Kei Nishikori became the first Japanese man to enter the top ten of the ATP rankings after his run to the Madrid final a couple of weeks ago. That run and his current status in the tennis elite make this French Open the slam he will contest with the most expectations on him. It will also be the first time he will go into a Slam as one of the hunted elite and not one of the hunters chasing down a big scalp.
In that Madrid final, Nishikori took on tennis’ King of Clay, Nadal, and, for a set and two thirds, bettered him. The sight of Nishikori letting rip on his forehand and backhand and bullying Nadal was one to behold, and had it not been for a groin injury forcing Nishikori to retire, the Japanese might have won his first ATP 1000 title.
Nishikori’s performance on the red clay of Madrid was not so surprising considering his record on the red stuff. He made the finals of the Clay court event in Houston in 2011, beat Roger Federer in Madrid in 2013, and the week before this season’s Madrid, he won the title in Barcelona. And after two second round defeats at Roland Garros, he improved his record by making the last sixteen last year.
Now, with his lead up performances to the French Open being so impressive, Nishikori has the pressure on him to perform where it really matters: Roland Garros. The Japanese has some decent pedigree at the slams so he will not be too overwhelmed, not in the first week at least. He made the fourth round of only his second ever Slam at the 2008 U.S Open, reached the quarter-finals of the 2012 Australian Open, and made the last sixteen at three of the last five Slams.
And he has beaten some big names on the way, too. At the US Open 2008, ranked 126th, he knocked out fourth seed David Ferrer 7-5 in the fifth set in the third round. A year later, as a qualifier, he put out 13th seed Marin Cilic in another five set epic. At the 2012 Australian Open, he beat 2008 finalist Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.
But, while some of his slam results have been impressive, he has had his fair share of bad losses too. Ranked 12, he was knocked out of the first round at last year’s US Open by qualifier Daniel Evans.
Nishikori has also suffered big losses when he has gone far in Majors, going down in straights to Murray in Melbourne in 2012, winning only seven games, and could claim only eight games against Rafael Nadal in last season’s French Open last sixteen.
This year, however, Nishikori pushed Nadal to the brink in three tight sets in their Australian Open last sixteen encounter and he has the momentum on his side to put those past big losses on the big stage aside and make this French Open about big wins. His current top ten ranking will certainly help him. Ranked ten, Nishikori will avoid Nadal, Djokovic, Federer and Wawrinka in the last sixteen. He could face either one of Ferrer, Berdych, Murray or Raonic in that round instead.
The Japanese has proven he can handle Ferrer on clay, beating him in three sets in the recent Madrid semi-final. Berdych did beat him on Clay in Monte Carlo in 2012 but Nishikori leads their head to head 3-1. He also leads Raonic 2-0 and beat him in Madrid. Murray would be the toughest opposition as Nishikori has lost to him easily in their three meetings. However, Murray is still struggling, and Nishikori is the more in-form of the two, his ground strokes finally tuned after an impressive season which also saw him beat an in-form Federer in three tough sets in Miami.
Nishikori also has an off court weapon as strong as the groundstrokes he pounds on the court- Michael Chang. The former world no.2 won the Roland Garros title in 1989, coming from nowhere, and made the final six years later. Nishikori will have not only his own recent clay court expereience to draw upon, but also the lenghty one of his coach. That experience could prove vital as Nishikori enters the French Open as a contender rather than a player capable of upsetting a top seed. This year Nishikori will be among the hunted and Japan and the tennis world await to see if he can break free from the chasing pack and go deep into the second week of a slam for the first time.
Commentary by Christian Deverille