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Copyright April 2015 by Paul Fein

Will Kei Nishikori Win
A Grand Slam Title?

Anatomy may not always be destiny, but size matters more than ever in tennis. The last man under 6’ tall to win the Australian Open was groundstroker extraordinaire Andre Agassi in 2003. The 5’11”, 174-pound Agassi was a fitness fanatic so strong that he could bench press an amazing 310 pounds. At the French Open, the last sub-6-foot champion was unimposing 5’9”, 155-pound Gaston Gaudio in the pre-Nadal year of 2004. Gaudio upset another scrawny 5’9” Argentine, 145-pound Guillermo Coria, in a five-set marathon final. Nadal, whose muscular 6’1”, 190-pound physique resembles that of a football halfback, captured nine of the past ten titles at Roland Garros. His only loss there during the past decade came against 6’4”, 200-pound slugger Robin Soderling.

Lleyton Hewitt, a 5’11”, 170-pound counterpuncher without a huge weapon, owns the distinction of being the last sub-6-foot player to win both Wimbledon and the US Open. He used brilliant serve returns and passing shots to score a stunning upset over five-time champion and superstar Pete Sampras in the 2001 US Open final. In the most boring Wimbledon final in recent history, Hewitt out-rallied inexperienced, 20-year-old David Nalbandian in 2002. A year later, Hewitt was upset by 6’11” Ivo Karlovic in the Wimbledon first round.

Since 6’1” “Big Bill” Tilden overpowered 5’8” “Little Bill” Johnston to capture five of his record seven U.S. Championships in the 1920s, big men have almost always dominated the decades. The honor roll of all-time greats lists 6’2” Don Budge in the 1930s, 6’1” Jack Kramer in the 1940s, 6’3” Pancho Gonzalez in the 1950s, 6’2” Ivan Lendl in the 1980s, 6’1” Sampras in the 1990s, and 6’1” Roger Federer, Nadal, and 6’2” Novak Djokovic this century. The only exceptions were 5’8” Rod Laver, who played an aggressive serve-volley game with powerful topspin groundstrokes in the 1960s; and 5’10” Jimmy Connors, 5’11” Bjorn Borg, and 5’11” John McEnroe from the mid-1970s to mid-1980s.

Last year the Grand Slam champions were ruggedly built, power-hitting 6’, 185-pound Stan Wawrinka, Nadal, Djokovic, and 6’6,”, 196-pound Marin Cilic. The losing finalists were Nadal, Djokovic, Federer, and Kei Nishikori. The other semifinalists at the majors included 6’5”, 200-pound Tomas Berdych, 6’3” Ernests Gulbis, 6’3” Grigor Dimitrov, and 6’5”, 212-pound Milos Raonic.

At 5’10” and 163 pounds, Nishikori found himself in a severe size mismatch against the towering Cilic in the US Open final. In some sports, the odds for a small man are much more even against a big man. For example, in boxing and wrestling, combatants are divided into weight classes to ensure physical parity. Basketball players are divided, albeit less precisely, into five positions—center, power forward, small forward, shooting guard, and point guard—based mostly on height. So it just didn’t seem fair that Nishikori had to battle a foe eight inches taller and 33 pounds heavier. This time David didn’t slay Goliath. Cilic crushed Nishikori 6-3, 6-3, 6-3.

Height doesn’t always make might, though. Despite his 6’3” advantage, two-time major winner Andy Murray sometimes lacks the confidence and courage to hit hard, aside from his big first serve. Miloslav Mecir, a 6’3”, two-time major finalist in the 1980s, preferred to use finesse and guile. Conversely, Thomas Johansson, a strongly built 5’11” Swede, more than held his own in the power department when he upset 6’4” Russian Marat Safin in the 2002 Australian final.

This century, though, the size and power trend has been unmistakable. Just as 59 of the last 61 women’s Grand Slam singles titles have been grabbed by power players, the last 43 men’s majors have been claimed by heavy hitters, all 6’ or taller. “Bigger is better” and “Go big or go home” have been the operative slogans.

Can a Lilliputian buck this seemingly irreversible trend? Or will little guys become tennis dinosaurs, like wood rackets, chop shots, and white tennis balls?

