Kei Nishikori wants to extend a Grand Slam sequence at the Australian Open. He’s not making it easy.
Eighth-seeded Nishikori withstood 59 aces from Ivo Karlovic, and had to save three break points deep in the fifth, before beating the 39-year-old Croatian 6-3, 7-6 (6), 5-7, 5-7, 7-6 (7) to reach the third round.
After missing last year’s Australian Open because of injury, Nishikori reached the fourth round at the French Open, the quarterfinals at Wimbledon and the semifinals in New York, losing to eventual champion Novak Djokovic in the last two.
His career-high No. 4 makes is the highest for an Asian in ATP history and his runner-up finish at the 2014 U.S. Open made him the first man from Asia to reach a Grand Slam final.
Already with a title in Brisbane to opening 2019, he’s starting to believe he’s ready for the next step.
But after twice being taken to five sets — he lost the first two sets of his opening match but won 15 of the next 17 games before Kamil Majchrzak retired while trailing 3-0 in the fifth — he’d prefer to take a direct route through the third round. He next plays Joao Sousa, who beat No. 32 Philipp Kohlschreiber 7-5, 4-6, 7-6 (4), 5-7, 6-4.
“I rather do three sets, but today (Karlovic) was playing well, and first match, too, the guy was playing really solid,” Nishikori said. “Yeah, these two matches can go, you know, I could lose these two matches. So I just need to recover well. But, I mean, it’s only two matches, so I’m not too tired yet.”
Nishikori dropped to his hands and knees after winning the last three points of the tiebreaker, relieved to secure his spot.
He later joked that he’d faced more aces in one match than he himself would serve in a year.
Of course, he was asked about the aces — Karlovic had 59 aces and 98 unreturned serves; Nishikori had nine aces.
“That’s almost my one-year aces,” Nishikori joked. “He almost had it. One serve and it could have gone his way.”
To force a fifth, Karlovic, who is 2.11 meters (6-feet-11), had served six aces in a row. Two from 30-30 in the 10th game and then another four to close after breaking Nishikori’s serve to close out the fourth set.
“Never easy. Kind of frustrating if you can’t get the serve like three in a row.”
After trailing 4-1 in the 10-point tiebreaker — a new addition at the Australian Open this year __ and then taking a 7-6 lead thanks to a video replay review at 6-6 — Karlovic was closing in becoming the oldest man since Ken Rosewall in 1978 to reach the third round at the Australian Open.
But Nishikori stepped it up, sparking chants of “Nishi-kori, Nishi-kori” from a section of Japanese fans at Margaret Court Arena.
“I had to reload in the fifth,” he said. “It was really tough. Could go both ways. I really returned well — focussed well.
“We both played great tennis — and he served really well. I’ll try to carry on this confidence to the next round.”
Rain showers halted play on all courts soon after Nishikori’s win, forcing organizers to close the roofs of the three main show courts.
The Japanese fans were still in place after the break to watch U.S. Open champion Naomi Osaka advance with a 6-2, 6-4 win over Tamara Zidansek.
Nishikori said having more Japanese fans in Australia than at any of the other majors always gave him a boost.
“You can tell there is so many Japanese. And also many Asians. I’m sure I feel more comfortable playing this Grand Slam than other Grand Slam.
“Yeah, I feel very excited on the court, and also happy to be here.”