Memories of a watershed run to the quarter-finals of last year’s Australian Open have given Kei Nishikori a welcome boost of belief, as Japan’s rising son returned to Melbourne Park with a four-set victory over Romanian Victor Hanescu on Monday.
Sporting heavy precautionary strapping, the 16th seed arrived having been given the all-clear on a troublesome left knee, which had ended his hopes in Brisbane at the semi-final stage.
Before an overwhelming majority of Japanese supporters jam-packing the stands and every vantage point of Court 6, Nishikori was carrying a weight of expectation this time and looked shaky early before standing up in the heat better in a 6-7 (5) 6-3 6-1 6-3 result after two hours and 39 minutes.
The 23-year-old admitted the strong support made it the closest feeling to a home Grand Slam event for a Japanese player.
“(Out of all) the Grand Slam I feel more comfortable playing here,” he said. “It is, you know, almost Asia, Oceania, and you see the match today a lot of Japanese or Asia, you know, the people came up and I felt a lot of support. So I feel really comfortable playing here.”
Likewise, Nishikori expects a flurry of attention to descend on China’s Wu Di when he becomes their first man in the main draw of a major since 1959 on Tuesday.
“Maybe he will (feel pressure) because it's, you know, Australia. It's kind of Asia group. But, you know, he's playing well, he's still young,” Nishikori said.
“Yeah, for me, first time I think, I don't know, US Open long time ago, but I didn't feel any pressure or I think nothing, you know. Only thing was I wanted to challenge them.”
Despite dropping the first set after 51 minutes, Nishikori always appeared calmer in the heat against Hanescu and soon raced to 5-0 in the second set before levelling at a set apiece, 6-3.
With Hanescu frustrated at the position of the sun above on serve, a mad dash to retrieve a cap from his bag before the 20-second time limit merely served to throw him off his game, dropping serve early in the fourth, before surrendering the set, 6-1.
Nishikori continued to target the weaker backhand side of Hanescu until he eventually took the fourth 6-3 to move into a second-round meeting with Argentine Carlos Berlocq. He made it clear the knee would not be a problem.
“It was a little bit tendinitis under the knee,” he said. “I saw the picture, took echo (scan) couple days ago, and show nothing. It's good.”