Nishikori doesn't have anything like Matsuoka's regal bearing or impressive
physique. He's a 5-10, 150-pounder blessed with the familiar Japanese
penchant for spiky, punk-ish hair - only in his case, it isn't styled in a
way that makes you think "uh-oh, fashion statement on Court 13!" It's just
unruly in a way that underscores his boyishness. He's got a pleasant,
surprisingly expressive face with small features, and his shoulders slope
quickly from his neck on either side. Bjorn Borg, Pete Sampras, Andy
Roddick - each of them is broad-shouldered, and resembles nothing less than
a red-tailed hawk with hunched wings sitting a fence post. Nishikori would
be more easily taken for the straw and cloth effigy placed in the field to
ward off such predators.
Yesterday, the 18-year old pride of the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy did
a fine job in keeping Monaco in check. Nishikori is an aggressive baseliner,
and a lazy mind might be drawn to comparisons with Michael Chang. But
Nishikori has a lot more going on in his game than Chang, for all his
assets, ever did. For one thing, he isn't reluctant to attack the short ball
and he's got fine touch at the net. He also hits his backhand with two hands
or, when slice is called for, one.
Nishikori's forehand has the potential to be truly explosive, although it
isn't quite there yet. And that's where a less obvious comparison comes into
play: Nishikori hits that forehand the way Jim Courier did - full western
grip designed to generate enormous torque, wrist-action as required, from an
open stance. His body uncoils from a low center of gravity, arm in tight to
his torso. . . Like Courier, Nishikori looks like a fighter taking a savage
uppercut. The ball is truly punished, and the sound can be a sickening. . .
A facility from playing from a crouch, and pretty much staying there through
a stroke, is always an asset. Bu one of Nishikori's less conspicuous
strengths is his balance, a quality that enables him to make surprisingly
offensive shots from clearly defensive positions. At one point yesterday, he
was pulled very wide on the forehand side by a Monaco serve, but he managed
to reach the ball at full stretch with superb body and racket control, and
apply a wrist-flick to make a soft return that asked the hard-charging
Monaco an awkward question somewhere in the vicinity of the service line on
Monaco's backhand side. Monaco couldn't handle the feathery, low-bouncing
shot and jumped all over the backhand - driving it into the net.
Many players, including Sampras, have remarked on Roger Federer's ability to
transition from defense to offense in the blink of an eye. Nishikori can do
that, too. If he's a little bit Courier, he's also a little bit Fabrice
Santoro, at least in his vision of the game. We may never be tempted to
rhapsodize about "full-flight Nishikori", but he's going to make plenty of
shots that leave spectators scratching their heads, asking. "How did he do
In Japan, Nishikori is rapidly approaching superstar status. He has a
lucrative deal with Sony, although you might be tempted to feel that he
ought to be paying them. After all, Masaaki Morita, whose family founded
the Sony company, established a fund (at the urging of the late founder of
IMG, Mark McCormack) that underwrites the development of four Japanese
junior players every year - Nishikori is emerging as the foundation's
outstanding success story.
Not long ago, Nishikori was surprised to see that two Japanese camera crews
had somehow gotten onto the same flights he was taking from Bradenton, Fla.,
to India, for a Davis Cup tie. It turns out that the crews had been planted
by Japanese news agencies determined to feed the growing hunger in Japan for
all things Nishikori. And van Lindonk told me that the Japanese networks are
already recruiting reporters who's exclusive job would be covering
Nishikori. The youth has handled the attention well; after all, he's
basically sequestered from it.
"This is kid who like pizza, and he also likes to sing karaoke," van Lindonk
says. "The most 'Japanese' thing about him probably is that he's still
really into those animated cartoons that are so big in Japan. He watches
them on his computer."
Can the Kei Nishikori comic book be far behind?"