Kei Nishikori walked onto Arena 1 at the Mushushino Forest Sport Plaza on Sunday with hopes of joining former World No. 1s Stefan Edberg (4) and Pete Sampras (3) as the only players to capture at least three titles in Tokyo. But Russian Daniil Medvedev spoiled the party, defeating the Japanese star 6-2, 6-4 to lift his third trophy of 2018.
"I'm just really happy. I've been showing amazing tennis here. I'm happy that what I have been doing all season in practice, physical workouts, worked out here in Tokyo," Medvedev said. "This is my biggest title, so I'm just really happy."
Medvedev claimed victory as a qualifier for the second time this year (also Sydney), extending the record to eight qualifiers who have triumphed on the ATP World Tour this season. From 2013-17, there were eight total qualifiers who lifted a trophy. And since 2004, only two players were victorious as a qualifier twice: Nicolas Mahut and Martin Klizan. In 2005, 2010-11 and 2016, there were no qualifier champions.
The World No. 32 is the first Russian to win the Tokyo crown, and he will become the No. 1 player from his country when the new ATP Rankings are released on Monday. Medvedev has come a long way since slipping to No. 84 after losing in the first round of an ATP Challenger Tour event in the first week of the season. He will climb to a career-best No. 22 with the 500 ATP Rankings points he earns.
"I'm happy. I'm just happy that everything I did this year in my life, on the tennis court in my job, because tennis is my job first of all, and I'm happy that I managed to do my job great this year," Medvedev said. "The year is not finished, so I'm going to try to reach even higher. I'm going to have a preseason where I'm going to try to improve even more and be better every day. If this will be the case, I maybe won't even have to look back anymore. But you never know what's going to happen tomorrow, so I'm just trying to focus on today."
The 22-year-old, who qualified for the 2017 Next Gen ATP Finals, dominated on serve against the in-form Nishikori, who is one of the best returners in the world. Medvedev amazingly won 32 of his final 33 service points in the match, losing just five service points in the match (38/43). In the pair's only previous FedEx ATP Head2Head meeting, at Monte-Carlo earlier this year, Nishikori broke Medvedev four times. So how did the Russian manage such a serving performance?
"I don't know," Medvedev said, laughing. "When I was going into the match, I knew it was going to be the key, my serve. Kei is a very good returner. I lost to him one time this year where he won because he was returning all of my serves and I didn't know what to do. Today I was serving amazing, even the first shots after the serve were amazing, so that's what helped me win the match."
The Monaco resident did not drop serve in the quarter-finals, semi-finals or the championship match. And en route to claiming the title without dropping a set in the main draw, Medvedev held 45 of his 49 service games, a rate of 92 per cent. For winning his first ATP World Tour 500-level crown, Medvedev earns $384,120.
Nishikori remains one of the most in-form players on the ATP World Tour, reaching the semi-finals of the US Open, the last four at the Moselle Open and now the final at his home event in his past three tournaments. The Japanese star, despite losing his eighth consecutive tour-level championship match, takes home $188,315 in prize money and adds 300 points to his tally.
Nishikori has come a long way since this time last year, when he was recovering from a wrist injury that kept him out from Montreal through the end of the 2017 season. He dropped as low as No. 39 this April, but is already back to No. 12.
"It's been a great couple months. After the US Open, I think I've been playing well. Maybe not today, but I'm happy to be in the final here again especially in Japan, my home," Nishikori said. "I've got to keep playing the same in Shanghai."
Photo Credit: Hiroshi Sato