As Kei Nishikori makes waves in New York, Wimbledon.com talks to his coach, Michael Chang, about Kei, Wimbledon, and being a celebrity coach...
This summer’s Wimbledon men’s singles final between Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer was also Boris Becker versus Stefan Edberg by proxy (one might suggest they are now all square for Wimbledon finals, Edberg having won two of their three second-Sunday meetings as players).
And Ivan Lendl, though no longer on the scene, will forever be celebrated as the man who guided Andy Murray to victory last year. But, for all the attention on Becker, Edberg and Lendl, there’s another Grand Slam champion from the 1980s who is making an impact in his second life as a celebrity coach. Michael Chang, who won the 1989 French Open when he was just seventeen years old, told Wimbledon.com that he has been pleased with how Kei Nishikori has been competing with greater confidence and conviction this season. “It’s not that Kei now thinks he can play with the best in the world – he now thinks he can beat them,” said the American, a former quarter-finalist at Wimbledon, whose collaboration with Nishikori was announced late last year.
This summer’s Championships saw Nishikori reach the second week at the All England Club for the first time – he lost in the fourth round to Milos Raonic, who went on to make the semi-finals. And Nishikori’s results earlier in the season, including beating Federer on a hard court in Miami, winning the clay-court Barcelona title and finishing as the runner-up to Rafa Nadal on the Madrid dirt (a match he would have won but for injury), made him the first Japanese to be ranked in the top 10.
He has since followed up with a run to the US Open quarter-finals, delighting Japanese fans around the world as he overcame Milos Raonic in a late-night epic on the early hours of Tuesday morning in New York.
What’s changed, Chang disclosed, is that Nishikori now trusts his talent; in the past it didn’t sound as though he had the right mental approach. “When I first met Kei a few years ago, when I played against him at an exhibition in Japan, I had a chance to talk to him, and we spoke about a few things. He made a few comments, and I would question some of the things he said,” Chang recalled. “A lot of that was mentality, which he has since changed. I told him back then, ‘you really shouldn’t been having this type of mentality, as it’s going to hurt you’. He’s changed a lot of those things, and you can see it in the way he plays now. He’s playing with a lot more belief.”
While Nishikori has also applied himself on the practice court and in the gym – he has improved technically and physically – the key to his form this year has been in his head. “Kei has put in lots of hard work, but if you don’t believe that you can do something, you’ll never be able to do it, regardless of how skilled you are. That’s how important the mental side of tennis is,” Chang said. “It’s been a combination of working on the mental side with Kei, but also a lot of work on the game and on the technical side. If I’ve seen something that needs to be improved or tweaked, I’m going to make that suggestion, and we’re going to work on that together – that’s the exciting thing.”
There’s no doubt that the opportunity to draw on Chang’s past experiences has helped Nishikori to feel good about himself – with a former Grand Slam champion in your corner, there’s pretty much a guarantee that you’re not receiving duff advice. “Kei knows that I’ve been down the same road before, so he’s not going to be worrying about whether he can trust his coach, and whether he can lean on me for advice,” Chang said. “Other coaches can’t offer that as they’ve never been there before.”
Still, if there’s one drawback to turning to coaching in retirement, it’s that watching from the stands can be more stressful than swinging the racket yourself. “Being on the sidelines you see a little bit more than when you’re out there actually playing. You see a lot of tendencies, things that players often don’t see when they are competing. As a former player it’s sometimes hard for me to sit there,” Chang said.
“You’re thinking, ‘the guy is serving down the ‘T’ every time. Come on, pick it up, pick it up’. Sometimes I just want to scream it out, ‘he’s doing this, he’s doing that’. So, from that aspect, it can be hard. But you know that the player has to figure it out for himself. All you can do is sit there, and encourage and support, and hope that the things you have taught him, and the things you have instilled in him, and the strategies you have given him, are going to be spot on.”
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