© Hiroshi Sato

Kei Nishikori defeats Yuichi Sugita in straight sets at the Rakuten Japan Open Tennis Championships 2018 on Monday.

Nishikori Ousts Countryman Sugita In Tokyo

Japanese No. 1 to meet Paire in second round

Kei Nishikori arrived at the Rakuten Japan Open Tennis Championships 2018 with plenty of momentum, having reached back-to-back semi-finals at the US Open and the Moselle Open. The Japanese star maintained that momentum on Monday in Tokyo, defeating compatriot Yuichi Sugita 6-4, 6-1.

“It’s never easy playing a friend, especially in Japan. I think we both don’t want to play each other, but I think I handled it well,” Nishikori said. “I felt a little pressure in the beginning, but I started feeling better in the second set. Overall I was happy with my tennis today.”

While the event is being held at the Musushino Forest Sport Plaza rather than the Ariake Tennis Forest Park as that facility is prepared for the 2020 Olympics, Nishikori has always found success in Tokyo. The 28-year-old is now 19-7 at the tournament, including victories in 2012 and 2014. He saved six of the seven break points he faced against Sugita to advance after one hour and 22 minutes.

“First set I was maybe tight and I was missing a little too early,” Nishikori said. “But in the second set I started getting the rhythm back and started playing better. So I’m happy with my tennis, especially in the second set.”

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The No. 3 seed is chasing his first tour-level title since he lifted the trophy in Memphis in 2016. After missing nearly six months due to a wrist injury last year and falling as low as No. 39 in the ATP Rankings this April, Nishikori is back in good form, winning eight of his past 10 matches.

Nishikori will next face Frenchman Benoit Paire, who dismissed Chilean Nicolas Jarry 6-4, 7-6(1) to earn his 25th match win of 2018. While Nishikori leads the pair’s FedEx ATP Head2Head series 4-2, Paire surprised the home favourite in their only previous meeting in Tokyo three years ago.

Paire will be trying to reach his fourth quarter-final of the season, and his first since advancing to the last eight at the Open Sud de France in February. The 29-year-old is pursuing his fourth triumph against a Top 20 opponent in the ATP Rankings this year.

“He’s a very talented player. Great backhand, one of the best backhands on the tour and a good serve,” Nishikori said. “It’s never easy playing Benoit, so it’s going to be a tough one.”

While Nishikori had little difficulty moving through, No. 4 seed Diego Schwartzman's run was put to an end in the first round. World No. 32 Daniil Medvedev, who had to go through qualifying, upset the Argentine 6-4, 6-4 in one hour and 28 minutes.

The Russian continues the best season of his young career, in which he has won his first two tour-level titles (Sydney and Winston-Salem). He will next face another in-form player in Slovakian Martin Klizan, who defeated American Steve Johnson 6-4, 7-6(4). The World No. 51 Klizan, who was No. 127 just more than two months ago, triumphed at the Generali Open in Kitzbuhel and finished runner-up to Dominic Thiem at the St. Petersburg Open.

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