(adds dropped set score in penultimate para)
By Joshua Rey
DELRAY BEACH, Florida, Feb 17 (Reuters) - Teenager Kei Nishikori became the first Japanese player to win an ATP event for nearly 16 years when he shocked top seed James Blake in the Delray Beach International final on Sunday.
The 18-year-old qualifier beat the American ranked more than 200 places above him 3-6 6-1 6-4.
After dropping the first set, the free-swinging Nishikori found his range on his service and groundstrokes, punishing Blake with a barrage of backhand winners.
Nishikori saved three break points in his first service game of the third set, then immediately broke Blake with a clean down-the-line backhand return that the American could not retrieve.
The young Japanese showed no nerves in the latter stages, serving out the match to love to claim the first title of his career.
Nishikori came into the tournament ranked 244th in the world while Blake was 12th.
“Last night, I tried to imagine winning this final, but I didn’t do it,” said Nishikori, after winning his eighth match in as many days.
“I was so nervous in the first set,” he added.
Nishikori’s nerves showed on Blake’s serve as the American took a firm grip on the opening set.
But a day after making a comeback from one set down and saving four match points against Sam Querrey in the semi-finals, Nishikori rallied once again.
He held serve to start the second set with a sharply angled drop volley, broke Blake in the next game, then took a 3-0 lead by spinning a second serve ace past the frustrated American.
“For an 18-year-old, the poise he showed is what impressed me the most,” said Glenn Weiner, who coaches Nishikori at the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Bradenton.
“Against someone like James, and even against Sam, he lost the first set, then comes right out at the beginning of the second up a break. It didn’t faze him,” he said.
Blake appeared poised to reclaim the momentum in the match when he held to start the third set and reached 15-40 on Nishikori’s serve.
But Nishikori played like a seasoned veteran, following an inside-out forehand winner with a cross-court backhand winner to save the break points.
After saving another break point, Nishikori immediately broke Blake with a clean down-the-line backhand return.
The Japanese appeared immune to any pressure in the latter stages, serving out the match at love.
Shuzo Matsuoka was the last Japanese to win an ATP event when he triumphed in Seoul in April 1992.
In the doubles final, second seeds Max Mirnyi and Jamie Murray defeated the top-ranked team of Bob and Mike Bryan 6-4 3-6 (10-6).
The first win for the pairing was particularly sweet for Murray, whose brother Andy won the singles title at the Marseille Open earlier on Sunday. (Editing by Ed Osmond)