Formidable Challenge

Just as 5’6” Simona Halep hopes to beat the odds and conquer the 5’10” to 6’2” “Big Babes” in women’s tennis, Nishikori faces the same formidable challenge on the men’s side.

Former world No. 1 Jim Courier believes he’ll succeed. “Nishikori is going to do it. He is going to be the first Japanese man to win a major,” confidently predicts Courier, now the U.S. Davis Cup captain and a Tennis Channel analyst. “I have no doubts about that, as long as he stays healthy. Frankly, I think he could win any of the four majors. He was putting a beat down [leading 6-4, 4-2] on Rafael Nadal in the [2014] Madrid final before his back went out on him. He won Barcelona [two weeks before that]. He can flat out play on clay.

“We know he can play well at the US Open. You can make a pretty good case that if he wasn't fatigued from playing 14 sets preceding the final, he’d have been the big favorite against [Marin] Cilic in that final. Nishikori had beaten Cilic in their three previous matches going into the US Open, but Nishikori was just playing on fumes in that final. Because of Nishikori’s three [grueling] matches, Cilic was the clear favorite.”

On Nishikori’s making the quarterfinals or better in 12 of his 18 tournaments in 2014 as well as the 2015 Australian Open quarters, Courier noted, “Nishikori has become extremely reliable. At the start of 2012, Nishikori was No. 25 in the world, and he bounced between 11 and 25 for a couple of years. And then Michael Chang got hold of [started coaching] him. And one year later he was No. 5 in the world and got as high as No. 4. There are no coincidences in that scenario. Chang has made him mentally tougher by also making him physically tougher—making him suffer more and making him believe in himself more.”

 Courier cites Nishikori’s backhand as a key reason for his optimism: “I rank Djokovic No. 1, Murray No. 2, and Nishikori tied with Nadal at No. 3 [for the best backhands]. Nishikori takes his backhand early, and that takes away time from his opponents [to react]. And in his US Open victory over Djokovic, his backhand was better than Djokovic’s.”

 Former world No. 4 Gene Mayer assesses Nishikori quite differently. “Frankly, I am amazed that Kei has both reached No. 5 and gotten there from the top 20 in only 15 months,” said Mayer, who coached Fabrice Santoro and Leander Paes, both 5’10”. “Overall, I would describe Kei’s game as an over-achieving junior game—in some ways most similar to Hewitt or Chang.

In order to contend at the top of the men's game, most players have had a big serve and/or forehand. Kei really has neither. He relies on speed, consistency, and an excellent backhand. Great backhands are very rarely used as a major weapon. “In order to regularly compete for Grand Slam titles, he will need to do two things,” stresses Mayer. “First, Kei will need to become more dangerous off the forehand. Second, he will need to hit spots better on his first serve and keep his second serve out of the easily hittable strike zone of his opponents. He may sneak [capture] a major without these additions, but it will take adding these elements to truly belong in the super class of the game.”

 Darren “Killer” Cahill, 1988 US Open semifinalist and former Australian Davis Cup player and coach (2007−2009), is optimistic about 25-year-old Nishikori’s chances. “Kei is different when he strides onto the court now. There’s a belief that he belongs with the big boys at the top of the game. Most of that belief has come from becoming a better athlete, and from working smarter, rather than harder,” explains Cahill.

“When others were going deep in majors, it was Kei’s body that was letting him down,” notes Cahill, a highly respected ESPN tennis analyst. “He’s always had speed, he’s always had a world-class backhand, and other parts of his game have improved. But with belief and fitness to back it up, he’s now placed himself into the mix [as a bona-fide contender] at any Grand Slam event.

“Kei is also better at utilizing his game more effectively and playing to his strengths,” points out Cahill, who coached Federer, Agassi, and Hewitt. “Chang deserves a lot of credit here. He’s teaching Kei to pay attention to what’s happening on the other side of the court as you don’t always have to play with risk while an opponent is self-destructing. He’s playing the odds [percentages] better, which has brought more reliable and consistent results. I think he will break through and win a major title, and it’ll be sooner rather than later.”

