A match that looked like turning into a rout after the first two sets gave way to an engaging and entertaining encounter before the 17th best player in the world, Kei Nishikori, ran out a winner in straight sets over Serbia’s Dusan Lajovic.
The mercury hit 40 degrees before midday on an exposed Court Six, but a full house of largely Japanese support, stayed in their seats throughout to witness the 6-1, 6-1, 7-6(3) victory for their country’s superstar player, Nishikori.
“I think it felt much hotter than the first time I played,” said Nishikori. “I was happy to play early.”
It was impossible not to feel sorry for the Serb who, after years of trying and a ranking continually clogged within the 100 to 300 range, had fought through the qualifying rounds for his first grand slam proper.
There’s rarely an easy route into a major and with just $320 prize money to his name this year, from the Chennai qualifiers, Lajovic will have been delighted simply to be at Melbourne Park still. The dab of good fortune extended to him however when his opponent, the teenage Lucas Pouille retired in the opening round, was never about to be repeated here in any form.
Nishikori fired from the off, breaking the Serbian’s serve three times in the opening set for a 6-1 canter. And by the time Lajovic found his feet he was already two sets in the red, the 6-1 second set coming in just 18 minutes, a thoroughly one sided affair as the Serbian ploy of trying to take the pace off the ball failed to prevent the damaging, regulation big hitting by Nishikori.
The two men are just six months apart in age, the Japanese the senior at 24, but their career paths have taken place in utterly different realms. Nishikori has three ATP titles to his name and close to $4M prize money in the bank, Lajovic meanwhile is not even featured in the official ATP player handbook, his No. 117 ranking precluding him from direct entry to the Grand Slam tournaments. Unsurprisingly this was a first meeting between the pair.
So it was with more than a little surprise that Lajovic dug deep in the third set and broke to serve for the set at 5-3, though his nerve failed him as opportunity called and Nishikori broke back immediately to love.
“I was playing amazing in the first two sets, I served well but he started coming back,” acknowledged Nishikori.
Lajovic, hitting freely now, forced a set point at 6-5 with the most stylish of single-handed backhands only to overhit his big chance seconds later. The tie-break when it came, was more formulaic, Nishikori storming into an early lead and holding it to take the set 7-6(3) and the match.
Nishikori hung around afterwards for a lengthy bout of ball signing while Lajovic too stayed and chatted with the crowd for some time. He might have lost but he was determined to enjoy his moment in the sun.