STILL A LONG WAY OFF

Nishikori no closer to Grand Slam break­through

New Straits Times - - Sport -

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

Kei Nishikori was highly touted to be­come the first Asian man to win a Grand Slam ti­tle.

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