MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA – Kei Nishikori outlasted Jo-Wilfried Tsonga of France in five sets Monday to book a quarterfinal berth in the men’s singles at the Australian Open.
Nishikori, the 24th seed, rallied 2-6, 6-2, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3 against No. 6 seed Tsonga to reach the final eight for the first time at a Grand Slam.
“I am so happy I can’t even think straight,” said Nishikori, who made just 30 unforced errors compared with 70 by Tsonga. “It was a close match, so my mind went blank at times. This is the first time (at a Grand Slam) for me to make the final eight, so I am extremely happy.”
“It was hot, which made it a tough match physically. But I was able to hold my ground and win. I don’t know what is in store for me in my next match. Murray is a formidable opponent, so I want to play at the top of my game and give it my all,” said Nishikori, who next faces fourth seed Andy Murray.
Shuzo Matsuoka is the only other Japanese man to reach the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam tournament since the beginning of the Open Era in 1968. He did so at Wimbledon in 1995.
The 22-year-old Nishikori, who turned pro in 2007 and previously made it as far as the last 16 at the 2008 U.S. Open, is the first Japanese man since the current system of rankings was introduced in 1973 to be seeded at a Grand Slam.
“I wanted to finish in three sets. I started slow I think today. I was missing a lot, a lot of unforced errors in the first set, then I started playing well in the second set,” said Nishikori, who is the first Japanese man to ever win four matches at the Australian Open.
Nishikori led by 1-0 in the second set and Tsonga appeared to have lost concentration at deuce when tournament officials entered the court in an unusual 10-minute suspension to flatten a section of the court that had bubbled up.
“I felt a lot more pressure than usual. Being on this big stage was part of that and I felt some pressure of trying to make the final eight,” Nishikori said.
Nishikori held a break point when play resumed and Tsonga won the next point to return to 40-40, but the Frenchman faltered with a forehand into the net and then double-faulted, giving Nishikori a 2-0 lead.
Tsonga continued to lose steam after that.
“It was difficult,” said Tsonga. “The ball was playing a lot because of the temperature. I didn’t play, you know, really good tennis.”
Last year, Nishikori, who is currently ranked 26th in the world, eclipsed the previous career high for a Japanese man of 46th held by Matsuoka and climbed as high as 24th after beating world No. 1 Novak Djokovic in the Swiss Indoors semifinals — the first time a Japanese player has beaten a world No. 1 under the current ranking system.
Elsewhere, numbers told the surprising story for Serena Williams in her fourth-round loss.
Seven double-faults, including four in one game; 37 unforced errors, and a first-serve percentage of just over 50 percent that had her convinced “maybe I should have started serving lefty.”
Some other numbers indicated why her 6-2, 6-3 loss to Russia’s Ekaterina Makarova on what she admitted was a still-sore left ankle was more of a shock, particularly at this stage of the year’s first major.
She has played 43 singles matches at Melbourne Park since she won the first of her five Australian Open titles in 2003, and Monday’s loss was just her third. She’s 54-7 since playing here for the first time in 1998, and she hasn’t gone out this early here since 2006.
“I’m not physically 100 percent, so I can’t be so angry at myself, even though I’m very unhappy,” Williams said. “I know that I can play a hundred times better than I did this whole tournament.”
Without Williams, who injured her left ankle in Brisbane two weeks ago, the only major winners still in contention were Maria Sharapova, defending champion Kim Clijsters and Wimbledon winner Petra Kvitova.
Sharapova earned the right to play Makarova in the quarterfinal when she beat Germany’s Sabine Lisicki 3-6, 6-2, 6-3 in a night match. The 2008 champion blew a 3-0 lead in the opening set, needed three set points to win the second and advanced on her second match point despite making 47 unforced errors and eight double-faults.