Immediately following seven days in hotel quarantine in Seoul, Taylor Fritz completed a perfect five-day stretch in Tokyo on Sunday to claim his third title of a career-defining year.
With a 7-6(3), 7-6(2) victory against countryman Frances Tiafoe in the final at the Rakuten Japan Open Tennis Championships, the third seed became the 10th different American singles champion at the ATP 500 event and the first since Pete Sampras in 1996. Fritz will make his Top 10 debut at No. 8 in the Pepperstone ATP Rankings on Monday, and has moved up three spots to seventh in the Pepperstone ATP Live Race To Turin this week.
“[It's] crazy, I don’t even think it’s set in just how fast the last four or five days have been,” said Fritz after the match. “It’s so crazy, and I couldn’t have written it any better. It’s exactly what I needed for the Race, for my ranking, to kind of put me in a good position for the end of the year, so it’s amazing.”
Tiafoe carried a streak of 13 straight singles tie-break wins into the title match, but Fritz dominated both on Sunday with big serving and aggressive hitting. He did not drop a point on serve in either tie-break, both times converting on early leads.
"Both tie-breaks, I don't think I missed a first serve, which is a huge key, coming up with it in the big moments," said Fritz, who won 78 per cent of points behind his first delivery and 75 per cent on second serve. "I felt extremely calm and I felt like I had a lot of clarity in making decisions on the court. For playing such a big match in a final, that's huge to not be nervous and feel very calm and locked in."
The third seed held the upper hand for much of the match, creating eight break chances compared to three for Tiafoe. A trade of breaks in the third and fourth games made for an eventful start, but the drama peaked in final three games of the opening set.
Tiafoe's 4-5 service game began a run of three games with a break point. Facing a set point at 30/40, he outlasted Fritz in a lengthy rally before firing two big serves to hold. After a brilliant Tiafoe volley brought up his own break chance, Fritz used a drop shot to escape before battling through two deuces to edge back in front.
Fritz nearly converted on his second set point, with his opponent again down 30/40, but the fourth seed defended well, deep in his backhand corner, to turn the point around.
In the tie-break, Fritz claimed an early mini-break by punishing a short Tiafoe slice, then sealed the set with a booming forehand winner.
In set two, Tiafoe saved two break points both 1-1 and 2-2 and then escaped 30/30 in his next two service games. Fritz, who did not face a break point in the set, scored an immediate mini-break in the second tie-break and soon held a 6/1 advantage, with Tiafoe growing frustrated by untimely errors.
Tiafoe unleashed one last big forehand to save one match point but sent a forehand long on the second as Fritz clinched victory, adding to his previous 2022 titles in Indian Wells and Eastbourne.
"He just played well. He played the big points well, played really aggressive," Tiafoe said of his opponent. "I wasn't as aggressive as I was the last couple of matches. He played really aggressive, didn't really miss when it mattered. He just played the bigger points a little better than I did today. It was a tight match and I didn't play the breakers well enough. Pretty simple."
Both players entered the final at career highs in the Pepperstone ATP Rankings, and both will break new ground on Monday. Fritz is set to become the first American to crack the Top 10 since Jack Sock in 2017, while Tiafoe will rise two spots to a new high of No. 17.
With the win, Fritz improved to 5-1 in the pair's ATP Head2Head series and has now won each of their past five matchups, including three this season (Australian Open, Montreal, Tokyo).
The all-American singles final was the first in Tokyo since 1996, when Sampras defeated Richey Reneberg, and the eighth overall at the event. The '96 championship match completed a run of four consecutive all-U.S. finals in Tokyo and five consecutive American champions (Sampras three times, Jim Courier twice).
This year's Tokyo final was also the fifth all-American tour-level final of 2022, the most since five in 2002.
After claiming the title in his fourth Tokyo appearance, Fritz joins 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.
"I came here confident that I could win a round or two and then see how it goes," Fritz said of his post-quarantine expectations, having entered Tokyo on Wednesday, the day of his opening match. "I felt like if I could get through my first two matches, then I would probably be playing good enough tennis. So I think that was the real question mark, was those first two matches. But I honestly had a lot of confidence that I was going to win those.
"It's really crazy that I went from being in quarantine, having to fly here, and then winning the tournament. It's definitely something that I didn't expect."
Photo Credit: Hiroshi Sato