Nishioka channels his inner Rios, the idol he's never met
Japan's Yoshihito Nishioka may be one of the smallest players in the men's qualifying draw, but has grand ambitions after moving within one match of the main draw.
Marcelo Rios, South America's first ATP world No.1, played his final tour match at Roland-Garros in 2003 before a chronic back injury forced him into retirement. But the Chilean's legacy lives on, it turns out, in the unlikely form of Japan's Yoshihito Nishioka.
Now 20 years old, the 5'7" No.2 seed - who will face Radek Stepanek in the final round of qualifying on Friday - has never met Rios, and was just eight when the player he calls his idol left the sport in 2004. Seven years later he arrived in the United States to start training at the Nick Bollettieri Academy, where the man himself watched the diminutive left-hander train and saw glimpses of one former protege in his new recruit.
"Mr Nick told me: 'You have to watch Marcelo Rios, and you have to learn something from him'," Nishioka recalled. "So I saw his matches on YouTube. He was so talented - very small, but No.1 in the world, and also he's a lefty. I thought, I can learn many things from him - especially how to beat bigger opponents. That's why I like him - that, and also his game was very fun, very interesting."
A Swiss-Army backhand and wonderful touch around the net, Nishioka's game has parallels with the Chilean star. Rios was also hot-headed, another trait he shares with his hero. Pegged back after a perfect start, the world No.114 was driven to distraction by the conditions, a resurgent Henri Laaksonen and a hefty dose of hard luck before battling his way to a 6-2 2-6 8-6 win.
It had all been going so well. Leading by a set and a break, Nishioka was up 40-15 on serve when a narrowly missed forehand jolted his momentum. He gave up a break, and failed to convert break points in the next game as Swiss Laaksonen leveled up at 2-2.
"Then, little bit, I was upset," Nishioka admitted. And as his mood turned, so did the weather.
Gusts swirled around the grounds, spraying leaves and blossoms from the trees behind the back fence and kicking up plumes of red dust into the players' faces. A chill set in. The long-threatened rain sputtered as tournament officials scuttled between the courts, keen to catch the eyes of their umpires. Then, the moment it might have forced a suspension in play, the shower stopped, moved on by another biting blast of wind. All the while, on Court No.14, Nishioka and Laaksonen battled on.
Laaksonen, bidding to qualify for his first Grand Slam and growing into the match, made the most of his second chance, digging deep and playing safe to draw errors from the No.2 seed, who couldn't get the heavier balls to bounce high enough to cause his opponent enough problems.
Play was eventually suspended with the scores level - one set all, 2-2, deuce - and while the conditions had improved on their return, it appeared Nishioka's luck was still out. Chasing a break at 3-3, he looked to have ended a marathon rally with a drop volley. Laaksonen hared forward and scrambled the ball back over the net but Nishioka was convinced it had bounced twice. The umpire said nothing.
"I've never seen a call like that," Nishioka said, outraged at the time and still baffled after the fact. "But anyway, I win."
Even that was done the hard way. Laaksonen, who has yet to reach the final round of qualifying at a major, broke to move within a game of the final round. But he never fully recovered from a nervy double-fault at 30-0, and Nishioka hustled his way to victory.
Sun shines on Germany's DB double-act
Players' patience was tested on a cold, windy, wet day in Paris. A lengthy rain delay saw many matches suspended late in the afternoon, yet brighter conditions greeted competitors when they returned to the courts.
The sunnier skies reflected the fortunes of Germans Dustin Brown and Daniel Brands, who both wrapped up straight-sets victories. Seeded eighth and 24th respectively, the towering talents will next face off in the final round for a place in the Roland Garros main draw.
In a battle of the Belgians, Steve Darcis overcame Ruben Bemelmans 6-3 6-3 to set up a final-round qualifying stoush with Peter Gojowczyk, while it was far less straightforward for Carlos Berlocq - the 19th seed scratched out a 6-3 5-7 9-7 over another Belgian, Arthur De Greef, in a whopping three hours and seven minutes.
Yet not all seeds survived. Elias Ymer, the 11th seed who impressed in his opening-round qualifying victory, was unable to keep up his momentum, falling 6-2 2-6 7-5 to Italian Matteo Donati.
Two matches hang in the balance after being suspended overnight - No.17 seed Gerald Melzer leads Ryan Harrison 4-2 in the final set while rising star Karen Khachanov, seeded 12th, trails Jordi Samper-Montana 3-1 in the third.
Earlier in the day, Aleksandr Nedovyesov ended Laurent Lokoli's impressive tilt at the main draw 7-6(5) 4-6 6-1, while Radek Stepanek battled to a 3-6 6-2 7-5 win over Australia's Matthew Barton.
Steve Darcis came out on top in the battle of the Belgians, beating Ruben Bemelmans 6-3 6-3, but while Francis Tiafoe impressed once more against Saketh Myneni 7-6(5) 7-5, fellow Americans Tommy Paul and Dennis Novikov bowed out, beaten by Germany's Peter Gojowczyk and Marco Trungelliti of Argentina respectively.