October 5, 2014
A tearful Kei Nishikori made history when he became the first man ever to retain the Tokyo title.
His second Japan Open was sealed 7-6 (7-5), 4-6, 6-4 and cemented Nishikori’s impressive rise in the sport. The win gave the Far East further confirmation that the region is now a major force in tennis, with the popularity of the game growing by the day.
Nishikori won the first-set tie-break thanks to an incredible one-handed backhand return, which almost grazed the net as it flew cross-court. When a surprised Raonic went deep with his reply, Nishikori sent a superb cross-court forehand back past his opponent for the clincher.
Even though Raonic had struck twice as many first-set winners (18-9), and Nishikori hadn’t so much as forced a break point, the big Canadian had been undone when it really mattered. It was the sixth time in seven tie-breaks between the two men that Nishikori had prevailed, suggesting that Raonic doesn’t handle extreme pressure well.
The Ariake Collosseum’s enthusiastic crowd looked anxious as their hero lay on his front to receive treatment on his troublesome lower back between sets. And he did start the second somewhat gingerly.
Raonic had a break point right at the start of the second set but wasted the opportunity when a lazy forehand failed to clear the net. Then Nishikori led 0-30 on the Raonic serve when he was already 2-1 ahead. The North American served his way out of what could have become a terminal problem and was soon threatening the home favourite yet again.
Nishikori had to fight his way back when facing another break point at 2-2 and managed to keep affairs on serve as the Raonic forehand continued to let him down. It was the same story on Nishikori’s next service game, when Raonic silenced the crowd with a stunning backhand, only to waste another break point. The Canadian set up yet another with a powerful forehand, but Nishikori came up with an unlikely lob. On break point number five for Raonic, Nishikori finally netted and the North American was ahead at 4-3 in the second and looking to consolidate on his own serve. That’s precisely what happened, and suddenly Nishikori had to serve to stay in the set.
He did so successfully, but there was no escape as Raonic unleashed a barrage of big serves to close out the set 6-4. Tokyo’s tennis lovers applauded politely, though there had been gasps of horror as Nishikori appeared to fade. The US Open finalist then left the arena completely to have further treatment on his back.
We waited to see if he could come back stronger and stem the impressive tennis starting to flow from the Raonic racquet. It seemed that Nishikori would do just that when he started the final set with a solid service game and finally conjured two break points on the Raonic serve. The Canadian saved those and came up with an ace to fend off a third.
But Nishikori knew exactly when to apply pressure and came good yet again just when it mattered. Raonic served to stay in the match at 4-5 down and when he lost the first two points, the Japanese crowd found their voices afresh. The Canadian hit long to surrender three match points.
Nishikori closed out the match on the second match point and fell to the ground in sheer delight. It has been an extraordinary few weeks for Tokyo’s history man. His hero status has been reinforced yet again.