Barcelona 2014: Kei Nishikori races to first clay title and top-12 ranking

Kei Nishikori claims his fifth career title after beating Santiago Giraldo to win the Barcelona Open

kei nishikori
Kei Nishikori won his first clay title on Sunday Photo: Marianne Bevis

Spanish players have, for over a decade, dominated proceedings at the oldest tennis club in Spain, and this week in Barcelona they looked set to do so again.

The line up featured the world No1 and eight-time Barcelona champion Rafael Nadal, the evergreen No5 David Ferrer, who brought his title tally to 21 with the clay Buenos Aires title in February, the elegant No18 Tommy Robredo, winner of 11 clay titles, and last year’s losing finalist, and No20 Nicolas Almagro, owner of 12 clay titles from 21 clay finals.

But one by one, the Spaniards all fell by the wayside, the last of them, Almagro, falling in the semis to the one of the most unexpected names to reach the final, the No65-ranked Colombian Santiago Giraldo.

Giraldo had survived the third seed Fabio Fognini and then the 10th seed Philipp Kohlschreiber—both by retirement—before rising to the Almagro challenge with spirit and power. But he had yet to win a title of any kind.

His opponent would be No17 Kei Nishikori, and the Colombian’s task was a formidable one. The Japanese man exhibited huge talent from the very start of his career. He won his first title, aged 18, in 2008 to become the youngest player in the top 100 by the end of the year. Despite elbow surgery the next year, he ended 2011 at No25 and, still aged just 22, ended 2012 at No19 after winning his home Tokyo title.

But a career-high No11 last summer was knocked by more injury problems, and brought a slip in the rankings. This year, though, under the guidance of former Grand Slam champion Michael Chang, Nishikori arrived in Barcelona already with the Memphis title in February and wins over both Ferrer and Roger Federer in Miami. And on the Spanish clay, he deployed his elegant and explosive game to great effect in beating high-quality opponents Marin Cilic and Ernests Gulbis for the combined loss of only 10 games.

Giraldo, though, had some cause for optimism, aside from his strong showing over Almagro. His only meeting with Nishikori on clay came at Roland Garros four years ago—and the Japanese man had to come back from two sets down to win the third in a tie-break and subsequently the match. The Colombian also managed a straight-sets win over Nishikori in Indian Wells in 2012.

And for a short time, it looked as though he was more than ready for another big scalp, breaking Nishikori in the second game. But he lost his composure serving in the third when a bad call—by line-judge and subsequently also by the umpire—put him 15-30 down instead of 30-15 up, and in the blink of an eye, the ultra-calm Nishikori broke back.

It was just what the doctor ordered: The Japanese man settled into his beautiful rhythmic hitting, making his characteristic flat, angled, incisive drives to both side-lines and, to mix things up, the occasional backhand arrow down the line or delicate drop-shot.

He outplayed Giraldo through a long, probing rally to break with a backhand winner, broke again with an inch-perfect forehand cross-court pass and, in little more than half an hour, served out the set, 6-2.

Nishikori had played not a single point at the net in winning almost two-thirds of the points, but that belied the variety and quality of his tennis. He is nimble and balanced in his movement, efficient and smart in his shot-making—and he is a shot-maker, as Giraldo found to his cost on his own second serve.

Come the second set, the pressure on the Colombian’s serve became increasingly clear as his level dropped to below 50 percent on first serve, and Nishikori stepped in to attack the second serve time and again, winning 11 out of 15 points. The Japanese man broke in the opening game, and although Giraldo stopped the run of eight straight games with a hold in the third, he could not turn the tide.

Nishikori broke again and wavered only once with his only double fault of the match on his way to serving out the set, 6-2.

This was his fifth title, but his first on clay, and he looked increasingly comfortable on the red dirt as the week went on. That the next clay Masters is on the faster conditions of Madrid should suit his attacking game even better. It is, after all, the one where hard-court champions have found the greatest clay success: Federer is a three-time champion, while Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray have also won in the Spanish capital.

For now, though, these valuable 500 Barcelona points take this exciting player back to No12 in the rankings and, with modest points to defend in Madrid—a quarter-finalist last year—and in Rome—where he lost in the second round—he could make a bid for a top-eight seeding ahead of Roland Garros, as long as he stays injury free.

Certainly his various top-10 victims of the last 12 months—Federer twice, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Ferrer—will hope they do not have to meet him before the quarters of any of he coming tournaments.

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