TOKYO: Local hero Kei Nishikori put down a marker in his quest for a third Japan Open title as he outgunned France’s Benoit Paire on Wednesday to reach the last eight.
The third seed, who lifted the trophy in 2012 and 2014, completed a 6-3, 7-5 victory despite late resistance from Paire to avenge a semi-final defeat inflicted by the hulking Frenchman in Tokyo three years ago.
Meanwhile, former champion Nick Kyrgios flickered into life for just long enough to dispatch Japan’s Yoshihito Nishioka 7-5, 7-6 (7/3) in the first round.
Nishikori tore out of the blocks, winning the first five games before Paire finally got on the scoreboard.
Paire tugged at his beard in despair after Nishikori snaffled the opening set but raced to a 3-0 lead in the second set before the Japanese number one rattled off five straight games.
An increasingly prickly Paire pulled off an outrageous between-the-legs volley and subsequently levelled with a backhand rocket, letting out a guttural roar as Nishikori shook his head in disbelief.
But the world number 12 almost took Paire’s head off to break again for 6-5, further irritating the Frenchman, who flirted with a penalty point after kicking his racquet into his chair.
Nishikori, who won the last of his 11 career titles in Memphis two years ago, closed out the match with a ferocious cross-court forehand that Paire battered wide.
“I had a few dangerous moments but I stuck to my game,” said Nishikori.
“It was important to stay with him and dig in. I’m in the quarter-finals now and hopefully I can kick on from here.”
Kyrgios appeared a little distracted at times but the controversial Aussie became a different animal after Nishioka, who won his first ATP tour title at last week’s Shenzhen Open, forced a tiebreak in the second set.
Roused into action, Kyrgios unleashed a string of monstrous shots to steam through the breaker.
The 23-year-old, who has complained that playing the late season tour in Asia makes him feel depressed and lonely, fired 20 aces and sealed victory with a flamboyant backhand overhead after 73 minutes to book a place in the last 16.
Kyrgios has been fined for “tanking” matches in Shanghai the past two years but captured one of his four career titles at the 2016 Japan Open.
He faces eighth seed Richard Gasquet for a place in the quarter-finals.
Meanwhile, Wimbledon finalist Kevin Anderson survived a scare against Australian Matthew Ebden, the second seed coming through 4-6, 7-6 (7/1) to reach the last 16.
The South African plays American Frances Tiafoe in the last 16.
Earlier, Australia’s Alex De Minaur beat France’s Gilles Simon 6-7 (1/7), 7-6 (7/5), 6-2.