Nishikori relaxed ahead of Japan Open defense


Kei Nishikori insists he’s never felt so free of pressure as the world No. 12 hopes to become the first back-to-back Japan Open champion since Pete Sampras in 1993-94.

Last year, Nishikori became the first player from the host country to win the Japan Open since the tournament joined the ATP Tour in 1973, after beating Milos Raonic in three sets in the final.

Nishikori said Sunday that winning the Japan Open last season lifted a huge monkey off his back, admitting he had put too much pressure on himself until then.

Nishikori, the fourth seed here, will take on Jurgen Melzer of Austria in the opening round.

“I’m excited to be back but I feel relaxed at the same time,” the 23-year-old Nishikori said at Ariake Tennis Forest Park. “Before I won it last year, I’d been pressuring myself too much.

“Now, I’m comfortable with the stadium, comfortable with the atmosphere here and I want to have a good time while I’m out there.”

Seventh-ranked Juan Martin del Potro, who Nishikori lost to at the London Olympic quarterfinals, is the top seed after Andy Murray pulled out to undergo back surgery.

Nishikori, who had been longing to face Murray at the Japan Open, said the field remains tough even without the Scotsman, with six top 20 players in town for the $1.4 million competition.

“Murray may not be here, but we’ve still got a pretty strong draw,” he said. “Del Potro, who I’ve never beaten, is in and Raonic has been hot as of late.

“But I’ll try not to worry about who’s here and who isn’t, and just focus on playing some good tennis.”

Nishikori admitted he had hit rock bottom after crashing out in the first round of the U.S. Open.

“I was tired after the European season and I kept thinking about my ranking, even though I tried hard not to,” he said. “I’m not saying it’s the media’s fault, but there was always someone reminding me about it.

“But eventually I got around it. I don’t worry about the rankings anymore and will just focus on the match at hand. I drew Melzer, who I’ve played on clay, in the first round.

“He played well last week, is left-handed and is aggressive. But I feel like I’m in good condition and needless to say, my goal is to win it again. How I get through the first two rounds will be important.”

On Monday, towering Argentine Del Potro, the 2009 U.S. Open champion, plays Marcos Baghdatis of Cyprus while Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, finalist at the 2008 Australian Open, faces fellow Frenchman Gael Monfils in the pick of the first-round matches.