NEW YORK — It is a year later, and the No. 1 men’s tennis player in the world had one demon exorcised at the U.S. Open tennis tournament Monday, without lifting a finger.
Last year, Novak Djokovic lost in a semifinal shocker to Kei Nishikori of Japan. This year, even before Djokovic could pull the wrapping off his newly strung racket, Nishikori had been ousted.
The fourth-seeded Nishikori went out in stunning fashion to unseeded and unheralded Benoit Paire of France, 6-4, 3-6, 4-6, 7-6 (6), 6-4. Paire is ranked 41st.
“It’s very sad to lose first round,” said Nishikori, who had a match point in the tiebreaker, “but I think he was playing good tennis. I don’t think I played bad. . . . He’s a good player.”
Last year, rounding out a day of semifinal stunners, Croatia’s Marin Cilic took out Roger Federer. Cilic then beat Nishikori in the final. Monday, in his own first-rounder, Cilic avoided the upset, handling Argentina’s Guido Pella on the same Louis Armstrong Court where Nishikori went down. Cilic, seeded No. 9, won 6-3, 7-6 (3), 7-6 (3).
Djokovic, playing on the gigantic Arthur Ashe Stadium court, did exactly what all the top players want — and need — in a long Grand Slam tournament. He dominated Joao Souza of Brazil, 6-1, 6-1, 6-1.
The upset bug hit the women’s draw quickly.
Former major winner Ana Ivanovic, seeded seventh here, lost a three-set battle in the Ashe opener. Britain’s Heather Watson, who gave Serena Williams her toughest match at Wimbledon, went out to U.S. player Lauren Davis, ranked 23 points below her. That score was 7-6 (3), 7-6 (0).
Ivanovic, who won the French Open in 2008 and has seemingly been on a comeback trail since, got outhit and outhustled by Slovakia’s Dominika Cibulkova, 6-3, 3-6, 6-3.
Ivanovic said she had blisters on both feet, but did not want to use that as an excuse. She also called the court conditions, on a humid and slightly overcast day, “perfect.”
“I felt like she used her opportunities better than I did,” Ivanovic said.
In the next match on Ashe, Venus Williams nearly joined Ivanovic on the upset ledger. She won the first set against Monica Puig of Puerto Rico and then had four match points in a second-set tiebreaker. But she squandered those and needed a strong third set to pull out a 6-4, 6-7 (7), 6-3 victory.
“By the time I got to the third set,” Williams said, “I was able to clean up my game a bit.”
Sloane Stephens, seeded 29th, was ousted by another U.S. player, San Diego’s CoCo Vandeweghe. The score was 6-4, 6-3, and Stephens made 25 unforced errors.
On a day when opening-session attendance of 37,601 established a record, perhaps the best story of all was the return of Mardy Fish.
Actually, it is both a return and a goodbye.
Fish is 33. He is from Minnesota but lives now in Los Angeles. He has been ranked as high as No. 7. That was in 2011 and was, at that time, the top U.S. male ranking. His best major tournament finishes have been three quarterfinals.
He has had several bouts with heart problems. After losing in the quarterfinals at Miami in 2012, he was quietly rushed to a hospital and treated for severe cardiac arrhythmia. He returned that year for Wimbledon and got to the fourth round of the U.S. Open, were he defaulted to Federer. That time, he was suffering from a severe anxiety disorder, and his comeback attempts have been plagued by that since.
Before this year’s U.S. Open, he told the media it would be his farewell tournament. But there was no farewell Monday. He beat Marco Cecchinato of Italy, 6-7 (5), 6-3, 6-1, 6-3.
“This is different for me right now,” Fish said, “because I realize this is my last event. I’ve got so many different sort of emotions [I’m] going through that don’t have anything to do with that. That part’s a little tricky. I want to sort of embrace the whole thing.”
In his next round, Fish will play big-serving Spaniard Feliciano Lopez, who is seeded 18th.