Brisbane, Australia: Kei Nishikori beat Steve Johnson 6-4, 7-5 at the Brisbane International on Wednesday, making a winning start to a season in which he's aiming to be at the vanguard of young players aiming to end the dominance of the old guard in men's tennis.
The 25-year-old Japanese player set Asian benchmarks during a breakout 2014, reaching his first Grand Slam final at the U.S. Open and rising to a year-end No. 5 ranking.
After a first-round bye, second-seeded Nishikori needed only 80 minutes to advance through the second round in Brisbane, serving out on his fourth match point against Johnson.
He said he's feeling his way into the new year, knowing that expectations on him are much higher in Japan, and around the world. The Australian Open, the first major of the season, starts on Jan. 19 in Melbourne. Just a bit too early, he thinks, for a first Grand Slam title.
"I might need couple more years to (become a) really good player, but I'm getting really close," he said. "So hopefully I can bring more good news to Japan."
Three players ruled the men's game for nine years, with Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic combining for 34 of the 38 major titles leading into the U.S. Open last September. The four exceptions were Juan Martin del Potro at the 2009 U.S. Open, Andy Murray's wins at the 2012 U.S. Open and Wimbledon in 2013, and Stan Wawrinka's victory at the Australian Open in 2014.
None of those players reached the final at Flushing Meadows, though, with Marin Cilic beating Nishikori for the title. And that sparked much hype about the future.
Nishikori, Cilic, Milos Raonic and Grigor Dimitrov and widely tipped to be among the next generation of champions.
"We are the ones coming next. We are getting really close from last year," he said. "For sure it's going to happen this year."
Fourth-seeded Dimitrov had a more difficult opener in Brisbane, fending off two match points in the tiebreaker before beating regular practice partner Jerome Chardy of France 3-6, 6-4, 7-6 (8) in 2 ½ hours. Dimitrov saved one match point with an ace, and then went ahead when Chardy fired consecutive-double faults from 6-5.
"I stayed in there, stayed really positive until the end," Dimitrov said, adding that he wasn't expecting such a grueling opener but was happy to "get straight to business."
Martin Klizan of Slovakia beat seventh-seeded Alexandr Dolgopolov of Ukraine 1-6, 7-6 (6), 7-6 (7) in an earlier second-round match.
In women's singles, seventh-seeded Carla Suarez Navarro of Spain had a 5-7, 6-3, 6-4 win over Mirjana Lucic-Baroni of Croatia and Russia's Alla Kudryavtseva beat Karolina Pliskova of the Czech Republic 4-6, 6-3, 6-3.
At the ASB Classic in Auckland, New Zealand, top-seeded Caroline Wozniacki beat U.S. teenager Taylor Townsend 6-1, 7-6 (4) and Venus Williams reached the quarterfinals with a 6-4, 6-1 win over Kurumi Nara of Japan.
After winning the first set comfortably, Wozniacki had to recover from 5-2 down, saving two set points, and winning the second in a tiebreaker to reach a quarterfinal against Julia Goerges of Germany.
Third-seeded Williams will next face Russia's Elena Vesnina, who had a 6-3, 6-1 win over Ana Konjuh.
At the Hopman Cup in Perth, Poland remained the only undefeated team in Group B with a 2-1 win over Britain.
Agnieskza Radwanska gave Poland the lead when she beat Heather Watson 6-3, 6-1, but Andy Murray leveled with a 6-2, 6-4 win over Jerzy Janowicz.
Radwanska and Janowicz won the deciding mixed doubles 6-4, 6-4, and can clinch a place in Saturday's final with a win Friday over France.