STILL A LONG WAY OFF
Nishikori no closer to Grand Slam breakthrough
KEI Nishikori stood on the brink of history after sweeping into the 2014 US Open final, but three years later he is no closer to becoming the first Asian man to win a Grand Slam singles title.
The Japanese star was ruthlessly defeated in straight sets by Marin Cilic in New York to prevent him from emulating Chinese icon Li Na, who conquered Roland Garros in 2011 and the 2014 Australian Open before signalling her retirement.
Nishikori’s run to the 2015 quarter-final at the French Open remains his best showing in Paris, and a turbulent clay-court season for the World No 9 has tempered expectations ahead of the year’s second major.
A wrist injury forced Nishikori to withdraw from Barcelona — where he won in 2014 and 2015 — before the problem resurfaced ahead of a quarter-final showdown with Novak Djokovic at the Madrid Masters.
An early loss in Rome, albeit to the mercurial talents of Juan Martin del Potro, hardly reinforced his confidence.
But Nishikori, whose coaching team includes 1989 French Open champion Michael Chang, remains a firm believer in his ability to compete with the best on clay.
“Clay suits my tennis. I can use many different shots,” said Nishikori, ahead of a final Roland Garros tune-up in Geneva.
“I used to really like clay when I was a junior, but when I turned pro I kind of knew how tough it was to play on clay with the top level guys.
“But now I have more confidence playing on clay and I think I can play really good on clay with my tennis. I really like to play on this surface now.
“(Chang)” is giving me a lot of good tips on the clay court... For sure it’s getting better. I think every year I have better results.”
Nine of his 11 career titles have come on hard courts, but Nishikori hopes a deep run in Geneva can spark a revival in fortunes.
“It’s great to have some matches (in Geneva). Hopefully I can win the tournament. I think it’s important to play well this week and get some confidence for next week.
“Even if I don’t win, I’ll try to have a good couple of matches here and get ready for next week,” he said.
Nishikori has little competition as Asia’s standout player, with compatriots Yoshihito Nishioka (69th) and Yuichi Sugita (77th), as well as South Korea’s Hyeon Chung (68th) the only other players from the continent inside the top 100.
Li Na’s retirement in 2014 left a cavernous void in the women’s game, and China has been waiting for her successor to step forward ever since.
Peng Shuai battered her way into the last four of that year’s US Open, while Zhang Shuai fought through qualifying to make the 2016 Australian Open quarter-finals.
But those performances are very much outliers, with Zhang Shuai, the World No 34, currently the highest-ranked Asian woman.
However with Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova absent, and both World No 1 Angelique Kerber reigning Roland Garros champion Garbine Muguruza struggling for form, the conditions are as ripe as ever for an unexpected breakthrough. AFP
I used to really like clay when I was a junior, but when I turned pro I kind of knew how tough it was to play on clay with the top level guys.
Kei Nishikori was highly touted to become the first Asian man to win a Grand Slam title.