Kei Nishikori wins marathon match against Laslo Djere, advances to French Open fourth round

Kyodo, AP

World No. 7 Kei Nishikori prevailed against Serbia’s Laslo Djere on Friday and advanced to the fourth round of the French Open.

The 29-year-old Nishikori started strong but was forced to battle for 4 hours, 26 minutes before knocking off his 23-year-old opponent 6-4, 6-7 (6-8), 6-3, 4-6, 8-6.

“Falling behind 3-0 (in the final set) was frustrating because my opponent kept raising his game over and over,” Nishikori said.

“I was thinking that maybe winning was impossible, but that I might catch a break. That’s all it was.”

Playing in the fourth round for the fourth straight year, Nishikori next faces 38th-ranked Frenchman Benoit Paire, whom he has beaten six times in eight career matches.

However, Nishikori was facing the 32nd-ranked Djere for the first time, and after starting strong, the Shimane Prefecture native had to fight tooth and nail to advance.

With some very solid serving, Nishikori took the first set but with a 4-2, second set lead, he was broken after going up 40-0 and went on to lose the set in a tiebreak.

Nishikori appeared to be in control again after breaking Djere in the final game to win the third set. But after losing an evenly balanced fourth set, Nishikori was broken to open the fifth after going up 40-15 and making an unforced error on game point.

Djere held serve easily to go two games up before needing just five points to break Nishikori again and take a commanding 3-0 lead. Japan’s ace, however, broke back. After losing many of the long rallies, he won two, while Djere contributed a pair of unforced errors to give Nishikori hope of a comeback.

Nishikori evened things up in the eighth game as Djere made four unforced errors en route to dropping his serve and making it 4-4. Nishikori followed with a pair of winners as he held serve and went up 5-4. Djere double faulted on the next game point but held serve with a winner, and the match continued with the Serb needing to win every service game to survive.

With no final set tiebreak, Nishikori held serve in 13th game before winning the first match point.

Roger Federer’s return to Roland Garros feels a bit like what happens when a wildly popular rock star goes back on tour after years away.

He plays his greatest hits: the no-look, back-to-the-net, over-the-shoulder volley winner; the sliced backhand returns; the aces to erase break points. He elicits “oohs” and “aahs” and raucous applause. His audience includes parents, familiar with his work in his younger days, bringing their kids to the show.

In Federer’s case, one father-child duo had the best seats in the house Friday at Court Suzanne Lenglen.

That’s because Christian Ruud, a guy who happened to be in the French Open field himself when Federer made his Grand Slam debut all the way back in 1999, was in the front row, watching his 20-year-old son, Casper, lose to the 37-year-old Federer 6-3, 6-1, 7-6 (10-8) in the third round.

“That’s how unbelievable a champion he is, being to play on a high level for 20 years. I’ve been impressed with him my whole life — and I still (am),” said Christian Ruud, who coaches Casper.

Federer, the elder Ruud said, “cannot play forever, but he’s still playing at an amazing level.”

Certainly good enough to reach the fourth round in Paris for the record 14th time, a mark that was equaled a few hours later when Federer’s longtime rival, Rafael Nadal, equaled it with his own victory.

While Federer raced through nine consecutive games in one stretch — “The first two sets went pretty quick,” Casper Ruud acknowledged — and hasn’t dropped a set this week, Nadal was pushed a bit by 27th-seeded David Goffin.

Still, Nadal recovered quickly after ceding a set, the first he’d lost to Goffin in their four matches on clay, before emerging to win 6-1, 6-3, 4-6, 6-3. Pursuing a 12th championship at the French Open, Nadal improved to 89-2 at the clay-court tournament; Friday marked exactly 10 years since his first defeat, against Robin Soderling in the fourth round in 2009 (the only year Federer won the title).

That setback came on a gray, rainy day. This victory was bathed in sunshine, which is far more to Nadal’s liking.

He and Federer are moving closer to a semifinal showdown. First they’ll need to get to the quarterfinals with victories Sunday, when each faces an Argentine opponent: Federer plays 68th-ranked Leonardo Mayer, and Nadal takes on 78th-ranked Juan Ignacio Londero, who is making his major tournament debut.

Men’s No. 1 seed Novak Djokovic was set to play Salvatore Caruso in a third-round match on Saturday.

On the women’s side, top-seeded Naomi Osaka was set to face Katerina Siniakova in the third round. No. 3 Simona Halep and No. 10 Serena Williams also had scheduled matches.