Even before the match started, there were high expectations of this match, the fourth this year between two of the brightest and youngest stars in the top-10. Both 24-year-old Nishikori and 23-year-old Raonic, have put together outstanding seasons to find themselves, as the tour crescendos to the World Tour Finals, in a position to qualify for London for the first time.
The Japanese man—slight, fast, with superb timing on the ball and brilliant movement about the court—and the big Canadian—tall, big-serving, and smart as paint—are locked at Nos7 and 8 in the rankings and at Nos 5 and 8 in the Race.
Ahead of this match, they had six titles apiece, had almost identical match-winning stats and Tokyo stats, and every one of their contests had been very closely contested. Thus far, every one had involved tie-breaks: That very first in Tokyo went to three sets; the first this year in Madrid, also to Nishikori in two tie-breaks; their Wimbledon face-off took four sets, with Raonic advancing to the semis; and in their most intense contest to date, it needed 4hrs 19mins and five sets for Nishikori to win at 2.30am—and eventually advance to his first Major final.
Both had special reason to want this latest win, too. For Raonic, it was his third consecutive final in Tokyo, and a win could take him past Tomas Berdych in the Race. Nishikori, should he win, would be the first man to win the tournament twice—and what a place to do it, on home soil for the first time since becoming the first Asian man to reach a Grand Slam final.
The atmosphere could not have been more vibrant, enhanced by a roof closed against an advancing typhoon.
With not a break point through the first set, that atmosphere cranked up in the tie-break as Raonic closed a 3-1 gap to level at 4-4, but Nishikori found a glorious cross-court forehand to convert his first set point.
Raonic managed his only break of the match in the seventh game of Set 2, showing a growing willingness to come forward to the net—and the big man’s movement is one of the most improved areas of his game this year. That was enough to win the set.
In the decider, Raonic twice fought off break chances before finally facing some remarkable returns of serve from Nishikori at 4-5, and the Japanese man seized the day after 2hrs 13mins to the delight of 10,000 fans.
After an emotional on-court celebration—and he embraced his famous coach Michael Chang in tears—his thoughts, not surprisingly, turned to London: “I hope to get to London.
“I am getting close, but there are two more ATP Masters 1000s and 500s left. These next few weeks will be really important for me.
“It’s the first time I have won a title two weeks in a row. After the US Open, it was hard to maintain my motivation. I had to stay strong and focused, especially this week when I wasn’t feeling 100 per cent.
“I think it was one of my toughest games against Milos. He was serving really well, with a lot of aces. Luckily, I got the first tie-break and that helped my motivation for the match.”
Neither man has much time to recover for their next test: The Shanghai Masters has just got underway and both face formidable routes to the latter stages: Nishikori is in Roger Federer’s quarter, Raonic in Rafael Nadal’s.
But on the evidence of their season’s thus far, and Tokyo in particular, it’s hard to see either failing to reach their end-of-season goal at the O2.
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BIOGRAPHY: Ethan Hazard
BIOGRAPHY: Daniel Sturridge