Why Nishikori will win at least one major title:

 Natural Talent — When Nishikori was 14, Courier went to the Bollettieri Tennis Academy and asked the teaching pros who the most talented prospect was. “They all said Nishikori, and that he could do everything, even serve and volley,” recalled Courier. In his 2014 book, Bollettieri: Changing the Game, Hall of Fame coach Nick Bollettieri wrote: “I have seen thousands of tennis players over the past 60 years and can identify only three who have had the gift of magic hands—Xavier Malisse, Marcelos Rios, and Kei Nishikori.” Another magical maestro agreed. After Nishikori upset Djokovic to make the US Open final, Federer said, “I always thought Kei was an unbelievable talent.”

Foot Speed — If Nishikori is not the fastest player in the sport, he’s right up there with speed merchants Gael Monfils, Djokovic, Nadal, Federer, and Murray. His low center of gravity and muscular legs generate much of that speed. At the US Open, by getting to the ball faster than Djokovic, Nishikori could be more aggressive with his shots than Djokovic. With one-time major winners Juan Martin del Potro, Wawrinka, and Cilic the exceptions, extremely fast players have captured 37 of the last 40 Grand Slam titles.

Great Backhand — I would disagree with Courier’s aforementioned backhand rankings and place Nishikori No. 2. His ability to hit down-the-line backhand winners regularly is especially important; it’s a weapon Murray, Federer, Raonic, and Dimitrov lack. Cahill rated Nishikori’s down-the-line backhand “the best in the game at the moment.” At the US Open, Tennis Channel analyst Justin Gimelstob pointed out, “The ultimate compliment paid Nishikori’s backhand is that Djokovic changed the pattern by slicing crosscourt backhands.”

Superior Fitness — Nishikori became a fitness fanatic as a boy. He would run up and down a flight of 41 stone steps near a small tennis club where he trained tirelessly on weekends and holidays. Neither the 90-degree heat nor the 50-percent humidity bothered the supremely fit Nishikori during his two-hour, 52-minute US Open duel with Djokovic. In the fourth set, Nishikori looked energized, while the more-rested Djokovic looked sluggish. That semifinal followed Nishikori’s consecutive four-hour-plus, five-set marathon matches against 5th-seeded Raonic and 3rd-seeded Wawrinka. The Raonic match ended at a record-tying 2:26 a.m. for lateness. In fact, of the five winners of US Open matches finishing after 2 a.m., only Nishikori won his next match. John McEnroe, the 1980s superstar and now a TV analyst, called the feat “one of the great all-time efforts I’ve ever seen.”

 Competitiveness —Nishikori has shown his heart in desperate times. It took him ten tough match points to finish off gritty David Ferrer in the 2014 Mutua Madrid Open semis. At the US Open, Cahill said, “It was a wonderful effort to come back and beat Wawrinka in five sets after his late match against Raonic.” When Nishikori battled back after being two points from defeat against Wawrinka, John McEnroe said, “No one will ever question Nishikori’s fitness again—or his heart.” The best competitors come through in the clutch, and Nishikori is a perfect 5-0 in five-set matches, 22-4 in the deciding set of three-set matches, and 25-15 in tiebreakers during 2014−2015.

The Chang Effect — Chang, hired as coach to complement Dante Bottini, is the son of Taiwanese parents, and he quickly made an “Asian Connection” with the reserved Nishikori. Even more important, Chang boosted his confidence. “He’s beaten everyone and I have constantly reminded him of that,” Chang told The Guardian (UK), after Nishikori gained the US Open final. “We have similar styles, so I have been able to advise him well with certain things. I keep telling him after every match: ‘We are not done yet.’ ” Chang also made a key change in Nishikori’s technique. “Michael realized,” wrote Bollettieri, “that magic hands were not enough, but would make a big difference in combination with the right leg work. He showed Kei exactly how to load from the ground up which, in turn, got his racquet below the ball. This allowed Kei to apply more height, depth, and spin, especially when he was out of position and behind the baseline.”

Why Nishikori will not win a major title:

 Golden Era — While the Big Four can’t reign forever, Federer is still defying Father Time with some superlative performances at age 33. Nadal, though hampered on and off by serious injuries, is still in his prime at 28, as are Djokovic and Murray at 27. Combined, they’ve won 37 of the last 40 majors and the last two Olympic gold medals.

