Bodo on Kei:
01/04/2011 - 2:05 PM
by Pete Bodo
It may be just Week 1 of the year, but some of the scores produced in these early days suggest that some players aren't especially interested in working into the flow, or pacing themselves. For them, the future is now. Case in point: Dinara Safina and Yanina Wickmayer, who played a real corker in Auckland yesterday, or tomorrow, or whenever it was (you know how they run the clocks down at the antipodes). But when the headline on a match contains the word "outlasts," you know the game is on.
Safina was not the only recently-injured player to bring her A game, and A motivation, to the first week of the year. The other day, Kei Nishikori of Japan via the IMG Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy hog-tied defending champ Marin Cilic in Chennai, 4-6, 7-6 (0), 6-2. "I’m a little bit disappointed the way I have started the year," Cilic admitted. "I wouldn’t say I played too bad … I didn’t have luck at crucial moments, the key points he played better than me."
Cilic has been one of the big young men lurking in the wings these past few years, while Roger and Rafa have shown no great desire to abandon the stage. Juan Martin del Potro, Tomas Berdych, Robin Soderling—all of them have matured more rapidly than Cilic. Although he hit a career-high No. 9 last February, partly on the strength of his win in Chennai and a semi at the Australian Open, the tall, raw-boned, rangy 22-year old Croatian was a bust at the other majors. He made the fourth round at Roland Garros, but lost his first match at Wimbledon and fell in a brutal, debilitating, suffocating second-round five-setter in intense heat and humidity at the U.S. Open to—Nishikori.
Cilic wilted in the heat in that one, 1-6 in the fifth. It was a big win for the 21-year old Japanese, who had missed most of 2009 with an elbow injury and had spent most of 2010 working his way back into the Top 100. Cilic, for his part, was hoping to retain his place in the elite Top 10 (Nishikori was more successful, as Cilic fell to No. 14 by year's end, while Nishikori once again became a double-digit man at No. 98).
It would be rash to say that Cilic is still heading south and Nishikori going north, but a mediocre showing in Melbourne combined with that first-round loss in Chennai would be a big blow to Cilic. For Nishikori, though, it's all up-side. You can look for him to bubble up swiftly in the rankings, given that he's got absolutely nothing to defend until late February. All in all, it's a tough time to be Cilic and a good time to be Nishkiori. Even better, now that the rising son has thrown in with Brad Gilbert.
At Bollettieri's, Nishikori was a roomate to Brad Gilbert's own kid, Zack. And Brad Gilbert's heavy and ever-increasing presence at the academy as one of Bollettieri's top inside men means that mentor and pupil can skip over the getting acquainted stage of a new coaching relationship. Still, as Gilbert told me this morning, "I need to watch Kei a little more, because it's different when you're the one calling shots or trying to make changes. But to me the most important thing is that Kei is just 21, which means that the mission right now is pretty simple. Get better, because you're young enough to. Work on a few things, take it slow because you have time."
Gilbert is commited to 15 weeks with Nishikori, none of which will be (officially, at any rate) at Grand Slam events, because at the majors Gilbert will have his hands full with the day job as an ESPN commentator. The men will get together in Adelaide in a few days time, and Gilbert will probably do the U.S. winter swing—San Jose, Memphis, Indian Wells, Key Biscayne. By the end of that stretch, Gilbert is likely to know every nook and cranny in Nishikori's game—and Kei will likely to be able to recite the batting average of every third baseman who ever hefted a bat for the Oakland A's.
"Kei has a great foundation," Gilbert said. "He's got outstanding groundstrokes, and good movement. But at his size (5-10, 150 lbs), he won't be able to rely on bombing aces. He'll need to be fitter than fit, ready to go out there and and stay there a long, long time. My gut feeling is that he'll need to get stronger, because that's the way he's going to maximize his game."
As he demonstrated in the win over Cilic in New York, Nishikori has the warrior gene. He's tough, and has perhaps over-emphasized the value of long, intense training sessions—the ball-whacking aspect of development. As his hiatus lengthened in 2009, some observers felt that he enjoyed the respite from competition a little too much. It would be understandable, because Nishikori was under significant pressure soon after he made his first big rankings move, shooting up more than 200 ranking positions in 2008 to finish as the youngest player in the Top 100.
That was big and welcome news, in Japan. Although his work was just beginning, Nishikori was the object of intense interest at home, and he pulled down some hefty sponsorships (with, among others, Nissan[sic] and Sony). The obligations that accompany such rewards are significant; combined with the years of full-on training at the Tennis Academy, they may have dulled Nishikori's enthusiasm and appetite. It's a common enough tale, especially in nations where the interest in tennis is keen and top players scarce. The right elbow injury gave Nishikori time—and a reason—to pull back and draw a good, long breath.
"One of the first big things Brad brings to the table for Kei is excitement," Bollettieri told me, describing his own role in the evolving Nishikori saga as that of "the grandfather."
"Brad may have had the ugliest game ever, but he had a lot of pizz-azz. I think he can get Kei to really enjoy what's doing. I think Brad's going to tell him, 'You gotta open up a little bit, be yourself, enjoy and appreciate what you're doing. I also believe Kei can benefit from having shorter practices. He no longer needs to go out there and grind it for five, six hours—not when he's out playing a full schedule on the tour. You can put in less time, especially if you make up for it in intensity."
Gilbert sees Nishikori as a "bulldog." He's already told his protege to watch and model himself on David Ferrer, or Nikolay Davydenko. These are the role models for a player with Nishikori's physique and skill (and power) set. "There are still smaller guys around who are successful," Gilbert said, "Just like there are 5-9 power pitchers in baseball."
After his win over Cilic, Nishikori also suggested that he knows the territory he must stake out. “Not to miss easy balls, not doing crazy stuff...(to play) more percentage tennis,” he told the AP. “In the second set I tried to make most of my first serves...I was making him move.”
It appears that the bulldog has the bone; he just needs to learn to enjoy gnawing on it.
Bodo, Nissan is not Kei's sponsor. I think he was quoting from Kei's profile page on ATP, which mistakenly lists Nissan as his sponsor. I think they confused Nisshin Foods with Nissan.