Tennis: Relaxed Nishikori promises fireworks in Japan Open defence

TOKYO - Local hero Kei Nishikori warned his opponents Sunday he had rediscovered his mojo in time to defend his Japan Open title this week with his stirring recent Davis Cup performances shaking him out of his summer funk.

The 23-year-old, who became the host country's first Japan Open winner in Tokyo last year with a swashbuckling run, had suffered a nightmare hard court season, culminating in a shock first-round exit from the US Open.

But after helping Japan back into the Davis Cup world group against Colombia earlier this month, Nishikori promised fireworks at the waterside venue for the 2020 Olympics, where former US Open champion Juan Martin del Potro heads the field, at least in terms of world ranking.

"The Davis Cup helped me get back my hunger and passion," world number 12 Nishikori told AFP. "Obviously I had two good wins and I'm ready, feeling good. I'm here to win the title again and I feel if I play my best tennis I have every chance of achieving that."

He added: "I had so much pressure on me to win last year and now I don't have that I can go out and enjoy it. I don't have people asking me about my form or ranking any more so that pressure's off too."

Fourth seed Nishikori, currently on a run of eight straight wins on the Ariake centre court in Japan Open and Davis Cup competition, faces Austria's Jurgen Melzer in the first round of the US$1.43 million (S$1.8 million) tournament, which boasts a glittering list of former champions since Ken Rosewall lifted the trophy in 1973 when it became an official tour event.

Stefan Edberg holds the record with four wins, including three in a row from 1989-1991. John McEnroe, Ivan Lendl and Pete Sampras have all won the title, while Roger Federer, Rafa Nadal and Andy Murray have also triumphed in more recent years.

Wimbledon champion Murray, winner in 2011, pulled out to undergo minor back surgery, although world number seven del Potro, Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Canada's Milos Raonic, runner-up to Nishikori last year, all pose threats. Tsonga himself won the title in 2009.

"Even if Murray is not here, you have del Potro, Raonic and a number of very strong players," said Nishikori, who burst onto the scene as an 18-year-old by winning in Delray Beach as a 244th-ranked qualifier in 2008, becoming the first Japanese man to win an ATP title since Shuzo Matsuoka in 1992.

"The first couple of matches will be key. But the Davis Cup has given me a lot of confidence."

Towering Argentine Del Potro, the 2009 US Open champion, plays Cyprus's Marcos Baghdatis while Tsonga, finalist at the 2008 Australian Open, faces fellow Frenchman Gael Monfils on Monday in the pick of the first-round matches.