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Marin Cilic, Kei Nishikori amongst favorites as unpredictable Japan Rakuten Open begins

by Joel Tansey

Staff Writer

With Ariake Coliseum undergoing renovations ahead of the 2020 Summer Games, eight of the world’s top 25 players will descend upon Musashino Forest Sports Plaza in Chofu, western Tokyo, this week for the 2018 Rakuten Japan Open. The facility’s court speed and playing conditions are unknowns, making this year’s tournament particularly difficult to predict.

Here’s a look at a field that’s full of familiar names, minus 2017 champion David Goffin, as well as up-and-coming stars.

Favorites:

Marin Cilic, Croatia (No. 1 seed)

Cilic has had a relatively quiet campaign since his run to the Australian Open final in January. He appeared poised for another strong showing at Wimbledon after beating Novak Djokovic on grass at Queen’s Club, but he flamed out in spectacular fashion in the second round against clay-court specialist Guido Pella.

He lost to Kei Nishikori in a 5-setter at the U.S. Open and has only played in the Davis Cup since, where he helped the Croatian team past the U.S. and into the finals. Cilic made the semis here last year and he certainly has the game to top the field this week but he has a tendency to get tight in big spots. His draw looks favorable to start but a possible run-in with Stan Wawrinka, against whom he has an ugly 2-11 record, could await in the quarterfinals.

Kei Nishikori, Japan (No. 3)

All in all it’s been a successful return to the tour for the Japanese star after an injury-ravaged 2017. Highlights include runs to his first Wimbledon quarters and his third U.S. Open semifinal, as well as an appearance in the Monte Carlo Masters final. His year might look even better were it not for Novak Djokovic — the Serbian star has beaten him four times, including at the last two majors.

Nishikori’s form and confidence should be as good or better than anyone else in the field this week, and he’s got recent wins over fellow seeds Cilic and Diego Schwartzman to hang his hat on. He’ll also have the home crowd working in his favor. In a field loaded with big servers, Nishikori’s solid return game — he’s winning 24.7 percent of those games this season — and ability to quickly turn defense into offense could be enough to net him a third Japan Open title after his wins in 2012 and 2014. And if he can’t find an elusive break against some of the tournament’s biggest servers, no one on tour has been better in tiebreakers in 2018 — Nishikori has won 81.3% of his breakers this year.

Milos Raonic, Canada (No. 6)

Three times a runner-up here, twice to Nishikori, the hard-serving Canadian will be looking to finally get over the hump and grab an elusive title. Like his Japanese rival, Raonic has struggled with injuries throughout much of his career, but when he’s healthy he’s proven to be a force on the back of his world-class serve.

Raonic has had a mediocre year, with a quarterfinal appearance at Wimbledon and a semifinal at Indian Wells standing out as the highlights, but if the Musashino courts play quick and his serve gets hot he’ll have a good chance of going on a deep run this week. This year he’s won 90.4 percent of his service games and thrown in 17.1 aces per match.

Nick Kyrgios, Australia (unseeded)

Another player who will be hoping for fast courts in Chofu is the 2016 champion. Always volatile on the court and prone to spectacular lapses in concentration and effort, Kyrgios is a contender based on his equally-spectacular shot-making. An aggressive attacker, Kyrgios boasts a rocket serve of his own and can damage his opponents from both sides of the ball. He’s a complete player, except for between the ears. Success will depend on which Kyrgios shows up this week — it could change by the match, or even the set.

Next best

Kevin Anderson, South Africa (No. 2)

The big South African continues to defy logic and play the best tennis of his career on the other side of his 30s. His serve is the primary weapon here and it’s helped him to a pair of grand slam finals over the past two seasons, most recently at Wimbledon following a five-set upset of Roger Federer in the quarters. The 203-cm-tall Anderson has surprisingly failed to find much success in Tokyo, having never reached the quarters in five previous appearances.

Stan Wawrinka, Switzerland

The three-time grand slam champion is one of the biggest wildcards in the field. Having made the quarterfinals in Cincinnati in August and the semifinals of a lower-level tournament two weeks ago in Saint Petersburg, Russia, the Swiss star appears to be slowly rounding back into form following his lengthy 2017 absence due to injury.

Wins this summer over Nishikori, Kyrgios and Schwartzman should have him feeling confident against much of the field, but the draw looks tough for the former world No. 3. Next-generation hopeful Taylor Fritz awaits in the first round and if the 2015 champ gets past the American he’ll get either Hyeon Chung or Denis Shapovalov in the round of 32. No matter how deep he goes, Wawrinka’s famed one-handed backhand will be a treat for those who see him live.

Dark horses

Stefano Tsitsipas, Greece (No. 5)

The 20-year-old announced his arrival in Toronto in the lead-up to the U.S. Open with upsets of Djokovic, Alexander Zverev and Anderson before falling to Nadal in a two-set final. But it’s been a tough slog for the Greek of late, having compiled a 1-3 record since. He’ll get Japanese No. 2 Taro Daniel in the first round and could wind up facing Nishikori in the quarters if he can return to the form he showed in August.

Hyeon Chung, South Korea (No. 7)

Denis Shapovalov, Canada

These two almost have to be linked since one of them will be out of the tournament by the second round. The draw was either cruel or a blessing in disguise, depending on how you look at it. Taking the glass-half-full approach, neither has been at the top of their game in recent months and the early test won’t allow them to be caught unprepared to start the week. Chung beat the Canadian last year at the Next Gen ATP Finals in Milan, the tour’s end-of-season tournament for top players 21 and under, but this matchup is more or less a toss-up. A further challenge awaits the winner, with Wawrinka the likely opponent in the second round.

Alex de Minaur, Australia

De Minaur is on track to make the cut for this year’s edition of the Milan tournament on the strength of a finals run at the Washington Open in August and third-round appearances at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. Those results have pushed him up to No. 40 in the world rankings and while it may be a bit much to expect him to contend this week in Tokyo, he could play spoiler for Tsitsipas if he gets past veteran Gilles Simon in the first round.

Yoshihito Nishioka, Japan

On the comeback trail following a season-ending knee injury last spring, Nishioka is rounding into form just in time for his home tournament. The native of Tsu, Mie Prefecture was set to play Pierre-Hugues Herbert in Sunday night’s final of the Shenzhen Open after beating Shapovalov and veteran Fernando Verdasco earlier in the week. He’ll be up against it with Kyrgios in the first round, but if the moody version of the Aussie shows up, Nishioka is more than capable of an upset.

Frances Tiafoe, U.S.

Tiafoe is another in an exciting group of young stars in the field who will be looking to further cement their status in Tokyo. The 20-year-old has shown he has a strong game on all courts, with finals appearances at the Delray Beach Open (hard court) and the Estoril Open (clay) to go along with a third-round run at Wimbledon. That should allow him to be comfortable no matter how the courts play this week. But he’s likely headed for a second-round encounter with Anderson where his middle-of-the-road return game will be liability.