Sugita stuns Thiem in Halle after Nishikori exits

AFP, HALLE, Germany

Fri, Jun 22, 2018 - Page 16

Japan’s Yuichi Sugita on Wednesday shocked Dominic Thiem 6-2, 7-5, sending the Austrian out in the second round of the Gerry Weber Open.

Third seed Thiem, French Open runner-up to Rafael Nadal earlier this month, was joined on the sidelines of the pre-Wimbledon tuneup by Japanese seventh seed Kei Nishikori, a 6-2, 6-2 loser to Karen Khachanov.

Last year, the 36th-ranked Russian also beat Asia’s top player in the second round at Halle, when Nishikori was forced to quit with a hip injury.

Thiem switched over to grass this week and arrived at the court with a first-round win in northern Germany at a venue styled as a smaller replica of the iconic Centre Court at Wimbledon.

“Sugita played really well and gave me little chance to attack,” Thiem said. “I was missing a few percentage points on my game.”

“I was not great on returns and was struggling on serve. He completely deserved the victory,” he added.

The Austrian was on the back foot early, as he lost the opening set to his 52nd-ranked opponent.

Sugita was unable to convert on three match points, but hammered his sixth ace to claim victory on a fourth after 88 minutes.

The Japanese is to play a grass-court quarter-final for the second time in his career when he takes on American qualifier Denis Kudla, who defeated Greek teenager Stefanos Tsitsipas 6-3, 6-4.

Against Thiem, who leads the ATP with 36 match wins this season, Sugita kept up the pressure on his rival’s serve, forcing the Austrian to save 10 of 13 break points before dropping serve in the final game.

Thiem is to return to Austria for five days of rest and fly to London next week.

However, he remains unconcerned with the state of his grass game, after also losing in Halle in the second round a year ago before reaching a career-best Wimbledon fourth round.

“Last year I played the same as I did this year and played well at Wimbledon. I would have rather done much better,” Thiem said. “But margins are much tighter on grass. If you have a bad day you can’t dig it out like I can on clay. If I don’t play at 100 percent — like today — the match is lost.”

Nishikori has a mixed record at the Wimbledon tune-up event, dominated over the past decade-and-a-half by Roger Federer with nine titles.

The Japanese world No. 27 is coming back from wrist injury problems and working to rebuild his ranking, which once placed him firmly in the top 10. He began this year by playing a lower-level Challenger tournament before returning to the ATP in February.

The 28-year-old reached the Halle semi-finals in 2014 and 2015, but also exited injured in 2016 and last year, when he quit against Khachanov trailing 3-2 in the first set.

“I made too many unforced errors, I had a lot of mistakes,” Nishikori said. “He was playing good, but nothing special, I couldn’t make a first serve and I should have stayed back more at the baseline.”

“Khachanov hits a flat ball and that makes it not so easy on grass. I need to train more before Wimbledon,” he added.

Khachanov advanced to a quarter-final today against Spanish fourth seed Roberto Bautista Agut, a 6-4, 7-5 winner over Dutchman Robin Haase.

QUEEN’S CLUB

AP, LONDON

Top-seeded Marin Cilic on Wednesday set up a quarter-final with Sam Querrey after coming from a set down to beat Gilles Muller 4-6, 6-3, 6-3 at Queen’s Club Championships.

Cilic was the losing finalist in the grass-court tournament and at Wimbledon last year.

“It was not easy, he [Muller] broke me in the beginning of the match and served out the first set,” said Cilic, who is a genuine threat on grass. “I managed to keep my composure and managed to serve well... It’s last year’s form, it continued this year, grass suits me greatly for my game, my shots hitting flat and deep through the court and serving well.”

Cilic was champion at Queen’s Club in 2012 and runner-up in 2013. He came close at Wimbledon last year, losing to Roger Federer due to bad blisters in the final.

Fifth-seeded Querrey, Queen’s Club winner in 2010, beat Stan Wawrinka 7-5, 6-7 (7/3), 6-1.

The big-serving American won in just less than two hours against Wawrinka, a three-time Grand Slam singles champion. The first two sets were even, but Querrey ran away with the decider to set up a meeting with Cilic at the Wimbledon warm-up tournament.

Wawrinka has yet to find his top form after a double knee operation, but said he must be patient.

“For sure, I’m sad and frustrated, because I need to win matches, I want to win matches and I want more. That’s for sure,” the Swiss said. “But there is a lot to take in the right way, and I’m sure if I can, as I say, keep doing the right things day by day, building on this and keep trying to improve, the results will come. I need to be patient with that.”

Frances Tiafoe beat Leonardo Mayer 6-4, 2-6, 6-4 to set up a last-eight clash with Jeremy Chardy, who beat Russian Daniil Medvedev 7-6 (8/6), 6-3.