A clash of styles and personalities is always a good recipe for a special match. So there was a sense of curiosity about the first-round pairing of 5-foot-10 Japanese star Kei Nishikori, a protégé of the ultimate grinder and thinker on the court, Hall of Famer Michael Chang, against the free-swinging, talented but unheralded 6-foot-5 Frenchman Benoit Paire as they took the Louis Armstrong Stadium court on Monday.
Throw in the Nishikori storyline of the 25-year-old returning to the USTA Billie Jean National Tennis Center as a worldwide star after exploding on the tennis landscape 12 months ago, when he upset Novak Djokovic in a surprising and historic run to the US Open final, and it made it one of the marque matches on opening day.
The match did not disappoint.
Living up to its fullest potential, the pair battled for more than three tense-and-exciting hours in midday temperatures soaring near 90 degrees before Paire literally served the No. 4 seed out of the tournament with a 133 mph ace on his first match point for a 6-4, 3-6, 4-6, 7-6, 6-4 win and the biggest career victory of his career.
Winless in two career matches against Nishikori, No. 41 Paire came into the match feeling very little pressure and with a simple game plan to hit out on all his shots.
“My coach told me the most important thing is when you go out on the court, you win, you lose, you don’t care, just have fun,” said Paire, 26. “That’s why when I start the match I try to hit fast all the ball and I was feeling good.”
Paire went for broke throughout the match, finishing with 64 winners, nearly double Nishikori. He also made 67 unforced errors.
But it was his serve that carried the day, saving his best for the final set when he dominated Nishikori on his service games, winning 73 percent of points on his first serve. Up 3-2 after a service break, Paire closed the door on the match emphatically, losing just two points in his last three service games. He finished the match with his 21st ace.
Nishikori looked poised to escape with the win, leading 6-4 in the fourth-set tiebreak. He lost the first match point after a lengthy baseline rally with a forehand wide and Paire blew away the second with a 122 mph service winner. Paire grabbed a set point of his own with another service winner and then the set on another Nishikori forehand miscue for the tiebreak, 8-6.
Nishikori’s exit throws his part of the draw wide open and could ease the way for Paire’s compatriots, No. 19 Jo-Wilfred Tsonga and No. 16 Gail Monfils, both of whom are in what was Nishikori’s section of the draw. Nishikori’s loss also wipes out a possible quarterfinal repeat of last year’s US Open final against No. 9 Marin Cilic of Croatia.