Rafael Nadal is the singles champ of Madrid for a record fourth time, and he deserves all the praise that will be heaped upon him for the accomplishment. But the man he subdued to take the final deserves a tremendous amount of credit as well. Not to be outdone, he established a record of his own.
Runner-up Kei Nishikori has become the first Japanese man to crack the elite top 10 in the ATP rankings. If his shy 24-year-old game isn’t exactly comparable to Nadal’s, his spirit is. Nishikori, who developed his ultimate grinder’s game at the IMG Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy, is as willing as Nadal to roll up his proverbial sleeves and do whatever it takes, or to wait however long it takes, to win a match.
Also like Nadal, Nishikori has had to endure and overcome significant pain and injury at key moments in his career in order to keep and/or improve upon his place in the game. "I'm very sorry for Nishikori," Nadal told the press after Nishikori had to quit the final because of a back injury with Nadal leading 3-0 in the third set.
“"He's an unbelievable player that will fight to be in London [at the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals]. I am sure of that.”
Note that the things Nadal chose to emphasize in the seemingly routine comment are the fact that Nishikori will “fight” and that he will do his utmost to show up for London. That’s code for “This guy isn’t going away anytime soon.”
It would seem that if Nadal’s analysis is proved overly optimistic, it will only be because Nishikori’s spirit is sometimes more willing than his body.
Nishikori won his first ATP title in 2008, and he moved up some 200 places on the computer to finish the year as the youngest player in the year-end top 100. (He was barely 19 and ranked No. 81.) Just three months into the following year, Nishikori was sidelined by a right elbow injury. He’d been struggling, and he fell to No. 106 before he called it quits and left the tour for the year. Nishikori tried to avoid surgery, but he finally went under the knife in August.
Because he waited so long to have surgery, Nishikori didn’t return until April of 2010 -- by which time was off the ranking tables. Down in the minor leagues of the Challenger tour, he earned four titles and went 27-4, good enough to get back up to No. 244. He also knocked out Santiago Girlado at the French Open and, as a qualifier at the US Open, Nishikori beat Evgeny Korolev and Marin Cilic, the latter in a marathon that fell just one minute shy of the five-hour mark. But a groin injury forced him to pull out of that major before he played his third-round match.
Nishikori had his best year in 2011, climbing all the way to a year-end ranking of No. 25. When he reached No. 20 in October, he displaced one of his mentors and an idol, Shuzo Matsuoka, as the highest-ranked Japanese player of the Open era. The most striking thing about his record was Nishikori’s impressive 3-5 record against top-10 opponents.
Last year, Nishikori climbed even higher. He cracked the top 20 (year-end ranking: 19) and he became the first Japanese very to win his own nation’s most prestigious Japan Open tournament. He kept his place through 2013 and seemed poised to jump to the next plateau (the top 10).
He played solid tennis early this year to win Memphis. In Miami, he outdueled No. 16 seed Grigor Dimitrov, No. 4 David Ferrer and No. 5 Roger Federer to book a place in the semifinals, but he had to issue a walkover to No. 2 seed Novak Djokovic with a groin injury.
The latest injury caused him to miss Japan’s home Davis Cup tie against the defending champs, the Czech Republic (the Czechs ultimately shut out Japan. 5-0). But when Nishikori returned to the tour, he won the tournament that is unofficially considered the Spanish national championships, the ATP 500 of Barcelona.
That he was able to recover from his Miami injury to win Barcelona so quickly is a good sign, given that he had to quit again in the Madrid final. Unless this latest injury is worse than it appears, Nishikori is going to pose a serious threat at the French Open. I think even odds-on favorite Rafael Nadal would acknowledge that.