Defending champion Kei Nishikori was two points from defeat in his first-round match at the Rakuten Japan Open on Tuesday, but stormed back to beat unseeded Jurgen Melzer of Austria 6-7 (4-7), 7-5, 6-2 with a huge show of will.
Playing indoors at Ariake Colosseum after rain forced closure of the roof over the hardcourt, Nishikori, ranked 13th in the world, had to muster all of his might to prevent an early exit.
The 26th-ranked Melzer came out aggressive from the start, breaking Nishikori to go up 4-3 in the first set and then prevailed in the tiebreaker.
The left-handed Austrian blasted winners repeatedly from the baseline and was ahead 5-2 in the second set, before Nishikori dug in and tore off five straight games to even the match.
Nishikori, the fourth seed, retained his poise and emerged with an impressive result after he appeared headed for certain defeat.
“I thought I was going to lose,” said Nishikori. “My forehand was not there in the first and second set. I could not get into rallies.”
After coming back to take the second set, Nishikori looked like a runaway freight train as he romped in the final set. The Shimane Prefecture native grabbed two breaks for a 5-1 advantage and then ended the affair on serve two games later.
Nishikori was saved by his strong baseline play and Melzer appearing to feel the pressure in the third set. Nishikori had 11 aces in the 2-hour, 7-minute battle.
“Everything changed when I broke him for 5-3 in the second set,” Nishikori commented. “The third set went all my way.”
This was the third time the pair had played. Nishikori beat Melzer last year in Madrid, while the Austrian downed Nishikori in the first round at the Australian Open in 2009.
Nishikori admitted that he was feeling stress entering the tournament as the reigning champion.
“I was feeling a lot of pressure. I felt like I was fighting myself,” he stated. “It’s not easy being the defending champion and playing at home.”
In earlier action, top seed Juan Martin del Potro of Argentina advanced to the second round with a 4-6, 6-4, 6-3 win over Marcos Baghdatis of Cyprus.
Del Potro rallied from a slow start to secure the win in just over two hours.
Del Potro, ranked seventh in the world, prevailed with solid play from the baseline and capitalized on some crucial mistakes by Baghdatis.
“The match came to me in the end,” said del Potro. “I was focusing on breaking his serve and finally did it. He was hitting a lot of aces.”
Del Potro was a late addition to the tournament after Andy Murray, the 2011 champion, pulled out due to a back injury. Del Potro is seeking his third title of the season here, following victories in Rotterdam and Washington.
Third seed Milos Raonic of Canada, who lost to Nishikori in the final last year, will play his first-round match against Go Soeda on Wednesday.
Baghdatis, ranked 49th, broke the Argentine in the opening game of the match and held serve to take the first set. The Cypriot mixed it up, frequently coming to the net and using drop shots to try and keep del Potro off balance.
The players exchanged breaks early in the second set, then stayed on serve until the 10th game, when del Potro broke with a volley at the net to level 1-1.
The crucial point in the match came in the eighth game of the final set, when del Potro converted on his fourth break point chance to go up 5-3 after Baghdatis hit a return into the net.
Del Potro then closed out the contest on serve in the next game.
“I played well in the important moments,” said del Potro. “My forehand was good today. It was important for me to win this kind of match.”
Del Potro, who took a month off after the U.S. Open to rest a wrist injury, is still in the race to make the ATP World Tour Finals in London in November.
“Playing him in the first round is probably the worst person to face,” noted del Potro. “He is unseeded here and dangerous. He plays well on the hardcourts.”
Baghdatis had 17 aces in the loss but was undone by some untimely unforced errors.
The triumph improved del Potro’s all-time record against Baghdatis to 3-2.