Nishikori finds way past inspired Paire

 - Sarah Edworthy

Kei Nishikori overcomes the valiant efforts of Frenchman Benoit Paire in a thrilling five-set second round match.

©Cedric Lecocq / FFT

Having built slow but steady momentum after six months of injury struggle, Kei Nishikori, a former world No.4, gave the signal that he is back as a threat on the Grand Slam stage, beating the flamboyant Benoit Paire 6-3 2-6 4-6 6-2 6-3 to reach the third round at Roland-Garros for the fourth consecutive year.

His French opponent, inspired by the winning exploits of compatriots of Jeremy Chardy and Julien Benneteau on the same day, captivated the packed stands on Court Philippe-Chatrier with his whiplike groundstrokes and entertainingly nonchalant swagger. His aim was to reach the third round here, not just to equal his best Roland-Garros performance, but to fuel the home-crowd desire to see a Frenchman go deep into the draw.

Alas for the home support, despite Mexican waves and spirited choruses of "Allez Benoit!", the triumph was for Nishikori, who claimed victory after two hours and 59 minutes.

“It wasn’t an easy match,” Nishikori said. “He’s a different type of player with many different shots. There were a lot of ups and downs. I didn’t play 100 per cent, but on the important points I was able to do what I had to do.”

For spectators, this match had fun written all over it as the two players – stark contrasts in style, demeanour and career trajectories – walked onto court in the mid-afternoon sunshine. Paire, who rejoices in the nickname of La Tige or “The Stalk” thanks to his 6'5" height and lean physique, has become known at Roland-Garros 2018 as “Paire with the hair”, courtesy of the platinum blonde he had dyed his hair, contrasting with his natural dark-brown hipster beard. The colour has changed daily from white to yellow until on Wednesday morning, shortly before his match with Nishikori, the official Roland-Garros hairdresser Audrey Laforge helped him turn it a more distinguished shade of silver grey. Just before his name was announced, he handed his white cap to his mascot: clearly, the hair was to make a statement.

On the other side of the net, Nishikori, self-contained as ever in his lovely play, was making his first Grand Slam appearance since Wimbledon 2017, having missed both the 2017 US Open and 2018 Australian Open due to a right-wrist injury. Seeded 19th – his lowest seeding at Roland-Garros, and his lowest Grand Slam seeding since he was also seeded No.19 at Wimbledon six years ago – he was intent on putting the capital R into his recent resurgence.

In Paire, currently ranked 51st, Nishikori met an opponent who put a capital R into resilience, though the man from Avignon’s match statistics paint the picture of a frustrating talent. Paire notched up 49 winners (to Nishikori’s 28) yet a tottering 63 unforced errors (in contrast to his opponent’s 37).

It was the sixth career meeting between the players. Nishikori had won both their previous battles on clay, including a third-round clash here five years ago, but they stood level 1-1 at Grand Slams. At two sets apiece here, Paire held a psychological trump card in that he has a great record in deciding sets, winning five of his last six five-set matches, and both the five-set matches he had previously contested at Roland-Garros. And with the febrile crowd behind their compatriot, could he continue that record?

No. Nishikori kept his focus.

“It was not too bad today,” Nishikori smiled, alluding to the atmosphere. “I have played 10 times French players and I know it could get more crazy! I have learnt to focus more on my game. In the second and third sets, I was hitting balls too short and he was cramping my serve so I tried to play more aggressive. In the fourth and the fifth set, I played decent tennis again.

"But if I want to go into the second week, I need to play better.”