August 31, 2015
Benoit Paire provided one of the great shocks at the US Open in the very first round by defeating fourth seed Kei Nishikori 6-4, 3-6, 4-6, 7-6, 6-4.
The Frenchman didn’t waver when he served for the match, after coolly re-taping his racquet during the last changeover. At 3-5, Nishikori had stayed in the fight by holding defiantly- although his movement and breathing appeared unusually laboured.
Nishikori had been carrying an injury in Cincinnati, had previously been forced to miss Wimbledon, and simply hadn’t played enough matches, it seems, to hit his best form and fitness at Flushing Meadows when it mattered.
The heat and humidity on the opening day in New York wouldn’t ordinarily have been too much for the great Japanese hope, who came into this Slam as one of the favourites after reaching the final last year. A five-set first-rounder shouldn’t have been beyond his powers of endurance either.
However, despite seeming to have recovered from a first-set reverse and regained control by the third, Nishikori failed to find his best tennis with any consistency in the all-important fourth set tie-break. He lost that 8-6 and slid away from there.
Perhaps the pressure of having done so well here last year, combined with his rising superstar status in the Far East didn’t help him to relax when it came to the crunch either. Nishikori will feel crestfallen after this failure and will have to build again in time for the year-end action.
At least expectations surrounding Nishikori will have been lowered, temporarily at least, and there can be little doubt that this superb player will return to his sparkling best before very long.
Talking of pressure, seventh seed Ana Ivanovic crumbled in the very first round to world number fifty Dominika Cibulkova, who took out the Serb 6-3, 3-6, 6-3. Not that such an early surprise took any pressure off Serena Williams.
Anyone would have thought the trophy already had her name written on it for 2015. Apparently, events of the last day or two prove that it is meant to be. Almost a formality.
First, Maria Sharapova pulled out of the US Open on the eve of the tournament due to injury. Then Ivanovic lost to Cibulkova, so removing another big-name rival from Serena’s half of the draw. So that much-anticipated Calendar Slam is already looking inevitable, right?
Wrong. Serena would surely have preferred Sharapova to stick around until their potential semi-final, having beaten the Russian in their last seventeen consecutive clashes. Now she faces an opponent against whom she enjoys less monotonous superiority.
As for Ivanovic, fine player as she is, Serena would not have worried about playing her either. Whereas the Slovakian pocket rocket Cibulkova can be a real handful when she is really on song. And she is more of an unknown quantity, having faced three months on the sidelines while recovering from an operation to her left foot.
It may be that, like Nishikori, Cibulkova hasn’t played enough tennis to sustain her impact on the US Open. But if she does continue to battle through and ends up facing Williams, you can be sure there will be fireworks.
Of course, Serena Williams is still widely expected to make history in the Big Apple. But as we saw on the first day of the 2015 US Open, shocks can always be lurking just around the corner.