Nishikori outlasts Karlovic in five-set thriller

  • Viv Christie

Digging deep is proving a Kei Nishikori speciality at this Australian Open, with the No.8 seed withstanding a barrage of huge serving from Ivo Karlovic to claim a 6-3 7-6(6) 5-7 5-7 7-6(7) second-round victory in three hours and 48 minutes.
 
It was the second consecutive five-set win for the No.8 seed, who survived a massive scare against Polish qualifier Kamil Majchrzak in the first round. Nishikori eventually progressed while leading 3-6 6-7(6) 6-0 6-2 3-0 when the world No.176 succumbed to cramping.
 
Against Karlovic, it initially appeared a far different story, as Nishikori returned superbly and sprinted through his own service games. Gaining a decisive break against the huge-serving Croat in the eighth game of the opener, he efficiently consolidated to take the first set in 28 minutes.
 
But the enduring Croat, just a month shy of his 40th birthday, inevitably found his rhythm. Karlovic provided a hint of the extended battle to come when he saved a break point early in the second set and pushed the set to a tiebreak.
 
Helped by a Nishikori error, the older man gained an early 2-0 advantage. Nishikori fought to level for 2-2 before play was briefly interrupted as light rain fell.

There was another error form Nishikori on resumption, but there was also an untimely double fault from Karlovic, and a critical botched volley. Nishikori secured the set with a forehand winner.
 
But as Karlovic’s trademark serve grew more potent, there was no room for error. A flurry of them late in the third set proved costly for Nishikori as Karlovic seized a break in the 11th game and consolidated to seize it.
 
If break points on the Karlovic serve were a rarity, converting them was even rarer. In the eighth game of the fourth set, Nishikori earned two critical opportunities but with his ace count growing, Karlovic withstood the pressure.
 

The fourth set ended as the third had done – the increasingly under-pressure Nishikoriz dropped serve in the penultimate game and Karlovic quickly consolidated, closing out the set with four straight aces.
 
But as the prospect of a fifth-set tiebreak looming, the Japanese rallied when it mattered. At 0-40 down in the ninth game, he won five straight points to keep himself in the contest.
 
With so little to separate them, the match-deciding tiebreak seemed inevitable. And it was perhaps then that Nishikori’s poise under pressure proved most critical. Serving at 6-5, he stayed cool when Karlovic challenged a call mid-rally and had that point awarded to him.
 
Karlovic also won the next point on the Nishikori serve, but as the match crept towards four hours, the Croat at last appeared to be tiring. A netted volley and another error gave Nishikori match point opportunities, the Japanese star at last celebrating victory as a Karlovic backhand sailed out. 

MORE: AO2019 men's singles results
 
“It was (a) really tough match. I could go both ways. I was down. I think it was 7-6 in the tiebreak. (I) really returned well, focused well in the last couple of points,” said Nishikori. “I’m really happy to win today.”
 
Most pleasing was Nishikori’s ability to overcome Karlovic’s 59 aces, against just 
 
“That’s almost my one year of aces,” he joked. “It’s never easy. It’s kind of frustrating… but I think I focused well. Third and fourth set was really tough. I lost two easy games and had to reload in the fifth set.”

pattern
Aces
59 Ivo Karlovic
9 Kei Nishikori

After those two difficult tests, Nishikori welcomes a third round match against Philipp Kohlschreiber or Joao Sousa.
 
“I think this match will help for my confidence really. It was a great match, we both played great tennis,” the 29-year-old said.
 
And that’s especially true at the Australian Open, where support for the Japanese star is so strong.
 
“It was really fun on the court. Even though it was a really tough match, I think I was enjoying it, especially the last couple of games,” Nishikori added. “I feel really good if I hear (all) the support.”