Japan’s powerhouse tennis player Kei Nishikori moved on to the second round of the 2015 French Open on Sunday, beating French wildcard Paul-Henri Mathieu 6-3, 7-5, 6-1. It took him over two hours to win, but he was able to avoid a second straight first round departure at Roland Garros.
Nishikori hs improved to 11-2 on the clay courts this year, having successfully defended his Barcelona crown, followed by a semi-final run at the ATP World Tour Masters 1000 event in Madrid and quarter-final finish in Rome. He will next face the winner of Monday’s clash between recent Geneva Open champion Thomaz Bellucci andMarinko Matosevic.
Winning 79 percent of points on his first serve and hammering down seven aces, Nishikori converted seven of his 15 break points and took 2 hours, 10 minutes to brush the former big hope of French tennis off Court Suzanne Lenglen at Roland Garros.
“I think it was solid match,” Nishikori said. “I think it’s not easy to play three straight sets easy. So, you know, there are some ups and downs, and I think I fought through pretty well.”
The 25-year-old Nishikori, a U.S. Open finalist last year, is among the big outsiders at the French Open after defending his Barcelona title and making it to the semifinals in Madrid and the quarterfinals in Rome, where he lost to the top-ranked Novak Djokovic.
Last year, Nishikori was upset by Martin Klizan in the Roland Garros first round, a year after becoming the first Japanese man to reach the Round of 16 since 1938.
The fifth seed is one of five Japanese men to appear in the main draw this fortnight – the most at Roland Garros since 1967, when there were six. This is also the first time as many as five Japanese men have played in the men’s main draw at a major since 1973 Wimbledon, when there were also five.
Nishikori, who moved to the United States when he was 14 and has been coached by former French Open winner Michael Chang since last year, is the highest-ranked Japanese player ever. Japan started with five men in the French main draw — the most since 1967 when there were six — and the most at any major since Wimbledon in 1973, when there were also five.
Go Soeda’s 6-1, 6-0, 6-2 first-round loss to Philipp Kohlschreiber quickly reduced their ranks to four, but Nishikori is enthusiastic about the future of tennis in his country.
“It’s great to see many Japanese players here, and I think men’s tennis got much better right now in Japan,” said Nishikori, who used to be nicknamed “Project 45” when his goal was to reach the No. 45 rank so as to be one spot higher than the best ranking achieved by any Japanese man.
The other Japanese players involved in the men’s draw this year are qualifiers Taro Daniel and Yeshihito Nishioka, as well as 108th-ranked Tatsuma Ito.
“Those two young guys, Taro and Yeshi, are playing great tennis,” Nishikori said. “They qualified for the US Open too. Now they qualified here, so it’s great to see for Japanese tennis.”
Last year at Roland Garros, Nishikori lost in the first round after fighting back problems.
In other action, Ernests Gulbis began his quest to return to the Roland Garros semi-finals following a 6-4, 6-4, 7-6(3) victory over Igor Sijsling. Gulbis, who upset Roger Federer in five sets in last year’s fourth round, won his third tour-level match of the season.
“The last couple of matches on clay, it has been getting better and better,” Gulbis said about his current form. “I had some close losses against Goffin and Vesely in Rome and Madrid. As well as against Paire in Barcelona. But in Barcelona I didn’t play well yet. In Rome and Madrid I played decent and these are guys ranked in the Top 30 in the world. I lost to Goffin 7-5 in the third, and next week he played the quarter-finals. So it seems like I’ve been losing a lot of matches, but I lost to decent people… It’s now or never for the clay season.”
The Latvian will face French wild card Nicolas Mahut in the second round. Mahut spoiled qualifier Kimmer Coppejans Grand Slam debut 6-3, 6-4, 7-6(4). It will be their third FedEx ATP Head2Head meeting and third on French soil after Gulbis prevailed at the 2012 Orleans Challenger and again at the Marseille quarter-finals last year.