Kei Nishikori relishes challenge of young, but misses ‘idols’ Federer and Nadal

“I hope [Roger and Rafa] come back strong because they are my idols still, and I always love to play matches against them," says Kei Nishikori

Marianne Bevis
By Marianne Bevis in Basel

It is more than eight years since a fresh-faced, teenage Kei Nishikori announced his arrival on the tennis big stage with his first title, at the age of just 18.

It was Delray Beach and, as ESPN pointed out, the win would take the slight Japanese youngster from No244 to No122 in the rankings—the youngest player to win an ATP title since a 16-year-old Lleyton Hewitt in 1998.

By April that year, Nishikori had broken the top 100, made his Grand Slam and Olympic debuts at Wimbledon and Beijing, reached the fourth round at the US Open—scoring his first top-10 win along the way over David Ferrer—and ended the season with a semi run in Stockholm to become the youngest man in the top 100. Little wonder, then, that he won the 2008 ATP Newcomer of the Year Award.

But it quickly became apparent that the fast, nimble, 5ft10in figure of Nishikori would suffer more than its share of injuries. The very next year, he missed three of the four Majors and ended up having surgery to a troublesome elbow.

In 2012, he reached his first Major quarter-final in Australia, beat three top-10 opponents, ended the year at a career-best 19, but missed Madrid, Rome and Roland Garros with an abdominal injury.

Along with a first Grand Slam final run at the US Open in 2014 and a first Masters final in Madrid, he reached a new high of No5 in the rankings, but retired in Madrid and Miami with injuries. On grass the following summer, a calf injury forced retirements in Halle and Wimbledon, and he retired during his second match at the Paris Masters.

And 2016 has been little different: first a rib injury during Halle and Wimbledon, and then a hip injury in Tokyo. But while he has yet to make the ultimate breakthrough to Grand Slam victory that many predicted, the now 26-year-old is far from being out of the reckoning. Indeed even with those injuries, the man who can no longer walk the streets of Japan without sunglasses, such is his superstar status there, is enjoying an outstanding season.

Already he is closing in on his most match-wins in a season, 53 and counting. He reached a total of 54 in each of the last two years. He made the semis of the US Open with a stunning five-set victory over Andy Murray, reached the finals of two Masters, and made sure of qualification for the World Tour Finals well before the current rush for points took off.

And Murray is not his only win this year over possible London contenders: There was Gael Monfils in Rio, Stan Wawrinka in Toronto, Dominic Thiem in Rome—plus Rafael Nadal, who has withdrawn from contention.

But the first question for Nishikori in Basel this week was, predictably, about his recent injury?

“Feeling pretty good actually. I had a good training session these two weeks and actually recovered really quick, maybe only one week. And after that, I started working and training and practice hitting too.”

He has completed only one match since the US Open, which in the intense closing stages of the season may prove to be a bonus ahead of the World Tour Finals. And the absence of Roger Federer and Nadal may also open a window of opportunity not just for Nishikori but for one of the newer faces in London.

“Yes, I hope I can finish strong in last three tournaments [Basel, Paris, London], but I know at the end of the season, everybody is going to get tired. It’s never easy playing 100 percent whole year.

“Novak [Djokovic] has been almost playing 100 percent for the last two or three years. For sure he’s going to recover soon and he’s going to get back strong again. It’s a little bit sad not to see Roger and Rafa. Little bit sad for tennis, but I know many young guys are coming up right now… I know everything is changing.”

And for Nishikori, despite having wins over so many of the top men, Djokovic has remained impregnable. Not since the Japanese man upset the No1-ranked Serb at the US Open in 2014 has he won—that’s nine losses on the bounce. Nishikori allowed himself a smile: “Beating Andy in New York gave me a lot of confidence and playing another good match against Stan. But I haven’t beaten Novak for a long time: He’s my next challenge!”

Nishikori will need to be both fit and full of confidence if he is to take that next step, and do so before the chasing pack of younger men beats him to the biggest prizes. He has plenty of time—witness the late-career blooming of Wawrinka and that Gael Monfils, at the age of 30, may qualify for the World Tour Finals for the first time. So while Nishikori rues the absence of two of the stalwarts, he has time for a glance over his shoulder, too.

“I hope [Roger and Rafa] come back strong because they are my idols still, and I always love to play matches against them, even though they are strong. I get good experience and motivation playing against them. For sure we need them to come back strong.

“But me and Milos [Raonic] are top five right now. It’s great to see a new challenge for young guys to be top four, to have a chance, and break through the rankings.”

He gave a particular shout-out to 23-year-old Thiem, who has 56 match-wins and four titles this year, and occupies one of the remaining three slots for London.

Also in the chase is 25-year-old David Goffin, but there are others young risers who may launch their challenge next year not just for London qualification but for deep runs at the Majors: Nick Kyrgios, Lucas Pouille and Alexander Zverev are all younger than Thiem, all in the top 20 and all big talents.

For now, though, a healthy Nishikori—once he has knocked the rust off his tennis, as he began to do in his opener in Basel—is perhaps as good a bet as any to break the stranglehold of this year’s Grand Slam champions, Djokovic, Murray and Wawrinka, come the year’s finale.

Nishikori next plays either Nicolas Mahut of Paolo Lorenzi, before a possible quarter-final contest with Goffin or another man who has had more than his share of injury, and who also won his first title as a teenager. Juan Martin del Potro could upset a lot of ambitions in the closing weeks of 2016.

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