Defending champion Kei Nishikori crashed out of the Japan Open after a 1-6, 6-4, 6-2 semifinal defeat to his U.S. Open conqueror Benoit Paire on Saturday.
Nishikori was looking to add a third Japan Open title to his 2012 and 2014 triumphs this week at Ariake Colosseum, with the chance to avenge his first-round U.S. Open defeat to world No. 32 Paire along the way an added bonus.
But after blowing the Frenchman out of the water in an awesome first-set display, Nishikori came undone. Paire won the second set after taking a timeout to repair a torn shoe, then raced into an early final-set lead before holding his nerve and finishing off the home favorite.
“He raised his game as the match went on,” said a dejected Nishikori. “He made a lot of mistakes in the first set and I was playing well at that point. But I knew it wasn’t over. If I had kept on attacking the way I attacked in the first set, I think the match would have gone differently.”
Paire, who began the year ranked outside the top 100, will play Stan Wawrinka in Sunday’s final after the top seed beat Luxembourg’s Gilles Muller 6-4, 7-6 (7-5).
Paire stunned Nishikori in the first round of the U.S. Open in August, but Nishikori looked on course to take revenge when he dismantled his opponent in a dominating first set.
“I couldn’t do anything,” said Paire, who has also beaten Grigor Dimitrov, Marcos Baghdatis and Nick Kyrgios in Tokyo this week.
“I was hitting the ball and every time he was on his line and no mistakes. After the first set I said to my coach, ‘What can I do?’ And he said, ‘For the moment, you can’t do anything. He is playing too good for you.’ “
But Paire found a new lease on life in the second set, breaking in the 10th game to tie up the match and leave Nishikori flailing in his wake.
“In terms of tactics, I played a little differently from the last time I played him,” said Nishikori. “At the start I was playing really well, but I just couldn’t finish off my attacks and my serves were starting to miss the target. I think that was a big reason why I lost.”
Nishikori was forced to wait in a bizarre incident early in the second set when Paire stopped to tape up a shoe that had fallen into disrepair the previous day.
Paire said after the match that he had tried borrowing a pair from Baghdatis and buying a new pair from a shop, but decided instead to stick to his tried-and-trusted favorites.
“I like these shoes,” Paire said, grinning as he showed the battered yellow sneakers to reporters. “I have won a lot of matches with these ones and I will play with these ones tomorrow too.
“I put a little bit of tape on these shoes and it’s working. So for the confidence I think I need to keep these shoes. We will see tomorrow if it is working or not.”
Paire’s behavior came as no surprise to French Open champion Wawrinka, who booked his place in the final earlier in the day.
“That’s Benoit,” said Wawrinka, who is close friends with Paire. “You saw him play this week. He’s a really good player, really talented, crazy in his game. He can do different things that only he can do. He’s that kind of player.
“He’s going for it and I think it’s worth the time to watch him play. I think he’s a fun player to watch and he’s one of my best friends so he’s a good guy.”
Wawrinka was made to work hard for his win over Muller, but wasteful serving from the Luxembourger let the world No. 4 off the hook.
Muller double-faulted on break point on three occasions to hand Wawrinka the initiative, then compounded his mistakes by sending the ball sailing wide on match point.
“I think in general I played a really good match,” said world No. 4 Wawrinka. “Some great passing, always trying to make him volley.
“He did some great shots but in general I pushed him a lot and I’m happy with the way I am playing at the moment.”
Beijing — Novak Djokovic extended his winning streak at the China Open to 27 matches with a 6-2, 6-2 demolition over big-serving American John Isner on Friday.
The world No. 1 was in devastating form, conceding just three aces in a clinical performance to reach the semifinals in Beijing.
The Serbian is chasing his sixth title in Beijing and his seventh this year, which already includes the Australian Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open championships.
His next opponent is Spain’s David Ferrer, who won the Malaysian Open last week. Ferrer eased into the semifinals with a 6-3, 6-1 victory over Taiwan’s Lu Yen-hsun.
Rafael Nadal had a much harder time in his quarterfinal with American Jack Sock, before prevailing 3-6, 6-4, 6-3.
The Spaniard is still struggling to get back to his best but said he was pleased with the way he fought back.
“Obviously I finished the match playing better than what I started. This year I lost a lot of matches when I had an advantage,” Nadal said.
“So to have the chance to win a match when I start losing is important for me.”
Nadal will face Fabio Fognini in the semifinals after the Italian beat Pablo Cuevas 6-1, 2-6, 6-2. Nadal has lost three of his last four matches against Fognini, including at the U.S. Open when he blew a two-set lead in the third round.
“When you play against a great player, especially if you don’t play to your best, your chances are lower,” Nadal said.
“If I am able to play my best tomorrow, I am going to have my chances. If not, it is going to be tough. It’s simple. Sport is simple. The winner is the player who plays better. Fognini played better in the three matches that he beat me.”
In the women’s draw, Wimbledon finalist Garbine Muguruza beat Bethanie Mattek-Sands of the U.S. 6-1, 7-5 to ease into the semifinals, joining Ana Ivanovic, Agnieszka Radwanska and Timea Bacsinszky.
Nadal weighs in
Beijing — Rafael Nadal on Friday said it was up to Andy Murray to decide whether he plays the ATP World Tour Finals after he drew fire for discussing skipping the year-end tournament to stay fresh for the Davis Cup decider.
Nadal helped Spain win the Davis Cup team event in 2009 and 2011 shortly after taking part in the men’s tour finale, and he said the end-of-year doubleheader had done him no harm at all.
“Everybody does what feels better for him, no? I played the Davis Cup and the World Tour Finals every time. Worked well for me. I won matches in the final,” Nadal said at the China Open in Beijing.
Murray’s Britain, seeking its first Davis Cup win in 79 years, will play Belgium on clay in November, a week after the end of the World Tour Finals on hardcourts in London.
But Murray was sternly told he was “required” to play the mandatory World Tour Finals after he aired the possibility of missing the glitzy event to attune his game to clay.
Nadal steered clear of telling Murray whether he should play the Tour Finals or not, but he said the Scot needed simply to do what he felt was right.
“It’s a personal thing. It’s not the same story for everybody,” Nadal said.