have some really good results and do well when I was super young, I think that back then it maybe got to me a little bit because I was so young and it just all came out of nowhere. I’ve learned now to just not really care.
"I think all the pressure that I always feel is pressure that I put on myself, because I expect a lot from myself and I expect to do really well… I think it’s good that I do that because it motivates me and it drives me."
The Americans' parallel careers have yielded a respectful rivalry on the court. Fritz leads their ATP Head2Head series 4-1, with wins in their last four meetings. But he was quick to point out the close nature of those contests, with three requiring deciding sets and Tiafoe surrendering a 4-0 lead in the final set of their most recent matchup, two months ago in Montreal.
"It’s always very tight when we play each other. We’ve been really close friends for a long time and it’s one of those things where we’re really close friends but we’re also rivals, as well. I feel like there’s been this ongoing rivalry between us since we were probably 16 or 17 years old.
"It’ll be fun. There’s always tension when we play. It’s going to be a good match."
Tiafoe was the first of the two to book his final place, courtesy of a 6-2, 0-6, 6-4 win against Soonwoo Kwon. He made no secret of his rooting interest in Saturday's second semi.
"Playing Taylor would be great," he said. "We just won the Laver Cup together, so we’re obviously — even before that — very good friends. But the bond gets even tighter, doing something that’s never happened in tennis.
"I love that guy. I’m happy to see what he’s been able to do, with him having COVID and all that in Korea... It goes to show what a competitor he is, That’s what would make it so tough. He’s a great competitor, he serves well, he has a huge forehand, and he’s confident and getting better, too. I hope I end up playing him. I think it will be good.
"Let the best man win."
Tiafoe is seeking his second ATP Tour title (2018 Delray Beach) in his fifth final, including a run to the Estoril title match this spring. Fritz will bid for his fourth tour-level crown and his third of 2022 following triumphs in Indian Wells and Eastbourne.
The all-American final will be the first in Tokyo since Pete Sampras defeated Richey Reneberg in 1996, in what was the fourth straight all-U.S. final at the event. By winning his third Tokyo title, Sampras completed a five-year run of American champions that also included two triumphs for Jim Courier.
The winner of Sunday's marquee matchup will also join the entirety of the Big Four — Roger Federer (2006), Rafael Nadal (2010), Andy Murray (2011) and Novak Djokovic (2019) — among Tokyo's honour roll of champions.
Photo Credit: Hiroshi Sato