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Could Nishikori be the man to succeed the Big Four?

Kei Nishikori in Madrid
by Mark Hodgkinson
Wednesday 21 May 2014

Could Kei Nishikori have all of Japan watching Wimbledon in eager anticipation this summer? Wimbledon.com profiles the country's constantly rising son...

Anyone who has Rafa Nadal slamming his knuckles against his strings on the clay of Madrid’s Caja Magica – that’s as close as the Majorcan will ever come to destroying a racket – is a talent. More than that, a top-ten talent, and a talent who could have an impact on the Wimbledon grass at this summer’s Championships. 

But for a back injury, Kei Nishikori would almost certainly have gone on to complete what would have been the most astounding victory of his career (as well as what would have been the most remarkable result of the European clay-court swing so far). Despite the sense of anti-climax at the Magic Box, after Nishikori retired in the third set of the final, having previously led by a set and a break, let’s not forget that there was so much to like about the Japanese’s tennis. Before the back problem flared-up, so when Nishikori was still capable of running around on the baseline, he had been doing something quite extraordinary; hitting through Nadal on clay. No wonder Nadal became so exasperated. And all this just a day after Nishikori’s almost-three-hour semi-final against David Ferrer. For this was the weekend when one man from Shimane almost brought down Spanish men’s tennis.

Even in defeat, Nishikori had done enough that week to become the first Japanese man to be ranked inside the world’s top ten, and to become the first Asian to be in that elite group since Thailand’s Paradorn Srichaphan a decade ago. You don’t make the top ten thanks to one strong showing in Madrid; the Florida-based player has produced some fine tennis at his last three tournaments. Prior to Madrid, he was the champion on the clay courts of Barcelona, and before that, on the Miami cement, he defeated Roger Federer in the quarter-finals before unfortunately having to withdraw from his semi-final against Novak Djokovic. For a few years, many have spoken of Nishikori’s promise, and this spring he has been showing why he is so highly thought of.

Along with Djokovic, who hired Boris Becker, as well as Federer, who is working with Stefan Edberg, and also Wimbledon champion Andy Murray, who had a two-year collaboration with Ivan Lendl, Nishikori has been making use of the expertise and experience of a player from the 1980s. One of the smartest moves Nishikori ever made was deciding to work with Michael Chang, a former American player who won the 1989 French Open at the age of just 17. “For sure, Chang is giving me good improvements,” Nishikori told ATPWorldTour.com. “My tennis is getting better and stronger, especially with him. It’s going well with him. He’s given me good tips that I need to work on. We have similar playing styles, so he knows what I need to work on.”

Sensibly, Nishikori withdrew from last week’s tournament at Rome’s Foro Italico, recognising the importance of regaining his fitness before the French Open – the second major of the year begins on Sunday – and then the grass-court swing. Nishikori doesn’t feel as though he has done himself justice on the Wimbledon lawns, though he was wasn’t helped by drawing Nadal in the first round of the 2010 Championships, and then Hewitt the following summer. The past couple of summers, he has made the last 32, losing to Argentina’s Juan Martin del Potro in 2012, and then Italy’s Andreas Seppt last year. There’s no reason why he can’t make the second week of this summer’s tournament, especially as he is committed to improving his grass-court game. “My grass-court game is getting better,” he told Wimbledon.com. “My serve is getting stronger. The way I play, it’s a hard surface to play on, especially with the footwork, but hopefully I can do better in the future.”

This could be a big grass-court summer for Nishikori. 

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