Dubai: Kei Nishikori booked his spot in the second round of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships on Sunday, overcoming the huge Reilly Opelka 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 to set up a second round meeting with fifth seed David Goffin.
Nishikori, a former world No. 4 has suffered several career setbacks due to illness and injury. After losing in the third round of the US Open in August 2019 he underwent elbow surgery for a second time and then in 2020 after a year out of the game he played just four events, winning two matches.
When this season got under way, he lost both of his matches at the ATP Cup and then his first round match at the Australian Open, but things took an upturn earlier this month when he reached the quarter-finals in Rotterdam.
Things appeared to be going against him when Opelka broke to lead 5-3 and served out the first set to love, and when Nishikori broke to lead 3-1 in the second he suffered a problem with his right ankle and needed to have it strapped at the next changeover.
When play restarted, Nishikori appeared to have no further discomfort and he went on to level at one set all. In the third set, Nishikori received the gift of a double-fault from Opelka to gain a 4-3 lead, and that one break was enough to decide the outcome.
“I played a very solid match today,” said Nishikori. “I tried to focus on my first service game because I knew there wouldn’t be many chances on my return game. I tried to make my first serve and I think I did quite enough. I surprised myself how I returned well on break points.”
Top seed Dominic Thiem will be looking to establish some momentum after a disappointing start to the 2021 season, with a fourth round exit at the Australian Open and a quarter-final loss to former Dubai champion Roberto Bautista Agut in Doha.
“I’m on the right way, definitely,” said Thiem, who after a first-round bye will play either Christopher O’Connell or Lloyd Harris. “I’m not at the top of my game right now. Australia was pretty strange and also tough to digest in all aspects, so I’m still trying to find the top of my game again and to work hard every day.
“Strong tournaments like Doha last week and here this week are good opportunities to get matches, to play against strong opponents, and I hope I make another step in the right direction now.”