Before The Rain, It Was A Night For Japanese Tennis Players To Shine

INDIAN WELLS, March 12, 2019 (by Michael Dickens)

During the first week of the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells, in the scenic California palm desert, there’s been no shortage of intriguing storylines. On Monday, for instance, it was a night for a pair of Japanese tennis players to shine and for their fans to enjoy the spirit of their victories.

Defending women’s champion and No. 1 seed Naomi Osaka, whose gentle attitude has won her legions of fans – both in Japan and across the world since her breakout at Indian Wells last year – was nearly flawless in advancing past 25th-seeded Danielle Collins of the United States, 6-4, 6-2. Her 11th victory in 13 matches this year was another solid effort.

Osaka, who was ranked 68th a year ago and whose rise from No. 10 to No. 1 is fastest in WTA history, continued her in-form display. Credit her blistering forehand winners with doing much of the damage. She won 70 percent of her service points against Collins much to the delight of the fans, who packed Stadium 1 to watch her third-round victory on a chilly evening that later turned into a rainy one.

With two Grand Slam titles in the past year, the 21-year-old Osaka has gone from being awkward to more self-assured, especially during on-court interviews that are derigueur for the winners. Following her victory over Collins, the World No. 1 Osaka was asked if she was enjoying tennis. After all, she’s become a recognizable global citizen (thanks to cover stories in Time and Tennis magazines) with her time spread between between the U.S., Japan, and Haiti – and is much in demand these days after winning both the U.S. Open and Australian Open. Osaka smiled at the interviewer’s question, and in her familiar, quiet voice, answered, “I’ve just kind of realized that there’s nothing else I’d rather do and I’m really privileged to be here in the first place.”

Nishioka returns to fourth round at Indian Wells

Meanwhile, nearby on Stadium 2, lesser-known Yoshihito Nishioka fought off 58th-ranked Felix Auger-Aliassime of Canada with a display of passion and ecstasy after winning a nearly three-hour roller coaster ride-like smack down to reach his second ATP Masters 1000 round of 16.

After squandering a 5-1 lead in the third set, in which the 18-year-old Auger-Aliassime rallied back and forced a tie-break – and went up 5-3 – the left-handed Nishioka, 23, methodically climbed back into the match, showed great resilience, and finally won in dramatic fashion, 6-7 (2), 6-4, 7-6 (5), on his fourth match point.

Talk about a topsy-turvy match between two very up-and-coming players. Such a slim margin between triumph and defeat in this one. Now, Nishioka gets ready for his next match, against lucky loser Miomir Kecmanovic of Serbia, ranked 130th, who replaced injured No. 5 seed Kevin Anderson in the draw. Meanwhile, Auger-Aliassime will learn from his loss and move on to Miami in search of better days.

“If I’m reading lips right,” Sports Illustrated executive editor and Tennis Channel commentator Jon Wertheim tweeted after the match, “Felix says at the net, ‘That was a great match. Thank you.’”

After his win, the 74th-ranked Nishioka said during his presser, “It’s very tough to play in that situation. (I was) feeling very mad when he came back because I had a chance to win already, three match points. But he saved them with really good shots. … I just tried my best and I found a way, finally.

It’s been two years since’s Nishioka’s last foray into a Masters 1000 round of 16. The last time? Think back to Indian Wells 2017. “I’m very happy to come back (to the) Round of 16,” Nishioka said. “I think I’m very fit on this surface and in this weather (and with) the balls, everything. 

“Two years ago, I couldn’t take my chances to (make the) quarterfinal. So, hopefully I can take them this time.”