RIO DE JANEIRO – Kei Nishikori defeated Rafael Nadal 6-2, 6-7 (1-7), 6-3 to win bronze at the Rio Olympics on Sunday for Japan’s first tennis medal in almost a century.
World No. 7 Nishikori, as he’s been known to do, did it the hard way in becoming the first Japanese tennis medalist since Ichiya Kumagai at the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp, Belgium. The victory was only Nishikori’s second against Beijing 2008 champion Nadal in 11 career meetings.
A day after being taken to school by Briton Andy Murray, Nishikori was far more competitive against a tired Nadal, who, counting the men’s doubles he won with fellow Spaniard Marc Lopez, was playing in his 11th match in Rio.
Fifth-ranked Nadal lost to Argentina’s Juan Martin del Potro in a three-set semifinal on Saturday.
Nishikori pounced on the second break-point opportunity he saw to go up 3-2 in the first set. In Nadal’s next service game, the Spaniard shot himself in the foot with a double fault that set up another break point, which Nishikori promptly capitalized on.
Nishikori aced his first set point to win 6-2.
The resilient legs Nadal has used to build a distinguished career were nowhere to be found early in the second set, Nishikori winning his third break point in the third game.
At 4-2 with Nadal serving, Nishikori converted a fourth break point to win the game. In the following game, Nadal finally broke his opponent on the fourth chance and converted another to even the score 5-5, thanks to a Nishikori double fault.
With Nadal appearing to have found his second wind, the 14-time Grand Slam champion held serve after deuce to move in front. Nishikori won the next game, but the Japanese continued to self-destruct, managing just one point in the tiebreak as Nadal captured the set.
Nadal got the crowd behind him with the comeback, and Nishikori drew the jeers after a lengthy bathroom break that seemed to irritate Nadal ahead of the final set.
Nishikori won his fifth break point to lead 3-1, a critical game that Nadal could not find a way back from.