You don’t typically think of Kei Nishikori in the same vein as Keith Richards or Eric Clapton or B.B. King. But judging by the hardware the world fifth-ranked player is racking up, he has the means to join them as a virtuoso musician.
With a 6-4, 6-4 victory against Kevin Anderson on Sunday, Nishikori won the Memphis Open for an unprecedented third straight time. He was then presented with yet another custom-made Gibson electric guitar, the tournament’s version of a championship trophy.
Whether the Japanese superstar has the talent or intrinsic motivation to pursue a career as a composer or artist is unknown at this time, but he was instrumental in bringing tennis to the forefront of a city renowned for its southern soul.
Nishikori has won this event every year since 2013; as a matter of fact, three of Nishikori’s eight career titles have come in Memphis. Soon after his latest victory, Nishikori spoke to ESPN.com via phone.
Why have you had so much success in Memphis?
"I am used to the indoors, playing in this stadium. I can hit harder than when I am outside and am more comfortable indoors. It’s a good tournament. They make it very easy for the players here. I always enjoy coming here."
You had to come back from a set down in every match until Sunday’s final. How difficult was this title run compared to your previous two?
"Yeah, this is the toughest week I had in Memphis of the three years I won. The key was the match against [Sam] Querrey yesterday. I had to really fight through until the end, winning two tiebreakers. It gave me a lot of confidence today. Today was the best match I have played all week. I felt really strong."
In the semis and final, you played 6-foot-9 Sam Querrey and 6-8 Kevin Anderson, respectively. How do you handle competing against players of that size?
"It’s never easy playing big guys. They hit a lot of aces. Yesterday against Querrey and today against Anderson I just have to take chances. I defend well, which helps. I tried to be aggressive especially [against their] second serve. I put as much pressure on the second serve as I can. Once the point starts, I feel like I am in good position to win the rallies."
You had trouble with your racket and/or strings all week. What was going on?
"I was hitting with too much power. In the first match, I went up eight pounds [on my string] tension. I felt like I needed more control. Eight pounds is a lot. Playing indoors is more powerful game, so I have to adjust my strings."
Broadly speaking, what did last year’s run to the US Open final do for you?
"The US Open gave me a lot of confidence. It was a great tournament, but it wasn’t easy mentally. But after that I played really well, but I had to keep my focus. I won two tournaments after the US Open, I think. I played in London [the ATP World Tour Finals] for the first time, which was a great experience. I made the semifinals. Really enjoyable."
How much more difficult is it being a player who is now constantly in the spotlight?
"The players now play very aggressive against me. It’s never easy [when you’re the favorite], but I have to just stick with my game plan and be aggressive. It’s not always [seamless], but I figure out how to adjust and keep the pressure on my opponents. It’s different since the US Open, but as long as I stay strong, I have confidence I will win."