Kei Nishikori Establishes Himself as a French Open Favorite

Van SiasContributor IIIMay 10, 2014

Kei Nishikori from Japan reacts after losing a point during a Madrid Open tennis tournament match against Feliciano Lopez from Spain in Madrid, Spain, Friday, May 9, 2014. (AP Photo/Andres Kudacki)
Julian Finney, Getty Images

Rafael Nadal has suffered a couple of shock defeats the past couple of weeks. Novak Djokovic is hurt. And Stanislas Wawrinka is still showing some signs of inconsistency.

With question marks surrounding the favorites, this year could be one of the most up-for-grabs French Opens in recent memory.

And that could make it perfect for a newly established contender, Kei Nishikori, to break through.

So far, Nishikori has found the clay in Spain much to his liking, with a title at the ATP World Tour 500 tournament in Barcelona and a strong result at this weeks Masters 1000 event in Madrid. And with him playing the best clay-court tennis of his career, there's no reason to think that success couldn't continue on the terre battue at Roland Garros.

Nishikori's strong play the past few weeks raises the bar on the consistency he's displayed so far in 2014. Prior to the start of the European swing, Nishikori had already won a tournament this year, defending his title in Memphis. He also made the round of 16 at the Australian Open.

But perhaps the true sign of the season's success was when he went and defeated top-5 players David Ferrer and Roger Federer back at the ATP World Tour 1000 event in Florida this year.

Unfortunately, Nishikori was unable to play his semifinal match against Novak Djokovic there due to injury—a recurring theme when discussing Nishikori's prospects.

He's missed a lot of on-court time over the past few years, but he still manages to keep his ranking within his sights. And now his aim needs to be even better: For the first time in his career, Nishikori will become a member of the world top 10 on Monday, also becoming the first male player from Japan to reach such lofty heights.

He also has someone to turn to in his corner that can help him adjust to his new reality. His coach, Michael Chang, is a member of the International Tennis Hall of Fame and one of the most consistent competitors the game has ever known, both in style of play and results.

Chang also knows something about winning a French Open, which he did so famously back in 1989. Nishikori will be able to get a first-hand account on the career-defining experience.

And with the status quo of clay-court tennis being challenged, Nishikori appears to be well-positioned for his own breakthrough.