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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 21 March 2019

Dubai Tennis 2019: Kei Nishikori offers words of encouragement to Naomi Osaka

Japanese says compatriot needs time to adapt to her elevated status of being world No 1, ahead of his own quest to win Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships

Kei Nishikori is No 1 seed at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships. Antonie Robertson / The National
Kei Nishikori is No 1 seed at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships. Antonie Robertson / The National

Japanese world No 6 Kei Nishikori says compatriot Naomi Osaka needs only time to get used to her elevated status at the top of the women’s game.

Osaka, 21, has enjoyed a meteoric rise these past 12 months, winning the two most recent grand slams to ascend to world No 1 for the first time in her fledgling career. This time last year, she had just broken into the top 50, and did not win on the WTA Tour until Indian Wells in March.

Osaka made her first appearance since securing last month’s Australian Open at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships last week, but exited the tournament after only one match. She lost surprisingly in straight sets to Kristina Mladenovic, the world No 67.

In her post-match press conference, a tearful Osaka described how she was struggling to come to terms with the heightened attention - only exacerbated by the previous week’s shock decision to split from coach Sascha Bajin.

However, speaking in Dubai as the men’s tournament begins this week, Nishikori called for calm.

“It's bit different; it's much more than me,” the No 1 seed said this week. “She's won two grand slams in a row. It’s incredible. Maybe a year ago she wasn't ranked top 10. Suddenly everything changed. She's No 1, too.

“I’ve been top three before, but everything is different. There’s much more pressure, for sure. Being No 1, winning grand slams, that's something I never had before.

“I'm sure she's going to adapt - she just needs the time. She has a great mentality: very strong, very calm. She doesn't panic too much. I'm sure in time she will get used to it.

“She was maybe unfortunate to lose here, but I'm sure she's OK. She's going to be winning more grand slams.”

Nishikori, the only Japanese player to have been ranked inside the top five of the men’s game, is making his debut in Dubai. The 2014 US Open finalist – he reached the semis at Flushing Meadows last September – typically plays in Mexico at this time of year, but decided to change his programme. He has already competed this month in Rotterdam, where he reached the last four.

“It was always comfortable to play this week Acapulco", Nishikori said. “I used to play Memphis all the time. It was easier for me to play US side.

“But I chose to play last week in Europe, and Dubai here. I always wanted to come here. Schedule-wise it wasn't easy, but I wanted to play two [Premier] 500 [events], so I chose to play here. It's something new. It's fun.”

Nishikori opens his Dubai account on Tuesday against Frenchman Benoit Paire, the world No 57 whom he has met seven times previously, winning five.

“Benoit can always be dangerous,” said Nishikori, a 12-time winner on the ATP Tour. “Great backhand; I love his backhand. It’s one of the best backhands, two-handed backhands. I'm sure it's going to be tough one.”

Updated: February 24, 2019 05:43 PM

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