x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Kei Nishikori’s rise as the next star from Asia

The titles in Memphis and Barcelona, and his performance against Nadal in Madrid, suggest the Florida resident is ready to step into the big league.

Kei Nishikori retired with a lower back injury at Madrid but rose to No 10 in the ATP rankings. Dani Pozo / AFP
Kei Nishikori retired with a lower back injury at Madrid but rose to No 10 in the ATP rankings. Dani Pozo / AFP

“He’s the king of the clay,” Kei Nishikori said modestly, and with some reverence, as he talked about his Madrid Open final against Rafael Nadal. “So, hopefully, I can hang in there and try to play another good match.”

Yes – despite his recent losses on the surface, Nadal is the king of clay. There can be little debate about it. But if the Spaniard was expecting some respect from his Japanese opponent in the men’s final on Sunday, he must have been sorely disappointed.

Nadal looked anything but a king, as Nishikori raced through the opening set and came to within a few of strokes of winning his first Masters title.

Outhitting the strongest forehand in the game — 128 kph average to 119 kph — Nishikori was leading 6-2, 4-3 and 15-30 when he reached for a Nadal flick on his backhand side and broke into a limp. A moment later, he was on the floor in pain and receiving treatment. Nishikori had been troubled by a back injury in his past two matches, including a marathon, three-hour semi-final win over David Ferrer, and he had just aggravated it. He had to retire.

“It was very sad, especially since I was winning, playing almost the best tennis of my life — against Rafa,” Nishikori said.

It was sad end to the match, indeed, but it could be the start of a fascinating new phase in his career. The titles in Memphis and Barcelona, and his performance against Nadal in Madrid, suggest the Florida resident is ready to step into the big league.

He has become the first Asian to step into the men’s top 10 since Thailand’s Paradorn Srichaphan in March 2004. And with coach Michael Chang, who won the French Open as a 17 year old in 1989, guiding him, Nishikori could well be a dark horse at the French Open in two weeks.

Nadal does not look invincible on clay anymore. Novak Djokovic is struggling with a wrist injury and Andy Murray has looked out of sorts since his return from back surgery. Roger Federer could be distracted by the birth of twins, while Aussie Open winner Stanislas Wawrinka is still lacking consistency.

So, the portents look good for Nishikori.

“It’s going to be very exciting at [Roland Garros] because I never feel like this on clay,” he said. “I’m very confident of whatever I hit ... going for winners. I can hit from either side, forehand or backhand, so it’s very good feeling that I have on clay right now.”

If this feeling stays with him through the two weeks in Paris, the tennis world could be celebrating another blow to the hegemony of the Big Four. And the “King of Clay” could see his crown slipping.

arizvi@thenational.ae

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