Dubai 2019

Dubai 2019: Top seed Kei Nishikori wins debut match, but Medvedev follows Khachanov out of draw

Kei Nishikori books his place in the round of 16 at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships

Kei Nishikori
Kei Nishikori (Photo: Marianne Bevis)

Roger Federer may be the headline star at this week’s Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships.

He is, after all, the seven-time champion, holds a record 20 Major titles and 310 weeks as No1, and is continuing to break records in his sport as he heads towards his 38th birthday.

And here, much attention has been firmly on his latest campaign: winning his 100th title in a city that has played such a big part in his professional career.

Yet Federer is not the top seed, nor is he the only Major champion in Dubai, and nor is he among a slew of 2019 title-winners in the draw—though he did pick up the ITF team event with compatriot Belinda Bencic in the first week of the season.

The privilege of top seed instead goes to world No7, Kei Nishikori. And he is one of five title winners in Dubai, along with Gael Monfils, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Daniil Medvedev and Roberto Bautista Agut. And all but the last, the Dubai defending champion here who scored an opening win on Monday night, opened their account on a much warmer Tuesday in the emirate.

These men, plus two-time former Dubai finalist Tomas Berdych, also top the 2019 ranks in match-wins, headed by Medvedev’s 14-3, and the 11-4 of Tsitsipas and Berdych. Here too is Bautista Agut, who took his tally to 11-1 with his Round 1 win here.

Add into the mix one of only two men not named Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray or Stan Wawrinka to win a Major title among the last 56, Marin Cilic, and this was a draw of depth and breadth.

Yet both Nishikori and Cilic faced tough tests even to get to the second round.

Playing his first-ever match at Dubai, Nishikori already had the Brisbane title and a quarter-final Australian Open run in the bag, but he faced the firebrand talent of Benoit Paire. The French man, a player packed with flair, unpredictable, and prone many times to injury, had beaten Nishikori twice in 2015, but Nishikori won the remainder of their seven meetings.

Now, Paire’s ranking reflected his repeated injury setbacks, No65, but even with full fitness and focus, the confident Nishikori would pose one of the toughest tests in the draw.

For Cilic, however, the unseeded test was of a different order. Gael Monfils was also ranked far below his career-high of No6 after a career littered by injuries. The same age as Cilic, 30, he had accumulated eight titles, the last one in a resurgent run at Rotterdam little more than a week ago. What is more, the super-athletic Frenchman had beaten Cilic in all three previous meetings.

No wonder Cilic greeted the draw with “Can we do it again?” It was perhaps the toughest first-round opponent a seed could get, and all the more so when Cilic was largely untested this season since the knee problems he carried through January ended with his action after a gruelling fourth-round loss at the Australian Open.

The Monfils threat was very real from the first game, as his serve blasted down, and his baseline strokes and defence wore down Cilic. An immediate break and hold, and he was 2-0, and to rub salt into the wound, he held to love, then broke once more for the set, 6-3. The crowd was already into overdrive at the spectacular shot-making from this flamboyant player.

But Cilic found better rhythm in the second, fought off a test in the fourth game, and broke for 3-2. Monfils pushed him to the limits in the last game of the set, three break chances, four deuces, but Cilic clenched his first at the hold, 6-4. But he was having to go for bigger and bolder plays, and the errors began to pile up. And Monfils had energy and ideas to spare.

He afterwards admitted that he had a clear game plan before the match, and realised that he was being too passive. His tempo, penetration and speed around the baseline went up a level to cut through Cilic and he dropped not a point on his serve, while breaking three times in a row for a clean sweep 6-0.

Perhaps the lack of match-play for Cilic against such rigorous testing proved the difference, but Monfils is clearly in a great place both physically and mentally at the moment. He beat considerable competition to win the Rotterdam 500, and if he continues to play like this, and with same quiet self-belief that has sometimes been missing, he could cause more upsets. For now, he faces Marcos Baghdatis—and one fears for the Cypriot.

Nishikori, however, had little trouble in downing Paire. The Japanese man showed all his speed, variety and anticipation to break in the third game, and then resisted the only real challenge in the match, and seven break points, to hold for 3-1.

He would serve out the set, 6-4, and Nishikori’s ability to track down Paire’s infamous drop shots frustrated the Frenchman, brought a warning for repeated racket abuse, and then strained his right knee.

A physio eased the pain a little, but once Nishikori had the break in the fifth game, there was no way back, and the top seed broke again for 6-3, after an hour and 20 minutes.

His assessment afterwards was neat and accurate:

“Never easy playing Benoit, of course. Great serve, great backhand. Tricky player. Good drop-shot, good touch. First set I think the key was the longest game, I think at 2-1. Able to get the game. I was more confident. If he broke back, anything can happen.

“But yes, it was good match. Never easy with this wind. First time playing this tournament. But I think I played good enough tennis today.”

His next opponent is Hubert Hurkacz, age 22, ranked 77, winner of three Challengers in the last year, and another tall opponent on the rise up the ranks.

Also in this half, qualifier Egor Gerasimov beat Robin Haase, while veteran Marcos Baghdatis, runner-up in Dubai in 2016, beat Egyptian wild card Mohamed Safwat, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4.

A day after two big seeds, Karen Khachanov and Milos Raonic bowed out of the draw in the first round, one of the most consistent among the rising generation, No8 seed Daniil Medvedev, followed them, beaten by qualifier Ricardas Berankis, 6-3, 6-3.

There may have been almost nine inches difference in their heights, but the No113 ranked Lithuanian had the measure of the out-of-sorts Russian, who misfired too often and seemed unable to handle the windy conditions.

Medvedev came to Dubai with a tour-leading 14-3 run, and perhaps all that tennis caught up with the younger player. But it will be Berankis who plays the 68-ranked Denis Kudla, and ultimately, perhaps, Cilic or Monfils.

More to follow…

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