Nishikori will lift tennis in Asia

11 May

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(Note: This piece was originally written during the week of February 17, 2014.)

I had a chance last weekend to watch Kei Nishikori take-on Ivo Karlovic in the final of the U.S. Men’s Indoor Championship in Memphis. The match provided a perfect contrast in styles. At 5’9”, Nishikori is a speed demon who depends on counter-punching and pin-point accuracy to slay more powerful opponents, while the 6’11” Karlovic is the tallest professional in tennis history and uses a bomb-like serve, go-for-broke forehand, and kamikaze style net-rushing to bludgeon adversaries into submission. This one was a pleasure to watch.

But as Nishikori methodically broke down his taller, less dynamic opponent and honed in on the title, an idea dawned on me, the implications of which extend well beyond Memphis and will shake men’s tennis its core: Japan’s Kei Nishikori will become the first Asian man to win a major single’s title.

The women’s game has already seen an onslaught of talented Asian women rise to the pinnacle of the rankings. China’s Li Na represents the best example, having captured two major titles, at the French and earlier this year in Australia, and recently reaching a career high ranking of two in the world. Other Asian women who have ascended to the top of the professional game include Peng Shuai of China and the Japanese duo of Kimiko Date-Strumm and Ai Sugiyama, in the 90s.

However, aside from a few flash-in-the-pan success stories, the upper echelons of men’s tennis have proven remarkably devoid of Asian men. Thai sensation Paradorn Srichapan cracked the top ten and reached a career high of 9 in 2003. And then there is your correspondent’s personal favorite, Taiwanese counter-puncher Yen-Hsun Lu, whose five-set win over Andy Roddick in the fourth round of Wimbledon in 2010 made him the first Asian male to reach the quarter-finals of a major since Shuzo Matsuoka in 1995 (Matsuoka peaked at number 46).

Lu’s Cinderella run on the lawns of the All England Club earned him a career-high ranking of 33 later in 2010, and he has hovered around the top 60 since then. But, if you want to find an Asian man who consistently resided in the top-25 of the men’s game, you’d have to go all the way back to the 70s and early 80s with India’s Vijay Amritraj. And even Armritraj is probably better known for his portrayal of the tennis-playing MI6 agent, Vijay, in the James Bond movie Octopussy than for his on-court prowess.

So, what’s the deal? Why can’t Asian men get it together on tour, and is there any reason to believe their performance will improve going forward? The answers are, respectively, “it’s unclear” and, “yes – in fact, there are three.”

As to the former question, theories abound as to why Asian men have not had more success in pro tennis. They’re too small. Tennis isn’t that popular in Asia. The regal connotation of the game doesn’t jive well with many Asian countries’ communist legacies. Et cetera. Et cetera.

Whatever the reason, there are reasons to believe Nishikori will break the mold. For starters, he’s got mad game. The guy has already risen to 11 in the world, and broke through to the quarters at the Australian Open in 2012. He’s scored victories over all-time great Roger Federer, former world number one Novak Djokovic, and turned heads pushing top seed Rafael Nadal in three tight sets in the fourth round of this year’s Aussie Open. The addition of French Open champion and former world number two Michael Change to Nishikori’s coaching box has instilled new discipline, and new confidence, into the Japanese’s game. With four titles and a few years of experience under his belt, Nishikori looks set to break through in 2014, perhaps by cracking the top ten or winning his first Master’s Series 1,000 title.

But it will take more than that to get the job done on tennis’ grandest stage. Fortunately, two seismic shifts are taking place in the tennis world that work decidedly in Nishikori’s favor.

The first is the decentralization taking place atop the men’s game. Balke Bros have argued before that the so-called “big four” theory to men’s tennis no longer works. That is, it no longer takes an act of God for someone other than Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, or Murray to strike it big on tennis’ grandest stages. Stanislisimo showed this can be done when he captured this year’s first major, Down Under, and it doesn’t require an enormous mental leap to think his triumph will be replicated during the remainder of this year.

The recession of big four dominance opens the door for lesser-known, if absurdly skilled, players to become major champions. Nishikori fits the bill. If he can work his ranking to eight or nine, he’ll start to get soft draws to the quarters, conserving vital energy for the majors’ second weeks. Plus, he’s a guy with a proven track record on the hard courts in Melbourne, which comes directly after pro tennis’ off-season, when the top players are a touch out of form and, thus, vulnerable to a highly-motivated, stingy challenger – like Nishikori.

But the final reason why I expect the might munchkin named Kei to make his major mark in Australia is because of all that is at stake: for Japan, for Asia, for a whole swath of humanity who remains shut out from men’s tennis glory. We saw the way the entire Chinese nation rallied around Li Na when she made her maiden major run at Roland Garros in 2011, and then again in Australia earlier this year. Fully 1.3 billion people hung on her every move. Each forehand symbolized a shot at national pride, a bid for greatness, a chance to show the world that it can actually dominate sports that people care about (no offense to table tennis (of which I’m a great fan) or badminton (which remains obscure to me)).

Yes, I am aware that Asia is far from a single, harmonious political unit, and am keenly aware, moreover, about that geopolitical tensions between China and Japan have risen to a fever pitch.

But, still – if Nishikori got going deep into the second week of a slam, I guarantee you that tennis fans across the continent will perk up with interest. And that matters greatly. What gets big in Asia gets big globally. A rise in tennis popularity on the continent could conceivably boost the game’s global followship by orders of magnitude.

Heading into that final in Melbourne, Nishikori will feel the pressure – but also the enormous winds of support – from a continent ready to break through. And he will want to be the one who makes the breakthrough, to write the story, to etch his name in tennis immortality. Great players rise to the occasion, and the stars are starting to align for Nishikori to reach the limelight.

Look for him to make his move by the Rio Olympics.

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