In one of the greatest first-round matches at the Masters 1000 level in recent years, world no. 10 and a two-time Madrid champion Novak Djokovic scored only his sixth win of the 2018 season after a hard-fought 7-5, 6-4 triumph over a former finalist Kei Nishikori in a grueling one hour and 59 minutes.
It was their 14th encounter since 2010 and the 12th win for Novak, who is yet to lose against the Japanese since that heartbreaking defeat at the US Open semi-final in 2014. The Serb played a very good match, hitting with depth and precision and moving around the court beautifully to limit Kei's range and force him to chase risky shots from the baseline.
Novak won just five points more overall and managed to save five out of six break chances to keep the pressure on his rival, breaking him thrice to wrap up the encounter in straight sets and move into the second round. Novak had 26 winners and 33 unforced errors while Kei stood on 21 winners and 26 errors, battling hard and just falling short.
Djokovic had the edge in the quickest and most extended rallies while Nishikori gained some advantage in the mid-range exchanges, which wasn't enough for an overall triumph or at least a set. The Japanese player made a promising start, creating two break chances in the opening game but wasting both.
He saved a break opportunity in game four with a forehand winner, leveling the score at 2-2 after 24 minutes of high-quality tennis, with more of the same to come. Nishikori drew first blood with a break at love in game five but stayed in front only for a few minutes, hitting a double fault in the next game to lose the advantage and bring Novak back into contention.
The Serb fended off two break chances at 3-3 with winners, moving closer to taking the opener after earning two set points at 5-4. Kei was not to be denied, though, firing a solid forehand and a service winner to stay in touch and prolong the set that was almost an hour old.
Novak finally found the way to take the rival's serve in game 12, closing the set with a return winner after 65 minutes, roaring on his way towards the bench. A service winner from Novak repelled a break chance in the opening game of set number two and they both served well in the upcoming eight games, with nothing for the returners.
Nishikori had four game points at 4-5 but Djokovic stayed in the game and converted his first match point when Nishikori sent a backhand long, battling through to the second round where he would meet Kyle Edmund. Struggling with an elbow injury, Djokovic didn't play on his usual level in the first five months of 2018, suffering early losses in Melbourne, Indian Wells, Miami, Monte Carlo and Barcelona and hoping for a better run in Madrid.