Three things Nishikori must do to win a major

11 May

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Back in February, I wrote, but didn’t publish, a piece predicting that Japanese tennis star Kei Nishikori will win a major title. Until recently, many scoffed at the idea as yet another example of this Balke Bro getting overly excited about a player who has big potential but will, for whatever reason, fail to reach the level of the game’s elite. That’s fair, yet, with Nishikori making the final of this week’s Masters Series 1000 event in Madrid and becoming the first Japanese man to crack the top 10, the notion of the 24-year-old evolving into a major champion suddenly seems more realistic. This piece analyzes what it will take for the Asian sensation to get over the top. I argue that Nishikori needs to make strides in three areas: taking control with his forehand; closing out points at the net; and stamina, both physical and cardiovascular.

From the baseline, Nishikori is a force. He hits his forehand with impressive depth, spin, and angle, neutralizing opponents and often putting them in a defensive position. However, when it’s time to go on offense, something curious happens. Nishikori gets erratic, indecisive, and at times puzzling nonchalant.

Indeed, there seems to exist an inverse correlation between the Japanese’s proximity to the net and the offensiveness of his position, on one hand, and the consistency and effectiveness of his forehand, on the other. Shockingly seldom does Nishikori step in and just bludgeon a short forehand for a winner. Instead, he is prone to yank them wide or get casual and let his opponents off the hook by hitting a ball with little pace that allows them to get back into the point.

Nishikori often reverts to a “flying forehand,” wherein he leaps off the left foot to attack a short ball. This is possibly the coolest shot in tennis. But what it offers in flare, it lacks in substance, with many of these shots landing relatively harmlessly close to opponents and enabling them to regain the initiative.

Nadal, Djokovic, and Fed put short forehands away with inhuman consistency, kind of like Michael Jordan hitting that free throw with his eyes closed. Leaving a ball short against these players means you can pretty much start getting ready for the next point. To take the next step in his tennis ascent, Nishikori needs to follow their lead, and turn short forehands into point-enders.

Second, the net game. Nishikori is so explosive from the baseline off of both wings that he often leaves opponents scrambling around and coughing-up weak replies. The best players in the game quickly recognize and instantly pounce on such softballs, blasting approaches and sprinting after them to the net to feast on a sitter volley they can knock off to win the point.

For some reason, Nishikori shows reluctance to do this. Even when he has opponents on a rope, he is more content to kick back at the baseline to take their low-pace desperation saves than to chase his thunderous groundstrokes into net in search of a volley. One reason for this could be that, at 5’8″, Nishikori is afraid that on-the-run opponents will simply throw up a lob that he cannot reach. But even if that concern were well-founded, Nishi could fake a charge and then hang out at the service line to take the lob either as an overhead or swinging volley, the latter of which he hits with great comfort and explosive power.

Plus, the lob replies are not as common as Nishikori’s thumb-twiddling from the baseline would suggest. The most common instinct of players on the run is to try to send a scorching passing shot by their opponent up the line or via short angle. It’s an easier shot to pull off than the top-spin lob, for instance, which demands uber-precision and has next to nil in terms of margin for error.

Nishikori is actually a pretty good, even above-average, volleyer, and displays good feel and technique when he does come to net. Challenging players to go against their instincts and throw up lobs to fend off his net charges will, I think, allow Nishikori to start shortening points he currently tries to win by way of hitting punishing blow after punishing blow from the baseline.

If I were Nishikori, I would work a little more doubles play into my regimen, to gain valuable experience, and comfort, with a style of play where victory is determined by who gets to the net first. The downside of this would be that adding doubles to his agenda would add physical strain to a body that has seen more than its fair share of wear and tear, which leads me to my third point.

Nishikori needs to get stronger. He seems fragile. At 24, the Japanese has already encountered an uncommonly high number of injuries, including in key moments, such as before the semi-final of this year’s Masters Series event in Miami, after Nishikori had just knocked-off Federer in a three-set thriller and seemed poised to challenge Dkokovic for his best-ever result at a high-level tourney. Citing a groin injury, he withdrew from the tournament and had to take a number of weeks off to recuperate.

