May 11, 2014
Kei Nishikori lost a great final in Madrid…but may well have won millions of new fans.
‘I’m very sorry for what’s happened,’ said Kei after having to retire, due to an injury to his lower left side, at 3-0 down in the final set. ‘It was hurting already.’ Yet he left with a top-ten ranking, growing super-stardom and the world at his feet…if only his ailing body holds up better in future.
Why shouldn’t Nishikori follow up his remarkable run in Spain with a Grand Slam title one day? What seemed fanciful a few weeks ago isn’t just a distant dream any more – it is a realistic target. And those of us who delighted in the colourful enthusiasm of the Japanese fans in the judo and soccer arenas of the London 2012 Olympics will look forward to their latest exuberant arrival…at Wimbledon, 2014.
It took Japan’s new hero just 36 minutes to send Madrid into stunned silence by winning the first set 6-2 against overwhelming favourite Rafael Nadal. Then he simply out-slugged Rafa some more, to break again in the opening game of the second set. Perhaps more disturbing for Nadal fans was the way the Spaniard threw away three break-back points in the following game.
Last year Rafa was truly fearsome. This year he is vulnerable, though no less lovable for it. We relish his comebacks all the more, knowing just how deep he has to dig to find what came naturally twelve months ago.
How Nadal fought to gain parity at 4-4 in that dramatic second set. What force of will he showed to battle back from the brink in front of his own fans and take that key set 6-4. Yet it was Nishikori’s injury which helped Rafa to escape. For this title in Madrid must have felt more like an escape than a triumph.
Will he find an answer to his underlying problems in time for Roland Garros and Wimbledon? Tennis lovers will certainly hope so. We want each and every one of the greats to be firing on all cylinders during what promises to be a glorious European summer.
But that’s no reason to hold back on our admiration for Nishikori . His rise is great for the global game. First, China’s Li Na captured our hearts. Now the courage and power of Japan’s Kei Nishikori. He sent Nadal the wrong way at will, he swiped backhands with such venom that even Nishikori seemed to shake his head in disbelief.
So what are we to make of it all? I think we should be excited!
We all know we are living in the golden age of tennis. But this wonderful era needs new twists and turns in order to remain so great. Nishikori is helping that to happen, taking tennis to a new and vibrant set of fans, and we should be grateful that our sport has a fresh super-hero to challenge those we already adore.
‘Congratulations for the season you are having, sorry for what happened here, I hope you recover quickly,’ said a typically generous Nadal.
Should we worry more for Rafa? Yes. Despite his comeback in Madrid, it is hard to see how he can win Roland Garros in this kind of form, though he has proved us wrong before. Nadal needs to rediscover his bruising power, his ability to intimidate. He needs to do it fast, and start convincing us again from the very first game. It will be fascinating to see if Nadal can return to his very best. We have written him off before – and we do so at our peril.
But who was the true winner in Madrid? The history books will say Rafael Nadal. Yet those of us who are more interested in the personalities which make up our wonderful sport will say it was Kei Nishikori.