By Jordan Ikeda
It was inevitable. There was no way that someone ranked outside the top 20 was going to somehow maneuver his way through three of the best tennis players the game has ever seen to capture his first slam.
But what a ride.
Kei Nishikori fell 6-3, 6-3, 6-1 to Andy Murray on Wednesday in the Australian Open, and despite the seemingly lopsided score, Nishikori made the world No. 4 work much harder than he would have liked.
Entering the match, disadvantages abounded for Japan’s young tennis star. Above anything else, Murray is flat out a better tennis player. When on his game, the 25-year-old Scot has the potential to beat any member of tennis’ elite class made up of Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, and Roger Federer. Due to his favorable schedule, some believe Murray has a chance to win the Australian Open this year.
For Nishikori, there was never a doubt. He wasn’t going to win.
In addition to a game that needs improvement to make that type of jump, Nishikori had played 14 sets over his past three matches including his five-setter on Monday against world No. 6 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Murray breezed through the third and fourth rounds.
Also, perhaps against sound judgment, Nishikori played in a mixed doubles match on Tuesday with his tennis idol Kimiko Date Krumm. While Nishikori blamed his tired legs on his four-hour match against Tsonga, one has to suspect the extra time in the sun with Krumm, on the hottest day of the tournament, sapped some of his energy.
Any additional energy would have helped, because at times, Nishikori seemed bothered by the bright sunshine and 75-degree temperature. He wore an ice pack on his shoulders and neck during changeovers and deliberated for long moments between serves. Murray, who is in phenomenal shape, appeared unaffected by the weather.
Still, it took Murray nearly an hour to capture the first set from his 22-year-old opponent—an epic 42-stroke rally during the second game of the match that Murray ended up winning a microcosm of how things went between the two. There were flashes of brilliance from Nishikori, who occasionally outhit Murray, but overall, he lacked the stamina to sustain any sort of control over the game.
The second set was almost as long the first, and ended with similar results. Still, the outcome was never in doubt, and the bottom line has Murray into the semifinals against Djokovic.
As for Nishikori, his journey to the quarters is encouraging on many fronts. Despite his disadvantages, he battled hard against Murray, and gave himself several chances that would have made the outcome a lot closer. He had a much better first-serve percentage (60 to 44), had 30 winners to Murray’s 36, but also committed 39 unforced errors to Murray’s 27. Certainly nothing for him to hang his head about.
After all, Nishikori became the first Japanese man to reach an Australian Open quarterfinal in 80 years. He was also the lowest-ranked player in the Australian Open’s final eight, and missed out on becoming Japan’s first Grand Slam semifinalist since mixed doubles partner Date-Krumm reached the last four at Wimbledon in 1996.
For the first time in 11 Grand Slams, Nishikori was seeded. In his second-round win over Australia’s Matthew Ebden, he came back from two sets down for only the second time in his career, and has now won all five of his most recent five-set matches.
Finally, he’s projected to reach a career-high ranking of No. 20 next week when the ATP World Tour Rankings are released. No Japanese male has been ranked higher.
Though disappointed, he said he was excited to have achieved his first goal of 2012 – to reach the top 20.
“I can’t believe it’s already done, [in only] two months… it was [a] fantastic week for me,” he smiled, adding he would set small goals, aiming next for the top 15. “To win a Grand Slam, I have to be fitter,” he added. “I have to be really smart because I’m not the biggest guy on tour. I need a lot of speed because I don’t have much power.”
To his credit, Murray came away acknowledging Nishikori’s improved all-court game.
“I think he is a clever player on the court, he’s quick … he’s playing the best tennis of his career,” said the world No. 4. “The only difference is the height. For me, I can get more on my serve because of my height.”