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Kei Nishikori prevails in second round against Benoit Paire at Rakuten Japan Open

by Jason Coskrey

Staff Writer

Kei Nishikori was everywhere. Whether it was the left side of the court, the right side of the court or near the net, for large stretches it seemed like wherever Benoit Paire hit the ball, Nishikori was there to meet it.

Before long, they were meeting at the umpire’s chair after yet another victory by the Japanese ace in this matchup against the Frenchman.

Nishikori defeated Paire 6-3, 7-5 in their second-round meeting at the Rakuten Japan Open on Wednesday afternoon at Musashino Forest Sport Plaza.

Nishikori fared better than countryman Yoshihito Nishioka, who fell against Australian Nick Kyrgios 7-5, 7-6 (7-3) in a first-round match earlier in the day.

Nishikori was on fire to begin the match. He won the first five games, including a pair of breaks, to take swift control of the first set. Nishikori fired off cross-court winners with his forehand and was solid with his backhand.

He slid around court to wherever Paire placed the ball, at one point making an awkward, twisting return at the net to set off a round of oohs and aahs from the stands.

Then just as quickly, Paire got things turned around and won the next three games before Nishikori was able to close out the set.

“I started off insanely well”, Nishikori said. “Then it was kinda of up and down and it got kind of dangerous.”

The misfires that plagued Paire in the first set were nowhere to be seen to start the second, as the Frenchman took the fight to Nishikori and won the first three games.

Then it was Nishikori’s time to seize the momentum again, as he rode the same superb shotmaking he’d shown earlier to five straight games to take a 5-3 advantage. Paire won his net service game and broke Nishikori to even the set at 5-5.

Nishikori broke back to make it 6-5 and then served out the match, his fifth victory over Pare in seven meetings.

“I was able to play aggressively, but I also had to be careful in the second set,” Nishikori said.

The world No. 12 could be gearing up for a deep run at this tournament, which he won in 2012 and 2014.

“I feel positive,” Nishikori said. “I think I can play good tennis at a high level this week.”

Nishioka had entered the tournament riding the high of capturing his first career ATP title just a few days earlier.

Kyrgios sent him tumbling back down to earth in their matchup.

The 23-year-old Mie Prefecture native gave a game effort, but was at times overwhelmed by the strength behind Kyrgios’ shots.

“For this match, I just focused on my service game,” Nishioka said. “When he makes these huge serves, I can’t do anything. So the first thing was to focus on my service game, and if I had a chance, try to break his service game. But he hit great second service twice. Actually the last one, I had a chance, but I didn’t make it.”

The match was Nishioka’s first since his victory over Pierre-Hugues Herbert in the Shenzhen Open final on Sunday, which gave him his first victory on the ATP Tour. Nishioka was making his third appearance at the Rakuten Japan Open and suffered his third first-round defeat.

Kyrgios, who won the tournament in 2016, fired off powerful serves one after the other, some hitting their mark and some not. The world No. 27 finished with 20 aces and four double faults.

While the mercurial Australian had a few lapses of focus on otherwise easy shots, he sent more than a few booming forehands Nishioka’s way. He briefly lost his cool in the third game of the second set, hurling his racket to the ground, but remained otherwise mostly in control.

Nishioka hit three aces and had a first-serve percentage of 72 during the match. He induced a few long rallies by getting to shots and charging the net effectively, to the delight of most in the stands.

“I just tried to focus on my first service and just tried to not hit any easy shots,” Nishioka said. “When he has time, he can do anything, he can make a huge forehand or a drop shot, he can do anything he wants.”

In other singles matches, Australian teenager Alex de Minaur defeated France’s Gilles Simon 6-7, 7-6, 6-2, while Kevin Anderson was a 4-6, 7-6, 6-2 winner over Australian Matthew Ebden and Milos Raonic defeated Yosuke Watanuki 6-3, 7-6 (7-2).