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Nishikori captures Japan Open title

by Jack Gallagher

Staff Writer

Even a typhoon bearing down on Tokyo could not stop the tennis faithful from making the trek to Ariake Colosseum on Sunday afternoon to watch national hero Kei Nishikori go for his fourth ATP Tour title of the season.

They weren’t disappointed by coming out.

The 24-year-old star won his second straight tournament and the seventh of his career with a 7-6 (7-5), 4-6, 6-4 victory over Canada’s Milos Raonic in the final of the Rakuten Japan Open before a crowd of 11,893.

It was a contest marked by a contrast in styles, with Raonic relying primarily on his big serve, while Nishikori utilized his superior speed and mobility to force his opponent into many unforced errors.

Raonic had 22 aces in an affair that featured few long rallies, while Nishikori managed just one.

Sunday’s battle was a rematch of the 2012 tournament here when Nishikori beat Raonic in three sets in the final to become the first Japanese man to win the event.

The Shimane native, currently ranked seventh in the world, has now won titles this season in Memphis, Barcelona and Kuala Lumpur and made the final of the U.S. Open and Madrid Open.

“It was great to win today,” said Nishikori. “It was hard to return against him. He was serving really well, with a high percentage and speed.”

Nishikori felt taking the first set was crucial.

“Luckily I got the tiebreak in the first,” he said. “That really helped motivate me the rest of the way. If I had lost that it could have been tough.”

This marked the third straight year that Raonic made the final here. He lost to Juan Martin Del Potro of Argentina in 2012.

“It’s disappointing to lose again in the final,” noted Raonic. “The last two years have been more disappointing than the first one against Kei.”

The first set was on serve until the tiebreaker, when Nishikori took a 4-2 lead, only to see Raonic run off three straight points to go up 5-4.

The fourth-seeded Nishikori took the set on an amazing save of Raonic’s serve, followed by a powerful crosscourt forehand.

Raonic, the third seed, had break points in the first and fifth games of the second set, but could not capitalize. He finally broke to lead 4-3 and took the set on serve with an ace.

Raonic, ranked eighth, saved three break points in the second game of the final set, but was unable to convert when had one of his own in the seventh.

Nishikori clinched the match by breaking in the 10th game when the Canadian netted a return.

“I started off poorly in the last game,” said Raonic. “I don’t think I did anything wrong, he just played better in the key moments.”

The victory puts Nishikori in good position to become the first Asian man to qualify for the season-ending ATP World Tour Finals in London in November. That event features the top eight-ranked players in the world. Nishikori is currently fifth in the standings.

With the top two seeds, Stan Wawrinka of Switzerland and David Ferrer of Spain losing in the first round, neither Nishikori or Raonic faced a seeded player on the way to the final.

There was another historic first for Nishikori on Sunday.

“This was my first time to win two weeks in a row, so that means a lot,” he stated.

An emotional Nishikori went into the stands after the win to celebrate with coaches Michael Chang and Dante Bottini.

In his post-match victory speech on court, Nishikori saluted the effort of Raonic in defeat and pointed out their collective futures are bright.

“We are both young guys,” Nishikori said. “I think we are going to get to the top five soon.”