Novak Djokovic vs Kei Nishikori preview: Nishikori's difficult journey to the top

Japanese plays Djokovic tomorrow having adapted his game to cope with stature

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The Independent Online

Kei Nishikori’s early days at Nick Bollettieri’s IMG Academy in Florida were not promising. “He came to us when he was 13 going on 14,” Bollettieri recalled here today. “He was scared to death. He couldn’t speak a word of English and because of the language problem he just wouldn’t talk. He was very stoic. He never smiled. He missed his parents and he missed his food.”

Ten years on and Nishikori is one of the shining lights of the academy Bollettieri founded at Bradenton. Earlier this year the 24-year-old Japanese became the first man from his country to be ranked in the world’s top 10 and today he becomes the first to play in the semi-finals of the US Open since Ichiya Kumagae 96 years ago. When he takes on Novak Djokovic, the world No 1, Nishikori will also become the country’s first male singles semi-finalist at any Grand Slam tournament since Jiri Satoh made the last four at Wimbledon in 1933.

To reach today’s semi-finals Nishikori had to play gruelling five-set matches in his last two rounds, against Milos Raonic and Stan Wawrinka. However, he will have had three days to recover since his quarter-final and believes the tough tests he has faced can only help him. “I have a lot of confidence playing in the fifth set of matches,” Nishikori said. “I am concentrating more and my tennis is getting better playing in the fourth or fifth sets. These two matches are going to help for sure.”

The transformation of Nishikori from a painfully shy schoolboy into one of the best players in the world has been a long process, but the end result is a hugely talented individual who has become one of the most exciting men to watch.

“Kei has hands and feet that are as good as anybody who has ever played the game of tennis,” Bollettieri said. “At 5ft 10in he’s one of the smallest guys on the tour, but he has weapons. He’s not afraid to come to the net. He’s added about eight to nine miles per hour on his serve, though I’d like to see him add even more.

“He’s a shot-maker and the crowds love him. He has a big forehand and a big backhand. Now he’s starting to come to the net a lot more. I think he has to do that. He’s very good at reading where the ball is going to come and he has a very sound volley. He’s only just turned 24, so he still has time to develop.”

Nishikori first went to Florida as part of a development programme for young Japanese players run by Masaaki Morita, a senior executive at Sony. Although he took time to settle, his talent was soon evident. At 18 he claimed his first title, though it was four years before he won another tournament. For every step forward he made one backwards as a succession of injuries stalled his progress, with a right elbow problem particularly troublesome in his early years.

Throughout his career he has had a strong team around him, headed by his coach, Dante Bottini, and his agent, Olivier Van Lindonk. The final piece of the jigsaw came when Michael Chang joined his coaching team at the end of last year. The 42-year-old American won 34 titles, including the French Open, but is the most low-profile of the four “legends” who will add so much colour to the semi-final line-up here. Chang finds himself renewing old rivalries today with Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg and Goran Ivanisevic, who work with Djokovic, Roger  Federer and Marin Cilic respectively.

“I met Michael for the first time two years ago at an exhibition event in Japan,” Nishikori said. “I was looking for a coach at the end of last year and we’ve been working well. I love it now. Michael and Dante are working me very hard. I do a lot of work on the practice court and have changed a couple of things in my tennis. I’m a little more aggressive than before and I step in more. They’re minor changes but they’re working well.”

He added: “Michael’s also helping me on the mental side. He is very strong mentally. He tells me to stay focused in the match, to never get frustrated too much and always pump myself up. He congratulated me [after the quarter-final] but also said: ‘It’s not done yet. Stay focused and try to recover over the next two days’.”

Bollettieri got to know Chang well in his years coaching Andre Agassi. “Michael was a fighter who found a way to win without having any big weapons other than a big heart,” Bollettieri said. “He would run down every ball. Kei has to work just as hard and I think that’s one of the reasons why they have worked so well together.”

In the past Nishikori’s progress has been slowed by injuries, casting doubts on whether he has the strength to succeed in a highly physical sport. He missed the final Masters Series tournament in the build-up to New York last month after having an operation to remove a cyst from his right foot.

He has worked hard to build his strength, spending many hours in the gym, especially on weight-training. However, Bollettieri believes that his biggest problems have sometimes been in his head.

“Sometimes he wasn’t ready to fight through his problems,” Bollettieri said. “He was quite weak mentally, but I think that’s where Michael has really helped him. Michael has made him very competitive and willing to fight in every match. He’s made him feel that he can win matches, because there used to be times when he would throw in the white towel.”

Baseball and football are the biggest sports in Japan, but tennis has a long history in the country. There are growing numbers of players at the highest level, with six Japanese men and eight women currently ranked in the world’s top 200.

Until Nishikori arrived the country’s most famous male player was Shuzo Matsuoka, who reached a career-high position of No 46 in the world rankings in the early 1990s. Matsuoka did much to popularise the sport and remains a major figure in Japan, appearing regularly on the television. Today, however, the only face Japanese viewers will be looking out for will be that of Nishikori.