Entering Saturday, four qualifiers had reached ATP Tour finals in 2019. And after a solid performance at Ariake Tennis Park, John Millman became the fifth.
A week after saving three match points in the first round of qualifying at the Rakuten Japan Open Tennis Championships, Millman defeated Reilly Opelka 6-3, 7-6(4) to reach his first ATP 500 final. After losing his first set of the main draw, the Aussie has won eight consecutive sets en route to his second tour-level championship match.
“That was a pretty good match. It’s always difficult playing against someone like Reilly, who has got such a massive serve. I was really happy to take the few little chances I had and took care of my own service games pretty well,” Millman said. “Managing to get through to play a final in Tokyo, that’s pretty special for me.”
Millman wasted no time putting pressure on this year’s New York Open champion, breaking in his first return game of the match. That was a key moment, as Opelka had only dropped serve once from 31 previous service games in the tournament.
Despite landing only 50 per cent of his first serves in the first set, Millman faced few difficulties in maintaining his advantage. When he served for the opener, Opelka blasted away from the baseline, eventually cracking a massive inside-out forehand to earn his first break point. But Millman saved that chance when the American hit a backhand return into the net.
Opelka saved the two break points he faced in the second set with booming serves, and that paid dividends when he earned a set point on the Aussie’s serve at 5-4. But once again, Millman went to the American’s backhand, and Opelka was unable to put the ball in the court.
Millman won the final four points of the second-set tie-break to clinch his victory after one hour and 29 minutes.
“When he’s got such a big serve and they’re coming down so quick, even if you are leaning towards the right way, it’s still very tough to put that ball back,” Millman said. “Really happy, really nice to also get off in straights.”
It has been a tremendous stretch of tennis for the 30-year-old, who won his 12th ATP Challenger Tour title two weeks ago in Kaohsiung. He also made the quarter-finals of the Winston-Salem Open the week before the US Open, where he faced eventual champion Rafael Nadal in the first round.
Awaiting in the final will be World No. 1 Novak Djokovic or 2017 Tokyo titlist David Goffin. Millman trails Djokovic 0-2 in their FedEx ATP Head2Head series and he lost to Goffin in their only previous meeting.
“It doesn’t get any easier, does it? Those two guys are both incredible players, obviously. Both so strong from the back of the court. That’s what I like to bring into my game, so I’m sure it’ll be physical, lots of baseline exchanges,” Millman said. “I get to play a final of an ATP 500 in such a special place like Tokyo. For me, that’s why you play. That’s why you go through the graft and some of the tougher times, to give yourself an opportunity like this. It’s pretty special.”
Opelka was the first American to reach the last four in Tokyo since Mardy Fish did so eight years ago. An American has not captured the title here since Pete Sampras in 1996.
Did You Know?
The last qualifier to lift a trophy on the ATP Tour was Daniil Medvedev, who did so here in Tokyo last year. At the time, it was the biggest title of the Russian’s career.
Source: ATP World Tour