Kei Nishikori realized a dream en route to his second career title, winning the Japan Open with an impressive three-set victory over Milos Raonic on Sunday.
The 22-year-old Nishikori, appearing in his fourth career final, defeated Raonic 7-6 (7-5), 3-6, 6-0 to become the tournament’s first Japanese champion since it became an ATP event in 1973.
The win was Nishikori’s first since the 2008 Delray Beach International, before he had surgery on his right elbow. He had lost in the first round the last two years here.
“It’s an unbelievable feeling,” said Nishikori, who will shoot up to a Japanese all-time high 15th when the new rankings are released Monday. “I wanted to be able to win again on the tour and to do it in Japan means so much more.”
“It was four years ago the last time I won. When I had surgery on my elbow in 2009, I wasn’t sure I could make it back even in the top 100. I know injuries are a part of the game and I just hope to train hard, stay fit and hopefully crack the top 10 someday.”
“This championship is something I’ve wanted for a very long time.”
Nishikori played the 21-year-old Raonic for the first time, and his Canadian opponent came away more impressed by his new-found rival.
“I was aware that Kei is a good player,” sixth seed Raonic said. “I’ve known him from a young age and he’s always been a very high prospect.”
“I didn’t necessarily learn anything too new about his game. I just better understood the extent that he can play. He’s very quick, and he uses that really well.”
“All the points he won until the last two games, really, he played well. He was hitting deep returns, he was putting pressure on me. He was just taking time away from me which I’m not used to.”
“He was reading my serve from the beginning really well, which usually doesn’t happen. That definitely made it difficult.”
In a matchup between world tennis’ two budding stars — it was the youngest final in 58 events on the tour this season — Nishikori got off to a fast start to electrify the sellout crowd at Ariake Forest Tennis Park.
Armed with a sledgehammer serve topping out at close to 230 kph, Raonic had been virtually unbreakable this tournament, leading with 49 aces and having lost serve just once — in Saturday’s semifinal victory over top seed Andy Murray.
But Nishikori, who entered having won a tournament-best 21 of 45 return games, managed to break Raonic in just the second game, moving out to a 3-0 lead.
Yet at 3-1, the tenacious Raonic broke back on his way to leveling the score. Nishikori had set point at 6-5 but Raonic — who saved match point in both the quarterfinals and the semis — forced deuce and the tiebreak.
However, determined to win a title on home soil, Nishikori came back from 4-3 down to capture the tiebreak 7-5, after Raonic saved yet another set point.
The second set was closely contested as the first, with neither losing serve through the first seven games.
Up 4-3, Raonic won the first break point of the set as Nishikori hit a forehand wide. The Japanese almost broke right back but Raonic blasted his 13th ace for deuce, and went on to make it one set apiece.
The day belonged to Nishikori, however. In the final set, he broke his opponent three more times and converted his third match point in deuce to triumph with a third-set bagel.
Nishikori’s goal for next season: to go deeper in Grand Slam events.
“I’m performing more consistently now,” Nishikori said. “I do think hard court is my surface so at the U.S., Australia Opens I want to be able to at least get to the quarterfinals.”
“I started playing really well after beating (Tomas) Berdych,” he said of his quarterfinal win over the No. 2 seed. “Beating a top 10 player will carry you a long way. I didn’t think I’d win, to be honest.”
“I hope people understand how important this win is to me.”