It wasn’t easy, but Kei Nishikori breathed a sigh of relief on Wednesday after he overcame one of France’s favourite sons, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, the 2013 and 2015 semi-finalist, for a place in the Roland Garros third round for the fifth consecutive season.
The seventh-seeded Japanese star twice recovered from early set deficits to beat Tsonga 4-6, 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 in three hours and two minutes on Court Philippe-Chatrier, the newly rebuilt main show court.
Nishikori will next challenge Serbian No. 31 seed Laslo Djere, February’s Rio Open presented by Claro titlist (d. Auger-Aliassime), who defeated Alexei Popyrin of Australia 6-4, 7-6(4), 6-4 in two hours and 15 minutes.
“I think the key of the game was the level,” admitted Tsonga. “I think Kei played a good match. He played good tennis from the start. This was a match of [a] high level, and I haven’t played such a good match for a long time. For me it was a good effort, but Kei was just too good for me today.”
Having broken for a 4-3 lead in the first set, Nishikori let Tsonga back into the match, but the 29-year-old soon re-established his dominance. He recovered from 0-2 in the third set and 0-3 in the fourth set, when he won five straight games to silence the partisan crowd. Nishikori is now 13-1 against players at their home Grand Slam championship.
“The main thing I could have been better today is on serves,” said Tsonga. “I had a low percentage of first serves. This prevented me from controlling the game a bit more. And to have less breaks, because he broke me quite regularly today. I’m not very accustomed to that, to have so many games where I’m broken… It’s pleasant to only have minor details to solve, to fight against these type of players.”
It was their fifth meeting on Parisian soil, including Tsonga’s five-set victory in the 2015 quarter-finals, plus three meetings on the indoor hard courts of the Rolex Paris Masters in the south-east of the French capital (Nishikori leads 2-1).
Thirty years ago, one of Nishikori’s coaches, Michael Chang, beat Stefan Edberg as a 17-year-old to become the youngest men’s singles champion at Roland Garros. Nishikori’s best performances at the clay-court major came in 2015 (l. to Tsonga) and 2017 (l. to Murray), where he lost in the last eight.
Benoit Paire extended his winning streak to seven matches with an epic victory in the final men’s match of the day. Last week’s Open Parc Auvergne-Rhone-Alpes Lyon champion completed a 6-2, 6-2, 5-7, 6-7(6), 11-9 victory over fellow Frenchman Pierre-Hugues Herbert in four hours and 33 minutes on Court Suzanne-Lenglen.
Paire, who struck 85 winners, first held a match point at 6/5 in the fourth set tie-break, but held his nerve to come through the 91-minute fifth set. The 30-year-old will now play Spain’s Pablo Carreno Busta, who proved to be too strong for No. 21 seed Alex de Minaur of Australia 6-3, 6-1, 6-1 in one hour and 52 minutes.