Halle 2017: Nishikori beats Verdasco in marathon opener, as veterans Ferrer and Haas exit
Japanese No1 Kei Nishikori comes from one set down to beat Spain's Fernando Verdasco in three sets in the round of 32 at Halle Open
Kei Nishikori’s visits to the Gerry Weber Open have not been the most successful ventures in the world No9’s career.
In four visits, he has twice made the semi-finals: in the first he met eventual champion Roger Federer—who also happens to be the most prolific Halle and grass-court titlist in history—and in the second he was forced to retire after five games. Add in a first-round loss in 2013 and a second-round withdrawal last year against defending champion Florian Mayer, and it has been a sorry picture.
But then grass has proved to be a difficult phase for the Japanese man. Of 11 titles and 11 finals, he has yet to reach a final on the green stuff. In his last two visits to Queen’s in London, in 2010 and 2011, he also lost in the first round. And Wimbledon is the only Major where he has yet to reach at least the quarter-finals.
In his fifth visit here, he picked up one of toughest, most unpredictable players in the draw. The 34-ranked 33-year-old Fernando Verdasco can be dangerous, either playing the most blistering left-handed power tennis—and he made two hard-court finals this year—or losing from a winning position to lower-ranked players.
He too had a less than illustrious record on grass, however: one final, back in 2008, from 22, and his last two visits to Halle, in 2005 and 2009, brought first-round losses. At Wimbledon, he had a solitary quarter-final finish from 14 attempts, but in the last couple of years, he had taken decent scalps at Queen’s in London, beating Roberto Bautista Agut before coming up against Murray, and last year beating Stan Wawrinka before giving up a set lead to Bernard Tomic.
The Spaniard’s recovered form this season certainly showed in the opening set of this seventh meeting between two men who had become perhaps unlikely friends in recent times. Nishikori and Verdasco were slated to play doubles together here, too, and the Japanese man admitted that he found playing his doubles partner in singles quite difficult.
Both men put in fine serving performances in a lively first set, but the only break chances, to Nishikori, went begging, and they headed to a tie-break in the blistering afternoon heat. In two of their last four meetings, the Spaniard has taken the first set, only to lose the match. And their closest match, in Miami this spring, was on a knife-edge at a tie-break apiece until Nishikori ran away with the concluding set.
The advantage would also go to Verdasco first in Halle, a 7-6(7) opener, but in what became a long match of heat and attrition, Nishikori managed to convert two break chances while Verdasco managed to convert only one from five.
But what initially looked like a trouncing turned into a respectable 6-3, and last set saw both guilty of passing up break chances as they edged to the business end of the match.
But Verdasco was clearly beginning to struggle with his movement, and conceded the only break of the set. As he took a medical timeout, the reason was clear. The Spaniard’s back was striped by support tape, and the grimaces as the physio did his work told their own story.
Sure enough, Nishikori sealed the match, 6-4, after a gruelling two and a half hours.
So how was Nishikori, who had his own injury problems early in the clay season, bearing up after such a tough match?
“I have not got my results on grass. Every year I’m trying to find how to play on this surface, but I’m improving every year. This was my first match, so I didn’t expect to play perfect. Really tough match today, so it’s going good.
“Physically I’m OK now. Something very important especially this week—as last year I got injured here—is to stay healthy. Important to get a couple of matches here this week, and get ready for Wimbledon.”
And what of his doubles plans with Verdasco?
“I don’t know, I have to ask him. We are good friends, never easy to play in singles. I think we have been playing too much this year!”
Nishikori next plays Karen Khachanov, who beat Gilles Simon 6-2, 6-7(2), 6-3.
Elsewhere, David Ferrer’s poor run of form, affected by a string of injury problems, continued after sailing to the first set against Robin Haase. He went on to lose in three sets, 3-6, 7-5, 6-3, to take his year’s tally to eight wins for 12 losses. He was followed out of the first round by 39-year-old Tommy Haas, playing in his retirement season. The popular German went out to Bernard Tomic, 6-4, 6-4.
No7 seed Bautista Agut beat Carlos Berlocq, 6-0, 4-6, 6-2, to set a meeting with home favourite, Dustin Brown, who had edged a tight three-setter yesterday against Vasek Pospisil.
And the unseeded elder Zverev brother, Mischa, continued his rise in form—and he is at a career-high 29 this week—and got a step closer to a fourth meeting with one of his idols, Roger Federer, if the Swiss comes through an unexpected opponent, Yuichi Sugita. The lucky loser took the place of Yen-Hsun Lu, who withdrew today with a back injury.