Teenager Kei Nishikori came out on top of an early battle of wills with Spain’s Guillermo Garcia-Lopez on Wednesday to move into a third-round matchup against Richard Gasquet at the Japan Open.
The 18-year-old broke Garcia-Lopez’s serve in a first game that lasted an incredible 23 minutes, before going on to take the match 6-4, 6-4 with an assured performance at Tokyo’s Ariake Colosseum.
Top seed and defending champion David Ferrer was made to work hard for a 6-4, 4-6, 6-1 win over world No. 101 Jesse Levine, while tournament No. 4 Gasquet beat Martin Slanar of Austria 6-4, 6-2.
American Andy Roddick also progressed against world No. 102 Ivo Minar, but not without incident. The former U.S. Open champion threw rackets, blew chances and stoked a running feud with the umpire as he finally finished off the Czech 7-6 (13-11), 6-7 (6-8), 7-6 (6-2).
Nishikori was thrust immediately into an extraordinary dogfight in his match against world No. 60 Garcia-Lopez, converting his ninth break point to strike a vital early psychological blow.
“The game was very long and I almost wanted to give up,” Nishikori said after the match. “But when a game is as long as that it becomes crucial, even if it is the first game.
“I thought to myself that I had to win that game, because it was very important for the match. He ended up serving for a long time, so it was probably hard on him physically as well.”
Nishikori increased his advantage with another break to take the score to 4-1, and although he suffered a serious wobble with the set there for the taking, the teenager’s win over Robert Kendrick the previous day gave him the belief he could close it out.
“Today I was nervous but I felt more confident after the match yesterday,’ he said. “I thought going into the match that I had a good chance of winning.
“He didn’t lose his rhythm or make any mistakes, so it was hard to find a way to win games. But I think I have been able to play against the top players since the U.S. Open, so it is a sign that I am more confident. The rankings go up and I gain confidence from playing and beating the top players.”
Nishikori served strongly as the second set got under way, while all the time threatening to make the first breakthrough. Garcia-Lopez salvaged his service game from 15-40 down with the score at 3-3, but Nishikori was not so generous the next time, making the decisive break to serve for the match at 5-4.
An audacious drop-shot over the net at match point left the Spaniard scrambling on match point, handing Nishikori the match in front of an enthusiastic home crowd.
“I wasn’t thinking about playing for the crowd with that shot,” he said. “I made a mistake with the previous shot, so I was lucky that it got me a point. I didn’t have any leeway to do anything flashy.”
Earlier in the day, world No. 101 Levine showed his mettle as he traded breaks with Ferrer before eventually succumbing in the first set, but the 20-year-old American took a 2-0 lead in the second and held steady to level the match at one each.
The world No. 5 looked rattled by Levine’s aggressive tactics and powerful hitting, but the Spaniard took control early in the third set, finding his composure as his opponent lost his to close out the match with a vicious ace.
After losing in the opening round of last week’s China Open in Beijing, Ferrer was happy to get off to a winning start.
“Today I played good and it was a very tough match,” he said. “I feel good, better than last week, so it is important to win in the first round because sometimes it is difficult to focus. For me now it is important to improve my game and take more confidence with me.”
Ferrer may be the defending champion in Japan, but he is well aware the affections of the Tokyo crowd lie with the teenager who knocked him out of the U.S. Open just over a month ago.
“Of course Nishikori is more important than me because he is from Japan and he is a really good player,” he said. “But for me I have got high regards for Tokyo and it was a good moment for me last year.”