Now, counter-punchers like Nishikori, who rely on mobility and grit to grind down harder-hitting players, typically place more strain on their bodies than powerful counterparts, which makes injuries more common. However, it seems like every other match that goes deep sees Nishikori calling for the trainer.

This happened in the Japanese’s titanic victory over David Ferrer in Madrid, a “hello, world – I’ve arrived” match for Nishikori, but one that required him to get lower-back rubs from the trainer during two changeovers. Nishikori was in visible pain toward the end of the second set. At the start of the third, he stopped chasing down balls he’d attempted to corral earlier in the match.

I’m not sure what weight training program the Japanese is on, but it’s clear that more attention or a more effective approach to this area is needed to keep the player healthy over the two-week pain-fest one must endure to win a major.

Cardiovascularly, too, Nishikori betrays signs of weakness on-court; the guy is always huffing and puffing after points. This is understandable, given that his style of play often sees him get into 25- and 30-ball exchanges that drag him all over the court. Even paragons of fitness like Novak Djokovic occasionally fall to the ground in exasperation after a particularly grueling sequence.

But Nishikori’s endurance issues bleed into his game and have practical consequences. He was issued a time violation warning deep in the match with Ferrer for taking too long between points. A second violation would have resulted in Nishikori forfeiting a point at a key moment.

There’s also the psychological edge that visible fatigue gives one’s opponent, who starts to believe that if they can just hang around long enough, they’ll have a chance to win the match. I’m not saying Nishikori needs to take his conditioning program to Djokovic-ian extremes, and start sucking on avocado smoothies and saltless tree bark for sustenance. But I am saying the Japanese could stand to run a few more hills and hit the wind-sprint pain-train a little more often. Gil Reyes, anyone?

To be sure, some will argue that more important than any of the factors I’ve mentioned above is Nishikori’s serve, which, while not a liability – he can get it up into the 120s with decent regularity – is certainly not a weapon either. But this places too much emphasis both on the determinative impact of serves in winning majors, and on the ability of players – even the best – to significantly improve them.

The dawn of new racquet technology over the last 25 years has tilted the serve-return advantage pendulum decisively in favor of the latter. Andre Agassi returned his way to eight major titles; Lleyton Hewitt, a counter-puncher with a mediocre serve, won Wimbledon, where power commands the greatest premium; and stars like Nadal and Djoker have racked up major titles with serves that are good, but certainly not great.

I’m not saying that serves no longer matter at the majors. Obviously, possessing exceptional serves played a crucial role in Sampras and Federer’s grand slam success. I’m just saying that, today, lacking a bomb doesn’t necessarily preclude you from winning at the highest level.

Plus, significantly improving one’s serve is really hard! Two factors seem like reasonable metrics to use in gauging improvements on one’s serve: speed and first-serve consistency. In terms of the former, there are only so many technical tweaks one can make and additional strengthening one can do before their serving speed caps out and/or these changes start to reek net-negative effects on other parts of their game.

In terms of the latter – first-serve consistency – it just comes down to in-match dynamics. No one in the upper echelon of professional tennis lacks for practice. All have hit millions and millions of serves. Serving an extra basket of balls a couple times a week during pre-match workouts will at best add marginal percentage points to one’s in-match first-serve percentage.

A much more important dynamic, actually, is how much confidence a player has that the rest of their game will solidly back-up their mediocre serve and allow them to win points quickly. This reinforces the importance of Nishikori improving the factors I mentioned earlier, particularly taking control on short forehands and closing out more points at the net. Michael Chang, who now sits in the Japanese’s coaching box, switched to a longer racquet late in his career to add extra pop to his serve, and it did little to help him win a second major. Rafa switched service grips at the 2010 U.S. Open to up the MPH, and while he did win his first title that year at Flushing, it came amidst a career year in which he won a total of three majors; in other words, Rafa’s solid overall play and momentum likely proved more crucial in his success at the Open than tinkering with his serving grip.

As he takes to the court today against Nadal in his first Masters Series final, Nishikori has a chance to claim his biggest title to date and take an important step toward doing something no Asian man in history has ever done: win a major. But reaching the mountaintop of tennis glory will require the Japanese to make important, medium-term adjustments to his game, get more physically fit, and build endurance. This Balke Bro has confidence that Nishikori’s up to the task. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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