Taro Daniel wins opener in Nordic Naturals Challenger

Taro Daniel of Japan defeated American Sam Riffice in Tuesday's Round of 32 match of the Nordic Naturals Challenger in Aptos. (Juan Reyes — The Pajaronian)

APTOS — Taro Daniel had to wait a full day to get to play his first match in the 32nd annual Nordic Naturals Challenger. But the short delay had little to no effect on his performance. 

Daniel of Japan got past American Sam Riffice in two sets, 6-4, 6-0, in the Round of 32 on Tuesday at Seascape Sports Club. 

Ranked No. 119 in the ATP World Rankings, Daniel came in as the No. 3 seed in the tournament and had a bye during the opening round.

Daniel said he’s starting to get back into a groove after struggling the past two weeks.

“I’ve been able to little by little recover my tennis feelings and physical feelings,” he said. “Today was definitely a good match for me because (Riffice) was pretty tough and better than his ranking.”

Riffice, who is an incoming sophomore at the University of Florida and ranked No. 576 in the ATP, came into the match fresh off a two-set victory, 6-2, 6-4, over Yosuke Watanuki of Japan in the Round of 64 on Monday. 

“(Riffice) is a solid player, so we had a lot of long rallies,” Daniel said. “Especially with the conditions… at night it gets darker and even slower and the balls get even heavier.”

Sam Riffice of the United States winds up for shot during Tuesday's Nordic Naturals Challenger Round of 32 match against Taro Daniel of Japan. (Juan Reyes — The Pajaronian)

Daniel returned to Aptos after taking a three-year break from competing in the Nordic Naturals Challenger. The 26-year-old has some close ties in Santa Cruz County and is familiar with the area. 

“I love this place and I’ve always had a strong emotional attachment,” he said. “This is a place I always wanna come to during the year but unfortunately California is too expensive to host tournaments.”

Daniel’s dad was born and raised in Santa Cruz. In a way, the trip is sort of a homecoming for him. Especially when he gets to play in front of some of his closest family members. 

“It’s great being able to see my family and play,” he said. “It makes me a little bit more nervous as well but you never know how many more years these Challengers are going to last.”

Daniel competed in his first Nordic Naturals Challenger in 2014 but was eliminated by Belgian Ruben Bemelmans in the first round. He managed to reach the quarterfinals the following year, which is the farthest he’s been since competing in the tourney. 

Daniel will face American Michael Redlicki in the Round of 16 on Thursday with a time still to be determined. 

Redlicki, who came in as an alternate, got past No. 12 Emilio Gomez of Ecuador in the opening round. He followed up with a win against Maxime Janvier of France in the Round of 32. 

“Every match is gonna be tough, especially on these quicker surfaces,” Daniel said. “There’s always more possibility for upsets with guys who are lower ranked.”

Taro Daniel of Japan celebrates after he defeated American Sam Riffice in Tuesday's Round of 32 match of the Nordic Naturals Challenger in Aptos. (Juan Reyes — The Pajaronian)

Marcos Giron (No. 157) of Thousand Oaks is also moving on to the Round of 16 after a two-set win, 6-2, 6-3, against fellow American Martin Redlicki. 

Giron will play Borna Gojo of Croatia, who is fresh off a win against No. 9 seed Enzo Couacaud of France.   

Ernesto Escobedo (No. 214) of Los Angeles won his match, 6-2, 6-2, against wild card entry Jenson Brooksby to advance to the Round of 32. 

Escobedo will take on fellow American Mitchell Krueger, who is the No. 11 seed in the tourney. 

Steve Johnson, who earned the No. 2 seed, is one of three California residents left to compete in the tournament. He will take on Roberto Quiroz of Ecuador later today following the match between Damir Dzumhur and Keegan Smith.

Dzumhur of Bosnia came into the tourney as the highest ranked player in the field at No. 91 and holds the No. 1 seed. Smith defeated fellow American and wild card entry Brandon Holt, 6-4, 6-3, in Tuesday’s Round of 64 match.  

Defending singles champion Thanasi Kokkinakis of Australia won his opening match, 6-2, 1-0, by way of retirement after defeating Volodoymyr Uzhylovskyi of Ukraine. 

The 23-year-old, who checks in at No. 171 in the ATP Tour rankings, beat South African Lloyd Harris in last year’s singles final. 

Marcelo Arevalo of Spain and Miguel Angel Reyes-Varela of Mexico won their doubles match opener.

The No. 1 seed defeated wild card entries Dennis Novikov of San Jose and Donald Young of Atlanta, 6-2, 3-6,14-12, on Tuesday.

The action continues today with matches starting at 10 a.m. Saturday’s semifinals begin at 11 a.m. and Sunday’s championship starts at noon. The Pink Day finals also take place Sunday and start at 10 a.m.

The Nordic Naturals Challenger concludes the U.S. Open Wild Card Challenge, which will award a men’s wild card into the 2019 U.S. Open.

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