Kei Nishikori breezes into second round of French Open

Kyodo, AP

Kei Nishikori weathered a third-set rally from France’s Quentin Halys on Sunday to reach the second round of the French Open for the fifth year in a row.

The seventh-seeded Nishikori defeated the wildcard 6-2, 6-3, 6-4 in just under two hours at Roland Garros to set up a match with either France’s Jo-Wilfried Tsonga or Germany’s Peter Gojowczyk in the second Grand Slam of the year.

“I’m happy with my tennis,” Nishikori said. “The third set wasn’t so easy because my opponent got more aggressive, but little by little I got better.”

In his first meeting with the 22-year-old Frenchman, Nishikori breezed through the first two sets as Halys committed 28 unforced errors.

But the 29-year-old was forced to fight back from a 3-1 deficit in the third set, breaking back in the eighth game before decisively closing out the match.

“It was tough of course, it takes time to read someone’s moves on the court,” Nishikori said. “But between his many mistakes and my play going well, the first and second sets went smoothly.”

Nishikori, who has won two of his 12 titles on clay, reached the French Open quarterfinals in 2015 and 2017.

Elsewhere, Roger Federer entered a refurbished Court Philippe Chatrier for his first French Open match since 2015, greeted by the sun peeking through the clouds and the full-throated support of spectators in their designer sunglasses, straw hats and sweaters tied over their shoulders.

Were it permitted, perhaps some ticket-holders would have embraced Federer right then and there, delivering a kiss on each cheek, as if reunited with an old friend at a sidewalk cafe.

Alas, the welcome was limited to wild applause and enthusiastic chants of his first name — “Roh-zher! Roh-zher!” — before and during a 6-2, 6-4, 6-4 victory against Lorenzo Sonego of Italy. The match lasted a mere 101 minutes, yet Federer found enough time and space to sprinkle in some tremendous shot-making.

“The reception I got today was crazy. Was really nice to see a full stadium for a first round like this,” Federer said, comparing the atmosphere to that of a final.

“I feel,” he said, “that the public missed me. And I missed them, as well.”

His presence was the highlight of Day 1, which included losses by multiple major winners Venus Williams, Angelique Kerber and Svetlana Kuznetsova, along with victories for Sloane Stephens, Garbine Muguruza and Marin Cilic.

Kerber has been dealing with an injured foot and was beaten 6-4, 6-2 by Anastasia Potapova. That was the opening match in the largely rebuilt main stadium, a structure of concrete and glass that is expected to have a retractable roof by the 2020 French Open.

Across the way, 2016 champion Muguruza inaugurated the new 5,290-seat Court Simonne Mathieu, which is surrounded by greenhouses displaying tropical plants, with a 5-7, 6-2, 6-2 victory over Taylor Townsend of the U.S.

Later in that same spot, the 38-year-old Williams, a seven-time Grand Slam titlist and the 2002 runner-up in Paris, exited in the first round for the fourth time in the past seven years at Roland Garros. She was broken in seven of her nine service games during a 6-3, 6-3 loss to No. 9 seed Elina Svitolina.

Not since a quarterfinal loss to Stan Wawrinka four years ago had Federer competed at Roland Garros, which is why he described himself Sunday as “quite tense at the start.”

He gave the folks what they wanted, providing a live-and-in-person highlight reel of his full and considerable repertoire. There was the ace at 121 mph (195 kph) to begin his first service game, and the ace at 110 mph (178 kph) to conclude it. The drop-volley winner on the run. The serve-and-volley putaway. The sprint for an up-the-line winner off a delicate drop shot by Sonego that was so good, and so apparently hard to reach, that an Italian fan gushed, “Bravo! Bravo!” in praise of her countryman before Federer got to the ball.

“In the important moments, he raises his level and turns into a computer,” Sonego said. “He never makes the wrong choice.”