RIO DE JANEIRO – Kei Nishikori made himself an instant fan favorite with the Rio de Janeiro crowd after starting his Olympic campaign with a flamboyant 6-2, 6-4 win over Spain’s Albert Ramos-Vinolas on Saturday.
Trailing 1-0 in the second set, Nishikori dropped his racket after hitting a serve, but scrambled to pick it up in time to return the ball to his opponent. Nishikori then went on to win the point with a rifle-crack backhand, drawing roars of appreciation from a boisterous Brazilian crowd.
“I usually give up those points, but this time I thought ‘no,'” said world No. 6 Nishikori, who is bidding to win his first Olympic medal in three attempts.
“I saw that if I had luck, I may have a chance to get a point. So I tried to hang in there and luckily I got a point. It never happens like that.”
Nishikori broke world No. 33 Ramos-Vinolas twice to claim the first set in 33 minutes, before edging out his opponent in a close-run second.
“It’s great to start like this today,” said Nishikori, who lost to world No. 1 Novak Djokovic in the final of the Rogers Cup in Toronto last week in his final Olympic tuneup.
“It wasn’t easy for me or for him to have the first match, and it was also windy. So it wasn’t easy conditions but I played very patient and some points very aggressive. So I played some good tennis today.”
The atmosphere on center court at the Olympic Tennis Centre was like a soccer match at times despite the 10:45 a.m. start, and Nishikori was happy to soak it up.
“It was really fun on the court,” he said. “I feel really excited on the court and the crowd was very happy. It was fun to play in the stadium here.”
Only half of the world’s top-10 tennis players will compete in Rio, with Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka pulling out through injury, Milos Raonic and Tomas Berdych withdrawing due to Zika virus concerns, and Dominic Thiem pulling out “for many reasons.”
That leaves Djokovic, defending Olympic champion Andy Murray and Spanish ace Rafael Nadal as the only players in the draw ranked above Nishikori, and Ramos-Vinolas believes the Japanese player has a chance to win a medal.
“Hopefully not, because that’s good for the Spanish,” said the 28-year-old.
“I think he is playing so good. He is changing so good from the baseline, across and down the line. I think he has improved since the last time we played, I think it was three or four years ago. That’s why he’s No. 6 in the world.”