Melbourne - Japanese superstar Kei Nishikori took the first steps he hopes will lead to Grand Slam glory with a hard-fought opening win over Nicolas Almagro at the Australian Open on Tuesday.
Nishikori, who lost to Marin Cilic in last year's US Open final, won a 2hr 7min dogfight with the former world number nine before prevailing, 6-4, 7-6 (7/1), 6-2 on Margaret Court Arena.
The Japanese fifth seed had a battle with Almagro before winning a pivotal second-set tiebreaker and sweeping through the third and final set for passage into the second round.
Nishikori, who is at the vanguard of the new breed of players challenging the old order of Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, will next play either Croatia's Ivan Dodig or Joao Souza of Brazil.
"I'm getting close to next level. Obviously, it was a really tough first match," he said.
"Nicolas could be seeded player, and I know he was injured, but still was tough match.
"It was a little bit windy, so we both didn't play maybe 100 percent. But I was getting more balls, especially third set, and I played a much better third set."
The 25-year-old last year became the first Asian male to play in a Grand Slam final in a stellar season of four title victories, putting him in hot demand in his homeland.
Following the retirement of China's Li Na, a two-time women's Grand Slam champion, the expectations are mounting for Nishikori to follow her trailblazing lead.
Almagro, coming into the tournament ranked 69 and fighting his way back from left foot surgery which sidelined him from the second half of last season, troubled Nishikori with his strong serving and potent single-handed backhands.
"Nicolas serves a lot of aces and I knew it was going to be a tough first round," Nishikori said.
"It was especially so in the second set and it was really tight with a lot of breaks, but it was a good tiebreak and I finished well in the third set."
While reaching last year's US Open final, Nishikori regards the Australian Open as his favourite Grand Slam, especially with a large contingent of Japanese fans in the crowds at his matches.
"I had a good three weeks before coming to Australia with (coaches) Michael Chang and Dante Bottini," he said.
"I did a lot of conditioning stuff, too. So I think I should be ready for these new couple of weeks."
Nishikori's best performance at Melbourne Park was reaching the quarter-finals in 2012.
"Hopefully I can win a major. For sure, that's going to be my next goal. Hopefully, I can come back to a Grand Slam final again," he said.