Ailing Nishikori pulls out of Japan Open

Kei Nishikori went from dominant to debilitated in a span of five minutes at the Japan Open on Wednesday as an injury forced him to pull out in the first set of his second-round match against Joao Sousa of Portugal.

With two service breaks in his pocket, Nishikori appeared to strain his back and immediately called a medical timeout with trainers lying him down and manipulating his lower left side.

When he returned to the court he was clearly hampered, but the home hero’s pulling out seemed unimaginable as he battled on.

Sousa quickly got on the board and broke Nishikori to make the score 4-2, and at the subsequent change of ends Nishikori again spoke to the trainers but returned to the court.

He lasted only a couple more points before calling it quits and walking gingerly to his seat.

That ended Nishikori’s hopes of a third Japan Open crown, which would have put him equal with Pete Sampras and just one behind Stefan Edberg’s record of four.

Nishikori’s withdrawal opens up the top half of the draw, with fourth seed Marin Cilic and fifth seed David Goffin, scheduled to play later on Wednesday, now favored to meet in the semifinals.

In the second match at Ariake Coliseum, Cilic shook off a slow start to come back from a one-set deficit against Fernando Verdasco, winning the match 4-6, 7-5, 7-5.

Verdasco played Cilic to a draw for much of the match, with lapses late in both the second and third set all that stopped him from becoming the second man to knock out a seeded player on Wednesday.

“I had a lot of chances to come back but somehow I lost the (first) set at critical points,” said Cilic.

“That was tough to accept. Even with quite good tennis, I was not able to take advantage of those opportunities.

“It was up and down in the second and third set . . . it was not easy but I felt mentally that I was in there and it was definitely critical to push myself in tough situations as both the second and third sets went the distance.”

Despite both being over 30 years old and on the tour for a long time, Luxembourg’s Gilles Muller and Tomas Berdych of the Czech Republic had not played each other since juniors, and it was the former who shocked the third seed by snatching a lead in an extremely tight first-set tiebreak.

Muller then took an early break in the second set and with Berdych struggling with his serve and requiring a medical timeout to get treatment, Muller was able to pull away to claim a big win, 7-6 (9-7), 6-1.

“At the beginning of the second set my body began to give a bit of a sign that it has been playing a little bit too much tennis in the past two weeks,” said Berdych, who with the loss missed out on the opportunity to overtake Dominic Thiem and move into the eighth and final ATP World Tour Finals slot.

Thiem lost at a tournament in Beijing on Tuesday and had Berdych won in Tokyo he would have claimed the position.

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