What Will Kei Nishikori's Ascent to Stardom Do for Tennis in Asia?

Jeremy Eckstein@https://twitter.com/#!/JeremyEckstein1Featured ColumnistSeptember 22, 2014

Kei Nishikori, of Japan, reacts during his match against Marin Cilic, of Croatia, during the championship of the 2014 U.S. Open tennis tournament, Monday, Sept. 8, 2014, in New York. Cilic won the championship. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)
Mike Groll/Associated Press

Who knew that Kei Nishikori’s quarterfinal appearance at the 2014 Australian Open was the building block for his rise into the Top 10 rankings. His tennis skill had often been overlooked, but then he battled World No. 1 Rafael Nadal as if announcing his presence as a star on the ATP tour.

Hailing from Japan, Nishikori is already a superstar in Asia and 2014 has seen him scribe new chapters into the mostly blank records book of Far East tennis. With China’s Li Na now retired, he is the face of Asia, and under the watchful eyes of billions in their region.

He might be pound for pound the best example of tennis purity in the ATP at this moment. He possesses the foundation for classic baseliners’ game, but with a modern, technical flavor.

How has he stormed into the Top 10, and can he hold the weight of Asian tennis expectations on his slender frame?

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - JANUARY 20:  Kei Nishikori of Japan plays a forehand in his fourth round match against Rafael Nadal of Spain during day eight of the 2014 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 20, 2014 in Melbourne, Australia.  (Photo by Cliv
Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
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Rising Sun

In that quarterfinals match, Nishikori wore a bright yellow shirt and looked for all the world like bursts of solar flares. He played with energy as he uncoiled his body into shots at Nadal. He struck early by reading Nadal’s more methodical approach, and he created his own lethal attack, often brilliant and sometimes scorching shots with heavy fire.

As tennis players continue to grow taller and bigger, producing its share of serveborgs, Nishikori plays at 5’ 10” and 154 pounds, a mosquito on today’s line-up cards. He cannot rely on a large frame to produce powerful serves or strokes, but looks like an early-80s clay-court player who should look to retrieve every ball and send it back safely to outlast his opponents.

Except that Nishikori does not fit this profile.

Watch when he runs to set up his shots. He is keen with early racket preparation while he sets up his footwork. He snaps his shots crosscourt for unusually sharp angles—mixing in strange geometry by attacking both corners and tagging the midpoints of the sidelines.

His inside-out forehand is a more conservative shot, and his quick reflexes and anticipation allow him to take the ball early, on the rise and inside the baseline. This is when he can deal a quick blow to keep his advantage, allowing him to play his next shot up the line or crosscourt.

And his strokes are very compact, little wasted motion with short backswings and efficient timing, in many ways a contrast to the more loopy strokes of a player like Nadal. Rather, Nishikori has a little bit of Andre Agassi in him, showing his capacity to strike early and control the entire court with his shots.

He creates steady offensive pressure like water drops on a stone, forcing opponents to hit harder or scamper quicker. Opponents have lately shown a blend of awe and annoyance in wondering how he can generate the aggression to dictate so often and with such consistency. It’s as if he could evolve David Ferrer’s game into a futuristic arena of lazer tag.

He lost in straight sets to Nadal in that quarterfinals meeting, but his new racket flashed upgraded power, and he played with the kind of challenging aggression that would build into the upcoming months.

Daniel Ochoa de Olza/Associated Press

 

Far East Invasion

In March, he defeated David Ferrer and Roger Federer in back-to-back matches, prompting the Swiss Maestro’s projection of Nishikori in ATP World Tour: “I predict he's going to be Top 10 in a short while.”

Turned out this was just the beginning. Nishikori broke through 11 years of Spanish hegemony by winning Barcelona.

Then Nishikori nearly swept Spain altogether, up a set and a break in the championship final of Masters 1000 Madrid against a reeling Nadal. He played the picador, poking holes in Nadal’s defense, sliding and succeeding with offensive pace and precision.

Had he not hurt his back, lost his lead and then retired in the third set, he would have been the 2014 pre-French Open king of clay, in part recognized by Nadal’s coach, Toni Nadal, who credited Nishikori on Antenna 3 TV, via USA Today:

We don't deserve the victory, (Nishikori) deserves it, he played better than us the whole time. We had a lot of luck today. We didn't really come back, he was hurt.

An Asian becoming a clay-court power? Not since Asian-American Michael Chang’s success at the French Open (champion 1989; runner-up 1995) has another player with Far East roots bid for the best red-clay trophies in tennis.

Was it a coincidence that the injury-prone Nishikori needed to become tougher and more resilient, things that have improved since Chang was coaching him? It’s these qualities that had been most in question. He is not physical like Chang, but his spirit has become unbreakable and his fitness and endurance are no longer a glaring weakness.

Even at the lightning lawns of Wimbledon, Nishirori battled to the fourth round, falling only to the gigantic serves of Milos Raonic. Two months later, he would turn the tables on Raonic at the U.S. Open in his march to the finals. He also hammered Australian Open champion Stanislas Wawrinka.

It was at Flushing Meadows' semifinals on the second Saturday that Nishikori won his greatest match. He carved out an impressive four-set victory over tournament favorite and World No. 1 Novak Djokovic. He had virtually conquered the Big Three in 2014 and landed in a major final.

Though he was blitzed by red-hot Marin Cilic for the U.S. Open title, he had finalized his status as a Grand Slam contender.

"I think I showed my potential,” Nishikori remarked in Reuters after the loss. “I can beat anybody now. So if I can keep training hard and also practice hard, I think I have more chances coming up."

Mike Groll/Associated Press

 

Ready for Asia

Nishikori was at Hong Kong to promote the Asian swing of the ATP tour. Who better than him to be the Far East face of tennis? With WTA superstar Li Na packing her bags to leave tennis, Nishikori now carries the Asian mantle of tennis present and future hopes for generations of aspiring Asian tennis youth.

He will be in Malaysia, Tokyo and Shanghai to play tennis as a conquering hero. He wears a superstar’s halo for a continent that is ready for a tennis giant, even one who stands under six feet.

In ATP World Tour, Alison Lee, ATP Executive Vice President, International Group appreciated Nishikori's efforts to help promote tennis in southeast Asia:

Kei has had very little downtime since New York and made a huge effort to come to Hong Kong today to help promote the ATP World Tour tournaments in Asia. He is a superstar who is gracious and inspiring to millions of people in this region.

It’s also exciting for tennis to see a multi-talented tennis player succeed without relying heavily on winning with his serve. (Sidenote: Sub-six footer, Belgian David Goffin might be taking notes. He captured his second career title in Metz with his 34th win in 36 matches.)

Even with the evolution of tennis technology and larger champions (The Big Three of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic stand at 6’1”, 6’1” and 6’2” respectively), the fundamentals of tennis still require terrific footwork, athletic hand-eye coordination, intelligence and mental toughness. Nishikori has these qualities.

Can he move up inside the top five and compete for Masters 1000 titles? Can he win a major title or two?

Nobody’s expecting Nishikori’s to dominate the ATP the way the Big Three did, but this is a transitional period where more domination might soon be eclipsed by parity and opportunistic titles. His star could be one of the big winners, not just in the Far East but with aims to be a global presence.