Saturday, February 13, 2016

Fritz becomes 2nd-fastest American to gain ATP final

Taylor Fritz, shown en route to the title in the Sacramento
Challenger last October, reached the Memphis Open final
in only his third ATP tournament. Photo by Paul Bauman
   It's too soon to anoint Taylor Fritz as the savior of U.S. men's tennis.
   But the 18-year-old prodigy is off to an incredible start.
   The wild card from Rancho Santa Fe in the San Diego area beat unseeded Ricardas Berankis of Lithuania 2-6, 6-3, 6-4 today to reach the final of the Memphis (Tenn.) Open.
   Fritz, playing only his third tour-level event, became the second-fastest American finalist in ATP history. John Isner reached the Washington, D.C., final in 2007, losing to countryman Andy Roddick, in his second ATP tournament.
   But at 6-foot-10 (2.08-meter), Isner is six inches (15.2 centimeters) taller than Fritz and was a 22-year-old Georgia graduate at the time. Fritz turned 18 last October.
   No American man has won a Grand Slam singles title since Roddick defeated Juan Carlos Ferrero in the 2003 U.S. Open final.
   Fritz became the youngest American to reach a tour-level final since 17-year-old Michael Chang won Wembley in 1989.
   "It's the best feeling in the world," Fritz told reporters. "To be here and think that it's the final is crazy. I'm really excited that I got to this level and I've proven that I belong here."
   Fans, starved for a U.S. star, began chanting Fritz's name in the third set.
   "It's amazing to have this support," said Fritz, who needed five match points to subdue the 25-year-old Berankis in 1 hour, 41 minutes. "I feel so loved here. I owe a lot to the crowd for pumping me up."
   Fritz will have the homecourt advantage again in Sunday's final against top-seeded Kei Nishikori (1 p.m. PST, Tennis Channel), although the 26-year-old Japanese star has built a substantial following in Memphis as the three-time defending champion.
   Nishikori, the 2014 U.S. Open runner-up to Marin Cilic, downed fourth-seeded Sam Querrey 3-6, 6-3, 6-3 to reach his 16th career ATP final. Querrey, a San Francisco native, won the Memphis title in 2010.
   Fritz will try to become the first teenager to win an ATP title since Cilic at New Haven in 2008 and the youngest player in the top 100. He is six months younger than No. 70 Alexander Zverev, an 18-year-old German who stands 6-foot-6 (1.98 meters). The top-ranked teenager in the world is Borna Coric, 19, of Croatia at No. 38.
   Northern California fans are familiar with Fritz, who won the $100,000 Sacramento and $50,000 Fairfield Challengers back to back last October at 17. Ranked No. 694 before Sacramento, Fritz will rise to No. 103 with a loss to the seventh-ranked Nishikori and No. 82 with a win.
Kei Nishikori, playing at Indian Wells
last year, seeks his fourth straight Mem-
phis Open title. Photo by Paul Bauman
   Fritz used his tennis smarts and power to turn around today's match after Berankis, 5-foot-9 (1.75 meters), dominated the first set. Fritz finished with 17 aces.
   "I honestly felt he was unbeatable in the first set," said Fritz, whose parents (Guy Fritz and former top-10 player Kathy May) and uncle (Harry Fritz) all played professionally. "He was making me look awful. I didn't think there was much I could do. I tried to changed things up in my game. He was returning my serves and putting my on defense.
   "In the second set, I told myself that the way I was serving wasn't going to cut it. I needed to crank it up a lot. I started hitting my serves 5 to 10 miles per hour faster. That was the biggest difference. Once I was holding my serve, it put pressure on him. That's what allowed me to play my game more and allowed me to win."
   Berankis was attempting to reach his second ATP final. He reached the title match in Los Angeles in 2012 as a qualifier, losing to Querrey 6-0, 6-2.
   "I was very close (against Fritz)," said Berankis, a quarterfinalist in the now-defunct SAP Open in San Jose in 2012. "I played very well in the first set. Everything was working. In the second set, I started to play a little more careful, and Taylor took his chances and was all over me. ... You always have to keep up the plan and continue the same way throughout the match."
   Nishikori, also diminutive at 5-foot-10 (1.78 meters), can tie Connors' record of four Memphis titles (1978-79 and 1983-84).     
   "It will be (a) really big moment for me, to win four years in a row," Nishikori said. "But I try not to think about tomorrow. I (will) try to play good tennis again tomorrow. Taylor is another tough opponent. We never play before, and he's upcoming."
   Wild cards Fritz and Ryan Harrison of Austin, Texas, lost to fourth-seeded Steve Johnson of Redondo Beach in the Los Angeles area and Querrey 6-1, 6-2 in the doubles semifinals.
   Johnson and Querrey will play top seeds and defending champions Mariusz Fyrstenberg of Poland and Santiago Gonzalez of Mexico in the final. Fyrstenberg and Gonzalez outlasted unseeded Oliver Marach of Austria and Fabrice Martin of France 6-7 (7), 7-5 [15-13].
   Querrey won the Memphis doubles title in 2010 with countryman John Isner.

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