Day 1’s Big Upset: Kei Nishikori

(Photo: USTA)

The second round was looming as clear as the inviting expanse of blue open court when Kei Nishikori set up for a finishing forehand in the fourth-set tie break today.

The fourth-seeded Japanese scattered his shot wide of the sideline and stared vacantly at the target missed.

One of the most accurate ball strikers in the game put himself in position to advance, but blinked on his match point moments.

Benoit Paire took a deep breath then made the most of his reprieve. The 41st-ranked Frenchman played bolder tennis in the deciding set, shoving the 2014 US Open finalist right out of the US Open field.

A resourceful Paire saved two match points in the fourth-set tie break rallying for a 6-4, 3-6, 4-6, 7-6 (6), 6-4 victory he sealed with an ace on Louis Armstrong Stadium.

“I think I served very well today,” Paire said. “I lost in Grand Slam against Kei in Roland Garros. It was a tough match. I lost in four sets. So when I enter the court, I know I can do something. The thing was just my serve. Because when I was practicing the last few days I was not feeling confident with my serve and today it was working. So I think it’s helping me during the important moment.”

Nishikori was disappointed by the defeat, but conceded he was outplayed.

“It’s very, very sad to lose always [in the] first round,” Nishikori said. “But I think he was playing good tennis. I don’t think I play bad. I didn’t play great, but still it’s never easy first match.”

Nishikori made ignominious history becoming the first US Open finalist to fall in the first round the following year since 1990 runner-up Andre Agassi was upset by compatriot Aaron Krickstein in the 1991 opener.

Nishikori, who withdrew from Cincinnati citing injury, had a strong summer hard-court season defeating John Isner to win the Washington, DC title and routing Rafael Nadal en route to the Montreal semifinals where he fell to Andy Murray.

On a sweltering afternoon, the Japanese gained match point at 6-4 in the tie break, but could not close. Nishikori scattered that forehand wide on his first match point and was handcuffed by a Paire stinging serve on the second match point.

“[I] just got lucky, missed three shots in a row at 6-4,” Paire said. “So for me, I didn’t save the match point. He give me a little bit the set because he could hit good forehand on the match point. At 6-4, he serve good and then he made a mistake with his forehand. At 6-5, I serve good. At 6-all, he made a mistake on the return, so I think he was a little bit nervous. What can I say? For me, I’m really happy to win. I save two match points, but sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.”

When Nishikori put a backhand into net, Paire snatched the fourth set to level the match.

“I had match point and I kind of lost a little bit my forehand,” Nishikori said. “Tie break can go both ways so maybe I lost a little bit of concentration, but he was hitting good serves too. I lost, especially in first couple games of fifth set, I lost my concentration and he returned well, too. Credit him, too, for playing good tennis in these conditions.”

Credit Paire for authoritative serving against one of the best returners in the game in the final set. The inventive Paire, who can confound opponents by denying them baseline rhythm. Paire can unleash scalding serves (his fastest blast today was 133 mph) to back opponents up then befuddle them with his beguiling drop shot.

Serving with conviction at crunch time, Paire pounded seven of his 21 aces in the deciding set winning 16 of 19 points played on his first serve in the final set.

“Maybe I was tight for first couple of games, but after that I was playing good,” Nishikori said. “Also, he was very aggressive player so there was [not] many rallies and it was tough to get a rhythm. He hits a lot of drop shots and good serves. I think it’s more because of him.”

The rangy Frenchman’s two-handed backhand is his best stroke. Nishikori owns one of the most dynamic two-handers in the game, but Paire beat the Japanese in crucial backhand rallies in the final set.

Though Nishikori has been bothered by lower-body injuries throughout his career, he’s typically very tough in decisive sets. Nishikori carried a 12-3 career fifth-set record into today’s decider. But Paire played with more ambition and made the No. 4 defend on the stretch at times.

Stepping into the court to pounce on a second serve, Paire crunched a two-handed backhand return into the corner than Nishikori could not handle to score the only break of the decider at love for 3-2.

At that point, Nishikori, who can straddle the baseline and take the ball early, looked so rattled by the Frenchman’s backhand he was stepping back when Paire carved a slick backhand drop shot winner backing up the break for 4-2.

Slashing his 21st ace down the middle, Paire closed in style. It was just his fourth career US Open win. Paire, who has never advanced to the Flushing Meadows third round, will try to do just that when he plays Marsel Ilhan in round two.

Read More Rich Pagliaro at Tennis Now.

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