As the highest remaining seed in a high-quality draw in Brisbane after world No2 Rafael Nadal pulled out, Nishikori beat world No16, Daniil Medvedev, one of the brightest young prospects on the tennis scene, in a seesawing two hours, 6-4, 3-6, 6-2.
And the victory had the added bonus for Nishikori of cementing his place at No9 just ahead of the draw for the Australian Open. With world No5 Juan Martin del Potro already announcing his withdrawal from the first Major of the year, that guarantees Nishikori one of the top eight seedings, a level that means he cannot meet a higher-ranked man before the quarter-finals.
It has been a confidence boosting few months for a player who ended his 2017 season in August due to a wrist injury, did not play again on a main-tour match until last February, and fell to No39 in rankings last April, his lowest since October 2011.
Indeed, Nishikori was unable to play the Australian swing at all last year, choosing to build back his form via Challenger events, and it worked. He went on to make the final of the Monte Carlo Masters, the quarters at Wimbledon, and the semis of the US Open.
Come his home tournament in Tokyo in October, all looked set fair for a triumphant title run until he met Medvedev in the final, and the young Russian continued his own surge up the ranks with his third title of the year, a dominant 6-2, 6-4 win.
And this time last year, Medvedev was also well down the ranks, at 84, after also playing on the Challenger tour, but he went on to win his first three career titles, and ended 2018 with a tour-leading 38 hard-court wins and a career-high ranking of 16.
In Brisbane, Medvedev looked on course to continue that run of form after wins over the returning Andy Murray in his opener, then No5 seed Milos Raonic, and the in-form Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. He also broke Nishikori to take a 3-0 lead in the final, but the Japanese man levelled at 3-3, went on to break again in the seventh game, and served out the set 6-4.
Now Medvedev hit back, saving multiple break points in the early stages of the second set and breaking in the eighth game, 5-3. He served out the set to level the match, 6-3.
But Nishikori showed his signature all-court speed and variety of shot to force errors from the tall Russian, and broke twice for a 5-1 lead. Medvedev extracted one break back, but Nishikori replied in kind to break again for the title, 6-2.
No surprise, after such a long wait and so many injury problems, that Nishikori admitted:
“To win the tournament is very emotional. That’s why I’m playing… I was trying in every final and every tournament.”
Talking to ATPTour.com, he went on:
“I always start with this tournament and Melbourne. I couldn’t make it last year, so I had to start at some ATP Challenger events. For sure, this is a better start… but playing good tennis [and being] very happy and healthy is one of the best keys for me.”
Being No8 seed in Melbourne will surely boost both health and happiness still further.
· In Pune, India, top seed Kevin Anderson beat Ivo Karlovic, 7-6, 6-7, 7-6, in a two-and-three-quarter-hour final. It marked No6-ranked Anderson’s sixth title in the tallest ever tour final: He is 6ft 8ns, Karlovic 6ft 11ins. What is more, the 39-year-old unseeded Karlovic became the oldest player to advance to a tour-level final since 43-year-old Ken Rosewall won in Hong Kong in 1977.
· In Doha, No24-ranked Roberto Bautista Agut beat Tomas Berdych, 6-4, 3-6, 6-3, to win his ninth title with his 250th match-win. The 30-year-old Spaniard missed much of last year with injury, but beat both Stan Wawrinka and world No1 Novak Djokovic on his way to his first title since Dubai last year. The final also marked the return of Berdych after almost seven months off the tour with injury. The 33-year-old Czech will rise 14 places to No57 in the ranks.
· Karolina Pliskova won her second Brisbane title, coming back from a set and 5-3 down in the second set to beat Lesia Tsurenko, 4-6, 7-5, 6-2. However, the 29-year-old Tsurenko reached a career-high No24, while Donna Vekic, who Pliskova beat in semis, will break the top 30 for the first time at No29 to guarantee a seeding at the Australian Open.
· In Shenzhen, top seed Aryna Sabalenka won her third career title, also coming back from a set down to beat Alison Riske 4-6, 7-6(2), 6-3. In addition, both women had to play their semis on championship day due to rain: Sabalenka beat Wang Yafan, 6-2, 6-1, while Riske beat two-time Major finalist, 34-year-old Vera Zvonareva, who retired due to a hip injury, 6-1, 4-2 down.
· In Auckland, Julia Goerges defended her title in another comeback victory this weekend. She beat Canadian qualifier, 18-year-old Bianca Andreescu, 2-6, 7-5, 6-1. But it was the youngster who made headlines all week in just her fourth WTA main draw with victories over world No3 Caroline Wozniacki and then Venus Williams, before beating No3 seed Su-wei Hsieh. It took the Canadian 45 spots up the ranks to just outside the top 100.
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BIOGRAPHY: Ethan Hazard
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