After an impressive clay court season that has done much to dispel the disappointment of an injury-wracked 2017, Kei Nishikori takes on Benoit Paire of France for a place in the third round in Paris. Nishikori has long been an impressive clay court player and has made two Masters finals on the surface, including earlier this season at the Monte Carlo Country Club. But he will be well-aware of the dangers posed by the unpredictable and talented Paire. Who will come out on top?
Nishikori and Paire have met five times in a closely contested rivalry that the Japanese has a narrow 3-2 advantage in. Their first meeting came six years ago across the city in Bercy at the Paris Masters in the round of 32. Nishikori won that one 7-6 6-2, though he was forced to withdraw ahead of his next match with Gilles Simon. Their next match came at Roland Garros in 2015, with Nishikori emerging triumphant from a four set battle 6-3 6-7 6-4 6-1.
Their next meeting was also at Slam-level, in 2015 at the US Open. Nishikori had reached the final in Flushing Meadows the previous year, but crashed out in the first round at the hands of Paire who won 6-4 3-6 4-6 7-6 6-4. Paire then denied Nishikori in three sets in front of his home fans in the Tokyo semifinals later that same year, overcoming a slow start to win 1-6 6-4 6-2. But in Barcelona two years ago, Nishikori regained the lead in the head-to-head with a 6-3 6-2 win in the semifinals.
Path to the second round
Nishikori began his Roland Garros campaign against French wildcard Maxime Janvier, who was playing in his first Tour-level match. The 21-year-old began well, matching Nishikori blow for blow in the first set, which went to a tiebreak. But there Nishikori was able to raise his level to a place that Janvier couldn’t reach, and the Japanese won it without losing a point. The writing was on the wall thereafter, and Nishikori progressed a 7-6 6-4 6-3 winner.
Paire faced Spain’s Roberto Carballes Baena in his first match in Paris. The 25-year-old Carballes Baena won his first ATP Tour title earlier this season in Quito and has shown himself a fine clay courter. It was Paire who made the better start, winning the first set 6-3, but Carballes Baena levelled the match by winning the second set on a tiebreak. The third set proved decisive as Paire was able to win it on a tiebreak eleven points to nine. The Spaniard could not recover and Paire quickly wrapped up the win 6-1 in the fourth set.
How do they match up?
Nishikori’s ability to be successful on all surfaces throughout his career stems from his excellent groundstrokes and his terrific defensive skills. The Japanese looks as comfortable moving on a clay court as he does a hard court and there are few that can equal his footspeed. Nishikori is also able to take matches to his opponents, with both his forehand and backhand useful offensive weapons. His second serve can leave him vulnerable, however, particularly against the more aggressive returners.
Paire is unquestionably a gifted athlete, and his two-handed backhand is amongst the most powerful in the sport. But his technique on his forehand is unorthodox at best and that shot can break down for the Frenchman. Nor is he particularly well-suited to clay court tennis. Paire’s ultra-aggressive style can be unplayable when he is in the zone, but a large number of unforced errors is a nigh-on constant feature of his game.
Nishikori should win this match. He is by some distance the better clay courter, and though Paire has twice beaten him before, both of those matches were played on fast hard courts. Paire should be up for the battle here, as he usually plays his best tennis on the big stage and the backing of the French crowd on Chatrier will surely only spur him on. But that will not be enough to overcome Nishikori’s superiority off the ground. Nishikori in four sets.
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