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Kei Nishikori outclassed by Daniil Medvedev in Rakuten Japan Open final

by Joel Tansey

Staff writer

Kei Nishikori’s title drought continues.

Even a lively home crowd wasn’t enough to push the Japanese No. 1 to an elusive tournament victory on Sunday at the Rakuten Japan Open as Russian Daniil Medvedev played spoiler at the Musashino Forest Sports Plaza, besting the home favorite 6-2, 6-4.

Nishikori hasn’t won a tour-level title since the Memphis Open in February 2016, a stretch that now includes eight consecutive losses in the final stage of a tournament.

It was the Russian’s serve that played the biggest role in continuing that troublesome trend, with Nishikori only managing to win five return points throughout the speedy 63-minute match.

Three of those points came in the opening game, when Nishikori earned what would prove to be his lone break point opportunity of the match, which Medvedev saved.

Shockingly, for a player known as a skilled returner, Nishikori never pushed Medvedev beyond 40-15 from that point forward, as the big Russian fired eight aces and relentlessly attacked from both sides in the few rallies he had to play.

“He was serving great today. I didn’t have any chance on the first serve and even the second serve,” Nishikori said after the match.

“His ball was skipping a lot with this surface and he was hitting good, flat shots. . . . It was hard to play against Daniil today.”

Medvedev, meanwhile, enjoyed early success on Nishikori’s serve and broke at love in the third game of the match. The break was part of a run of 12 consecutive points that allowed him to take a stranglehold 4-1 lead and he secured the set with a break at 5-2.

The players traded holds in the second set with only Nishikori’s second service game going as far as deuce.

Medvedev found the opening he was waiting for at 5-4 and earned a pair of match points.

He made good on the first one, as a framed Nishikori groundstroke landed well outside the court.

“I’m just really happy. I’ve been (playing) amazing tennis here and I’m happy that what I’ve been doing all season in practice” worked out here in Tokyo, Medvedev told reporters.

Nishikori was attempting to win his third Rakuten Open after victories in 2012 and 2014.

Despite the strong showing this week at his home tournament, Nishikori won’t gain any places in the world rankings and will stay at No. 12 when the list is updated Monday, albeit much closer to the top 10 when it comes to points.

“(Since) the U.S. Open I think I’ve been playing well, maybe not today, but I was happy to be in the final again here especially in Japan, my home. I gotta keep playing the same (for the rest of the season),” Nishikori said.

Medvedev, who had to qualify just to get into the draw this week, will jump up to a career-high No. 22 after winning his third ATP title.

“He can be top 10 for sure, I think easily,” Nishikori said of his 22-year-old opponent. “He has everything so he has very good potential to come into the top level.”

Medvedev couldn’t help but smile when those words were relayed to him.

“Kei is one of the best players in our sport and to hear (that) from him means I can do it,” Medvedev said. “But my prime goal is to take it match by match and continue to work . . . and maybe get to the top as Kei said.”

Nishikori is now set to compete as the No. 8 seed at the Shanghai Masters, which starts on Monday. With up to 1,000 ranking points available, a strong showing will be key if he is to qualify for the ATP Finals in London. Nishikori sits 10th on the qualification list, 705 points behind Dominic Thiem for the eighth and final spot at the year-end tournament.