Kei Nishikori won Japan’s first Olympic tennis medal in almost a century when he captured bronze against Rafael Nadal, despite the weary Spaniard mounting a stirring mid-match fightback.
Nishikori triumphed 6-2, 6-7 (1/7), 6-3 to become the first Japanese tennis medallist since Antwerp in 1920 when the country won men’s silver and men’s doubles silver.
Nadal, the 2008 singles champion in Beijing, was playing his 11th match in Rio.
But the 30-year-old did not go down meekly, fighting back from 2-5 down in the second set to push the play-off into a decider.
“I didn’t know what to do from 5-2, I got a little bit tired and he started playing better. For sure I was rushing to win in the last couple of points,” admitted Nishikori.
“I tried to refresh my mind in the third set. I knew that I wasn’t stepping in. As soon as I got the break I started to play aggressive and I played with confidence.”
Nadal won the doubles gold with Marc Lopez on Friday and then lost an epic three-hour singles semi-final to world number 141 Juan Martin del Potro on Saturday.
Nishikori had lost nine of his previous meetings against Nadal.
But he eventually proved too strong for the 14-time major winner who was playing in his first tournament in almost three months after a wrist injury forced an early withdrawal from the French Open.
“My wrist bothers me when I hit the forehand, but I’ve played for many hours and at least the wrist didn’t get worse,” said Nadal.