Kei Nishikori’s breakout performance came on the slick hardcourts of the US Open in 2008. His best Grand Slam showing remains his quarter-final finish on the Plexicushion of Melbourne Park in 2012.
This year everyone was discussing his clay court credentials as he won the title in Barcelona and had Rafael Nadal on the ropes in the Madrid Masters final before injury intervened.
Grass-court success has so far been elusive for the Japanese talent. He’s never been beyond the third round at the All England Club and, save for a semi-final at Eastbourne in 2011 and a run to the last four in Halle recently, he’s done little of consequence on the lawns at ATP events as well.
Which is strange; watching his 6-3, 6-2, 6-1 dismantling of Denis Kudla on Thursday, you’d think Nishikori had been raised on turf. “Especially after clay court season I gain more confidence. My tennis is changing, more consistent, and everything is going well. Even on grass, my serve is getting better,” Nishikori said.
“Also, I can be more aggressive from the groundstrokes. I try to come in more on grass especially. Yeah, feel really comfortable to play on grass.”
His game possesses all the ingredients for grass court success: flat, penetrating ground strokes, a dependable serve, fabulous athleticism, stylish volleys and soft hands. And he used these weapons to full effect against the American qualifier on Court 18, producing 43 sparkling winners to win in just one hour and 21 minutes.
“It was almost perfect game for me. I able to break his serve early each set. I (was) more relaxed. Also I can able to attack his groundstrokes. Also return was well today. He didn't have, like big serve, so I was able to make some pressure for his service game. Everything work well today,” Nishikori said.
There were lengthy rallies early on, but Nishikori came out on top in the bulk of them, breaking serve in the second game to quickly establish the ascendancy at 2-0. Although Kudla managed to break back, the Japanese’s backhand began doing some real damage as the set progressed.
In the sixth game he fired a winner up the line off this wing, before dipping a backhand low at the net-bound Kudla’s feet to draw an error and secure another break. Leading 4-2, Nishikori maintained his advantage and a few games later scampered to track down a short ball and fired another winning backhand to pocket the first set.
His general pace of shot and superior consistency proved too much for the American to match. Kudla had slugged his way through three rounds of qualifying and was stretched in a gruelling first round match against Marsel Ilhan. He looked a step slow as he was broken in the very first game of the second set and soon fell behind 0-2, 0-40.
Nishikori was ruthless, and especially effective when he stepped up onto the baseline to take the ball hard and early. The tactic extracted a number of errors and helped him build a 5-2 lead. When Kudla dumped a routine smash into the net in the eighth game and Nishikori followed this up with an inside-out forehand winner, the No.10 seed was two sets to the good.
The rallies were getting shorter as the third set got underway, and an early break by Nishikori – courtesy of a reflexed cross-court backhand winner – drained all the fight from Kudla. With a 2-1 lead in hand, Nishikori would not drop another game, thanks both to his healthy tally of winners and Kudla’s propensity to miss.
In the final game, Nishikori entered exhibition mode, producing drop shot, backhand volley and forehand winners to reach match point, and clinched victory when Kudla sent a backhand into the net.
And so, into the third round for the third straight year. Standing between Nishikori and a spot in the last 16 is lucky loser Simone Bolelli, who upset No.22 seed Philipp Kohlschreiber. Asked how motivated he was to advance further at the All England Club than ever before, Nishikori said: “It's been almost perfect first and second round. It's going to be tough one next ... Hopefully I can go win next one and make some big jump here.”
20:08It brings me no pleasure but it's time to bring the curtain down for another year. Seemed somehow appropriate to leave the last word to Roger Federer. Thanks a billion for reading. What a fortnight, what a final, fast forward to 2015 please...
20:03"I already have seven. It's not like I need another one. But it would have been awfully nice to have it. I think that's what the feeling was of the people, and I felt that... I know they love tennis. They love tennis after we're all gone."View all