© Hiroshi Sato

Go Soeda celebrates his first Tokyo match win with fans on Monday.

Lucky 13: Soeda Shining In Tokyo

Japanese hoping 2020 brings greater confidence

The 13th time proved the charm for Go Soeda.

The former World No. 47 had lost all 12 of his main draw matches at the Rakuten Japan Open Tennis Championships entering his first-round clash with German Jan-Lennard Struff on Monday at Ariake Tennis Park. But finally, at age 35, Soeda found his Tokyo breakthrough.

“I didn’t think a lot about winning in the first set or the second set, but in the final set at 4-3, 5-3, I was thinking about winning and I got really tight,” Soeda said. “I’m really happy. I didn’t win this tournament in 18 years. I was playing since 2001, so I’m very happy to win for the first time here.”

In four of Soeda’s 12 opening-round losses here, the home favourite battled his way to a deciding set. But he was never able to find a way through. It wasn’t that Soeda had not enjoyed success on the ATP Tour — he made the semi-finals in Chennai and Atlanta in 2012 — but Soeda could never solve the Tokyo puzzle.

But the joy of victory was well worth the wait, especially considering he has his two-year-old son, Mito, with him at this ATP 500 event. Shortly after his triumph, Soeda was able to see him.

“After the match he said, ‘You are so cool!’” Soeda recalled. “So I’m really happy. I don’t know if he’ll remember or not, but it’s cool.

“It’s very special, very positive now. I can’t bring them every week, but this week especially is very special [to have my family here].”

This was Soeda’s first win at an ATP Tour tournament since 2015 Washington.

“It’s a long time, four years. But I’m very happy to win here. My Ranking isn’t so high, but I’m trying. [My] confidence was a little down, but I’m trying every year. Maybe coming next year, my confidence is coming back. I hope next year it’s the Top 100,” Soeda said. “Maybe I played too much in Challengers and then win or lose and then I’m thinking too much for four or five years. I need to change from now and hope next year to play 250 or 500s more and if I win, it’s very good… Now I’m feeling like Top 90, 80, so I’m hoping to get to the Top 100.”

Soeda could get a huge opportunity in the second round if he plays top seed Novak Djokovic. It would be his first meeting against a World No. 1. Ironically, Soeda is 0-12 against Top 10 opposition.

The highest-ranked player he has previously faced is World No. 2 Rafael Nadal, and that came in Tokyo eight years ago.

“I want to play him. I’ve never played against a World No. 1. So if I play him, I’ll be really happy. I’ll try my best like the Japanese rugby team,” Soeda said of his nation’s rugby team, which upset powerhouse Ireland on Sunday. “I’m really excited. That time I played Nadal, I was really nervous. Maybe next time, too, but I really enjoy to play [against the top players].”

It’s been a banner week for Japanese tennis, with four players from the country reaching the second round. One of them is Yasutaka Uchiyama, who defeated third seed Benoit Paire on Tuesday. He was excited to see Soeda have his moment in the hometown spotlight.

“I was happy, too, because he’s a great friend of mine. I celebrated with him after the match and I’m really happy,” Uchiyama said. “He was playing amazing. He was playing really good at the baseline. At the end of the match, I think he controlled the game.”

Even though Soeda is 35, he feels he has plenty of tennis left in him. And more than two hours after his victory on Monday, fans were still shouting from the top of the Colosseum down to the player area where Soeda was soaking in the moment with his loved ones.

“I really enjoy to play now, more than before,” Soeda said. “I’m feeling my technique is better than before because I think about tennis. I really enjoy it now.”

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