Rising Stars — Like Nishikori, Raonic, 24, and Dimitrov, 23, burn with ambition to grab their first major title. Raonic lacks the natural talent of the elite stars, but his rocket serve can overpower anyone on a given day, while Dimitrov overflows with talent, but suffers from a weak backhand.

Next Generation — If not this year, by 2016 Nishikori will also be seriously threatened by 19-year-old Nick Kyrgios, who has already reached the quarterfinals at Wimbledon and the Australian Open, 18-year-olds Thanasi Kokkinakis and Borna Coric, and 17-year-old Alexander Zverev. 6’4” Kyrgios, 6’5” Kokkinakis, and 6’6” Zverev are dangerous power players, while 6’1” Coric, who has upset Nadal and Murray, displays all-court skills.

Lack of Size — Every year the locker room at ATP tournaments more and more resembles NBA locker rooms with nearly everyone standing from 6’ to 6’11”. The 5’10” Nishikori faces an uphill battle, particularly when serving because he hits very few aces and service winners, and when returning serve and playing net because of his shorter reach. After Nishikori defeated Ferrer 6-3, 6-3, 6-3 in the 2015 Australian Open fourth round, ESPN analyst and former U.S. Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe said: “I just love the way Nishikori is playing. He’s striking the ball cleanly, and he’s amped up his serve a little bit. That [his serve] is the only thing holding Nishikori back from being a top 3 player.” Tennis Channel analyst Paul Annacone, who coached Sampras, Federer, and Sloane Stephens, diagnosed a technique problem: “Kei’s arm is a little rigid on the serve. There’s not a lot of elasticity.”

 Versatility and Tactics — Nishikori boasts more than enough talent to be more versatile and tactical, and he can improve in those two areas. He should study how Federer creates openings with his versatile forehand, particularly sharp crosscourt shots, and then pounces on short balls, particularly opponents’ crosscourt shots that land near the middle of the court. Nishikori should also study how Nadal increases his topspin when he’s playing with the wind. Courier pointed out that “Nishikori’s forehand is wristy and timing-based”; so making it more consistent from all parts of the court is essential.

Grass and Clay — Nishikori has reached the fourth round only once at Roland Garros and Wimbledon, so he must improve significantly on clay and grass to win those titles. Chang, the 1989 French Open champion, should help enormously on clay, but Nishikori may never develop the game to be a Wimbledon contender because that takes either a superb serve or volley or other specific grass-court skills, none of which are Nishikori’s forte.

The Unknowns:

Luck of the draw — Marion Bartoli lucked out when she won Wimbledon in 2013. She benefitted from an extremely easy draw, never facing a top-15 player. An easy draw can result from relatively weak players in your half of the original draw, and also from seeded players being upset by unseeded players in your half of the draw. Would Nishikori have won the 2014 US Open if he didn’t have a brutal draw? Maybe.

 Unforeseen circumstances — Other kinds of luck, both good and bad, often play a role at two-week-long majors. They include weather problems, bad line calls, scheduling issues, changing court conditions (especially on grass and clay), injuries, and officiating mistakes. How well players handle these unforeseen happenings can make the difference between their winning and losing big matches.

Individual match-ups — The luck of the draw relates to seedings, too. Here are Nishikori’s career head-to-head records against nine top players: 2-4 vs. Djokovic, 0-7 vs. Nadal, 2-3 vs. Federer, 1-3 vs. Murray, 1-3 vs. Wawrinka, 2-0 vs. Dimitrov, 3-1 vs. Berdych, 5-2 vs. Raonic, and 7-4 vs. Ferrer. However, Nishikori can improve his draw, without depending on luck. If Nishikori can maintain his career-high No. 4 ranking, he’ll face seed 5, 6, 7, or 8 in the quarterfinals—rather than one of the top 4 seeds—and that will help his chances considerably.

The Verdict:

The best news for Nishikori is that his prime will outlast this Golden Era of men’s tennis. When some of the Big Four either decline or retire, Japan will definitely celebrate its first Grand Slam singles champion. The earliest that will happen is at the 2016 US Open.

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