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Kei Nishikori looking the part on grass

Kei Nishikori prepares to hit a backhand
by Michael Beattie
Tuesday 24 June 2014

A crossroads, a threshold, call it what you will. Kei Nishikori is on the brink of the world’s top 10 and facing the next great hurdle – establishing himself among the true elite of the sport, and dealing with life as a high-profile scalp in the eyes of the opposition.

For his part, the Japanese world No.12 certainly appeared up for the challenge against Kenny de Schepper. Grass may not be his favourite surface but Nishikori has never arrived at Wimbledon in better form, as the world No.73 discovered in a tight 6-4, 7-6(5), 7-5 defeat.

Nishikori, the No.10 seed at The Championships, is yet to reach the second week at Wimbledon or to progress beyond the fourth round at any of the Grand Slams, but momentum is building. He has five ATP titles to his name and has reached three finals in 2014, winning the first on the hard courts of Memphis.

His first round exit at Roland Garros was an aberration, the upshot of a gruelling clay court season where he claimed a second title in Barcelona and reached the final of the Madrid Masters, only to retire with a hip injury after giving Rafael Nadal an almighty scare. The 24-year-old spent the extra time off preparing for Wimbledon with coaching partnership Dante Bottini and Michael Chang in Halle, where he reached the semi-finals before falling to Roger Federer.

Nishikori had never faced De Schepper before but did not take long to hone in on the 6ft 8in Frenchman’s weaknesses. Serves bombed down north of 130mph from the outset, but Nishikori refused to be cowed and stepped in whenever possible, albeit with limited success. Twice in the third game De Schepper’s serve reached 135mph, and twice Nishikori took the point en route to the only break of the opening set.

“Honestly wasn't fun match for me - only actually two breaks,” Nishikori said. “Especially second set I couldn't get any points from his serve. You have to really stay calm and concentrate on your service game – I think I did that really well.”

On his own serve, Nishikori was in his element. His agility and variety were simply too much for the 27-year-old, whose flat, functional backhand was exposed relentlessly. Whatever the question Nishikori had an answer, whether rallying from the back, throwing in a drop shot or passing his onrushing opponent at will, denying the Frenchman a single break point in the match.

There was a brief wobble for Nishikori at 5-6, when a framed backhand squirted long to bring up 0-30, but he rallied to hold. Again he found himself trailing at 3-1 but turned the tie-break on its head with a four-point run from which he never looked back.

A second tie-break seemed inevitable as the pair gave no quarter on serve in the third set, but when De Schepper blinked while serving at 5-6, Nishikori struck. A full-blooded return at the feet of the Frenchman brought him to 30-30, and while De Schepper survived the first match point, a lofted his slice approach wide on the second saw him bow out after an hour and 49 minutes.

“I've been playing really well this year,” said Nishikori, who faces Denis Kudla in the second round. “You know, the clay season helps even on grass. I feel more confidence. Everything is going well for me. If I can keep playing well, I think I can go farther.”

A kind section of the draw may also play into Nishikori’s hands. Find a way past Kudla and a potential third-round showdown with No.22 seed Philipp Kohlschreiber, and big-serving Milos Raonic could be waiting for him next Monday.

For now, Nishikori is focused on Kudla, another player he has never faced before. “I didn't have much info about Kenny today,” he admitted. “But you have to play the first couple games, find a couple of things that he does. My coach always finds tactics – Michael and Dante are always helping me before the match.

“Denis I think is tough on grass. There's going to be a lot of rallies and ground strokes. Yeah, not going to be easy, I think.”

If that berth in the top 10 beckons, those tough assignments will keep on coming.

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