MEMPHIS, TENNESSEE – Kei Nishikori had practiced against teenager Taylor Fritz a few times over the past couple years without beating the American even once.
Until they met in a match that actually mattered.
Nishikori won his fourth straight Memphis Open title Sunday, beating Fritz 6-4, 6-4 in the final. The Japanese player joined Jimmy Connors as the only four-time winners of the event and became the fourth active player to win an event four times, joining Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.
“I was little bit nervous today . . .,” Nishikori said. “I tried to use another tactic to make him work. And yeah, happy to win today.”
Nishikori made the 193-cm Fritz chase the ball as much as possible, placing many shots just out of the teenager’s reach.
“It’s not easy to hit a winner against him, especially with this slow court,” Nishikori said. “So I have to finish really strong, finish the points really strong, using my legs and everything, so it wasn’t easy. And he was also hitting many good serves. It was tough to play obviously.”
Ranked No. 7 in the world, Nishikori won his 11th career title and first since his victory in Washington last August. He picked up the $109,950 check with his 17th straight match win in Memphis. Nishikori hasn’t lost at The Racquet Club in the main draw since the first round in 2009.
The 18-year-old Fritz was already the youngest American to reach an ATP Tour final since Michael Chang won Wembley in 1989 at the age of 17. He was trying to join Chang as a winner in just his third career ATP event. An American teen hadn’t reached an ATP final since Andy Roddick in 2002 in Montreal, and a teen hadn’t won on tour since Marin Cilic in New Haven in 2008.
Fritz came into the year just hoping to crack the top 100. He will be ranked around No. 103 on Monday, a big jump from 937 a year ago.
“I definitely didn’t expect to get to the finals so quickly starting on the ATP level, but it’s a great accomplishment to get here,” Fritz said. “I’m really happy despite losing the finals because I had a great week and I have to be happy with the result. So I have a lot of confidence moving forward, and I hope I can keep these kind of results going.”
At 26 and a winner of 54 matches each of the past two years, Nishikori used his experience, touch and speed to finish off Fritz in 1 hour, 19 minutes. Fritz served up nine aces with his big serve, but Nishikori was much more effective winning 31 of 38 points on his first serve.
Fritz said he felt he figured out his serve in the second set of his semifinal victory Saturday, and he opened the final by winning each point on his first five first serves needing only two aces. Nishikori won only two points off his own serve in being broken. Fritz then jumped out 40-0 in taking a 3-0 lead.
Nishikori held serve and then broke Fritz when the teen double-faulted at 30-40. Nishikori had another chance to break Fritz in the seventh game, but the teenager fought off three break points to hold serve and go up 4-3. Nishikori held serve, then broke Fritz after the teen had game point at 40-15. Nishikori served out winning the set in 36 minutes.
In the second set, each held serve until Nishikori broke Fritz in the fifth game. Fritz saved his first break point at 30-40 before Nishikori broke him with a forehand winner down the line to go up 3-2. Fritz fought off two championship points to hold serve and force Nishikori to serve for the title at 5-4.
Nishikori celebrated with a fist pump after finishing off his title with a forehand winner, joining Connors — champion in 1978-79 and 1983-84.
“It’s going to be crazy if I stop coming here,” Nishikori said.