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Nishikori advances to final

by Jack Gallagher

Staff Writer

Kei Nishikori is one victory away from his second Rakuten Japan Open title after his 4-6, 6-0, 7-6 (7-2) victory over unseeded Benjamin Becker of Germany on Saturday in the semifinals.

Nishikori, who is nursing a lower-back injury, started slowly and appeared to have trouble with his mobility, before turning it on in the second set before another huge crowd at Ariake Colosseum.

The fourth-seeded Nishikori ultimately prevailed with his strong baseline game and some timely shot-making. Becker battled valiantly in the final set, but came apart in the tiebreaker.

“It was another tough match. He started really well,”said Nishikori. “I played better in the second set. The third set was tough. I raised my level in the tiebreak.”

The Shimane native will play Canada’s Milos Raonic, the third seed, in Sunday’s final. Raonic downed unseeded Gilles Simon of France 6-1, 6-4 in the first semifinal in 1 hour and 11 minutes.

Nishikori is 3-1 against Raonic all-time, including a victory over him in the final here in 2012. Nishikori beat Raonic in five sets in the fourth round at the U.S. Open last month on the way to the final.

“It will be a tough match (against Raonic),” commented Nishikori. “He is playing really well this week. It’s ironic that we will meet in the final again here. We always battle.”

The 24-year-old star recognizes that the matchup is one the fans will enjoy.

“I think it will be great for tennis,” Nishikori said. “Two young guys fighting it out.”

Nishikori is aiming for his second straight title and fourth of the season. Nishikori has triumphed in Memphis, Barcelona and Kuala Lumpur in 2014.

Becker, ranked 62nd, saved two break points in the fourth game of the opening set to avoid going to down 3-1, then broke Nishikori for a 4-3 lead. Becker then relied on his strong serve to take the set.

Nishikori came out blazing in the second set, blasting forehands from the baseline on the way to breaks in the second and fourth games. He then broke Becker again to take the set.

In the final set, Nishikori ended a nice rally with a crosscourt drop volley that put him ahead 30-0 in the fourth game, then broke Becker to take a 3-1 lead. The German broke right back, however, then held serve for 3-3.

The set then stayed on serve until the tiebreak, when Nishikori took the final six points to clinch the match.

“Mentally I was tired in the third set, but I relied on my forehand,” stated Nishikori.

“I tried to focus on my service games in the final set. In the tiebreak, anything can happen.”

Simon, ranked 37th, was unable to handle the power of Raonic, who used his booming forehand and deep returns to record the victory.

“I executed well and had a good vision of what I wanted to do. That’s why I could come up with the shots I needed,” said Raonic.

The Canadian also hit some nice volleys in the win.

“It’s important to be efficent coming forward against him (Simon),” noted Raonic.

Raonic took the opening set with relative ease, breaking Simon in the second game and again in the sixth behind a big serve and some nice passing shots.

The match began under cloudy skies, but rain began to fall after the first set and the roof was closed, forcing a 30-minute delay.

The second set was on serve until the fifth game, when Raonic broke to move ahead 3-2. He stayed on serve the rest of the way to take the match.

Raonic will be appearing in the final here for the third straight year. He was beaten by Juan Del Potro of Argentina last year.

Raonic, ranked eighth, notched 11 aces in the win over Simon.