25 Sep 2020 5:22 PM +00:00

The quiet resurgence of Kei Nishikori

(Photo credit: Marianne Bevis)

Of all the many intangible qualities that separate the superstars of the sport from the merely very good, one of the least acknowledged is luck. And one of the unluckiest players in this golden era of men’s tennis is Kei Nishikori. Indeed, such has been his bad luck that he is yet to win either a Masters or a Major and may well end his career with those boxes on his C.V. still unticked. And yet there can also be no doubt that he is one of the most superbly gifted players of this astonishing generation.

Of course, he was never likely to match the achievements of the three greats that have dominated the ATP for almost exactly 15 years, and after Djokovic’s triumph at Wimbledon, have combined to win 50 of the 60 Majors since the 2003 Wimbledon. Murray’s achievements, particularly the 14 Masters titles he has won and rarely gets the credit he deserves for, were also probably beyond him. But he might have fairly asserted his right to stand alongside the likes of Marin Cilic and Stan Wawrinka.

Except that for Nishikori, injuries have been a constant curse. The Japanese has rarely been able to stay healthy for long enough to achieve full match-sharpness and get on the sort of winning run needed to carry a player to the biggest titles in the game. Last year saw him have his worst luck with injuries yet, as a wrist injury that had been troubling him for much of the season kept him away from the Tour following the Canadian Open until February of this year, when he returned at a Challenger.

Improving results

Unsurprisingly, his ranking tumbled as a result. From having been ranked 4th in the world in March 2017, which matched his career best, he found himself on the verge of falling out of the top 40 this April at world #39. That was his lowest ranking since October 2011. His tennis had also suffered, with a 2-6 2-6 hammering taken at the hands of Juan Martin del Potro in the second round in Miami serving as stark evidence of the gulf between Nishikori and the game’s best.

Yet in his very next outing on the Tour he reminded the tennis world exactly what he was capable of. He battled through to the final at the Monte Carlo Masters, beating second seed Marin Cilic in the last eight and then the third seeded Alexander Zverev in the semifinals. Nadal outclassed him in the final, but he was hardly the only player that was true of. He then delivered good performances in Madrid and Rome, falling to Novak Djokovic at both events.

His Roland Garros campaign also demonstrated the progress Nishikori had made, as well as what he had left to do to get back to his best. He played some fine tennis to defeat three Frenchman in a row, conquering wildcard Maxime Janvier, Benoit Paire and then Gilles Simon to reach the fourth round. There a slow start against Dominic Thiem cost him as he exited 2-6 0-6 7-5 4-6, but it gave Nishikori a platform to build on ahead of Wimbledon, historically his least successful Slam.


The grass courts and beyond

Nishikori played poorly in Halle, losing heavily in the second round to Karen Khachanov, but such upsets are fairly common as players take time to adjust to the switch from clay to grass. He looked more confident in SW19, beginning his Championships with a 6-2 4-6 7-6 6-2 win over the USA’s Christian Harrison. He then beat 2011 quarterfinalist Bernard Tomic in four and 2014 quarterfinalist Nick Kyrgios in straight sets before edging out Ernests Gulbis 4-6 7-6 7-6 6-1.

He found eventual champion Djokovic too stern a challenge in the quarterfinals, taking a 13th straight loss at the hands of the Serbian in four sets 3-6 6-3 2-6 2-6. It was Djokovic’s glorious return from injury that dominated the headlines, but Nishikori’s achievements, though humbler, are also worthy of recognition. Since returning to the Tour in February, he has reached a fourth Masters 1000 final and reached the last eight at Wimbledon.

He also finds himself in tenth place in the Race to London and will consider himself as having a real chance to return to the Tour Finals this year. He has played the best tennis of his career during the summer North American swing, reaching the final at the US Open in 2014 (lost to Cilic) and the Canadian Open in 2016 (lost to Djokovic). It’s no surprise with his accurate, penetrating hitting off the ground best suited to the faster hardcourts in Canada and the US.

Nishikori has the game of a top ten players, and though he has weaknesses, notably his serve, which can be exploited by the best in the game, he can always trouble them. With renewed focus, impressive grit and a body that is holding up for now, Nishikori might just be able to claim one of those big titles that has so long eluded him.

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