Kei Nishikori’s ninja-like comeback in 2018 has been quietly gathering steam as he looks to seal spot in ATP Finals

What’s a good way to die? Getting smashed to a pulp by a battering ram, getting poisoned by a mystic potion-brewer, or getting stabbed in the back of the neck by a pin so thin and furtive that you don’t even notice the attack?

This is a trick question, of course; the correct answer is none of the above. Based on all the real and imagined stories we’ve heard so far, death is far from a pleasant experience. There’s no ‘good’ way to die.

But if you are a tennis player facing Kei Nishikori on a day when he is on his game, then you have no choice but to make peace with the third option. You may not get pounded or poisoned by the Japanese, but you will get repeatedly stabbed in a manner so covert that you will wonder whether he was a ninja warrior in his previous life.

To be clear, the association is not a case of stereotyping; not every Japanese player is, or should be, likened to a ninja. There’s just something about the way Nishikori goes about his business – the deceptively strong returns, the razor-sharp reflexes, the lightning quick movement around the court – that makes you think of guerilla warfare every time he gleefully takes a player apart.

And he has been taking quite a few players apart lately, quietly putting together a comeback season that has exceeded most expectations.

 Kei Nishikori’s ninja-like comeback in 2018 has been quietly gathering steam as he looks to seal spot in ATP Finals

Kei Nishikori he has been taking quite a few players apart lately, quietly putting together a comeback season that has exceeded most expectations. AFP

It may be hard to remember now, but Nishikori was one of the many top-flight players who pulled the plug early on their 2017 season. Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray were the most prominent of those, but Stan Wawrinka, Milos Raonic and Nishikori had also joined in the bailout party, missing pretty much every event from the US Open onwards.

It’s fair to say that the supernatural entities (read Novak Djokovic) aside, Nishikori has been the most successful of the rebounding players. The right wrist injury that forced his 2017 retreat hasn’t affected him much, and he’s now on the verge of qualifying for the year-ending ATP Finals in London.

It didn’t look likely to pan out this way at the start of 2018. Nishikori started the season by extending his time on the sidelines and withdrawing from the Australian Open. He was then reduced to playing Challenger events, and even that started on a bad note.

He lost in the opening round (to Dennis Novikov) at the Newport Beach Challenger, and things looked bleak. How far down must he have fallen that he couldn’t even win a match at a Challenger?

There was a crying need for a swift rejoinder. Fortunately for Nishikori, the very next week brought some comfort; he won the Dallas Challenger, defeating Mackenzie McDonald in the final. And even better: with the rest of his peers busy playing 250 and 500 events, the Japanese was still flying under the radar. So very ninja-like.

From that springboard he moved on to bigger tournaments, his confidence somewhat restored. A respectable loss to Kevin Anderson in the New York Open semifinal came next, followed by another dignified (if somewhat lopsided) defeat at the hands of Juan Martin del Potro in Miami.

“I just need to get more matches,” Nishikori had said before the start of the New York tournament. He got his wish during the claycourt season, where he registered immediate and unexpected success.

In one of the toughest draws seen in recent times, Nishikori had to face Tomas Berdych, Daniil Medvedev, Andreas Seppi, Marin Cilic and Alexander Zverev if he hoped to reach the Monte Carlo final. He defeated all of them.

He (naturally) lost to Rafael Nadal in the final, but his run was better than anyone could have hoped for. The shot-making was back to its sizzling best at times, but even when his shots weren’t firing on all cylinders, he was still grinding out wins.

Then came a new bout of misfortune: a recurrence of the wrist injury, which forced him to retire from his first round match in Barcelona. “Playing on clay you got to use your wrist a little more,” he said while explaining his decision. “You got to hit more spin. I think it makes little tougher than hard court. That makes my wrist hurt little bit.”

The pain didn’t last long, but the misfortune did. Nishikori returned in Madrid but was drawn to face Djokovic in the first round, and predictably lost. He then defeated Feliciano Lopez, Grigor Dimitrov and Philipp Kohlschreiber in Rome before running into…Djokovic again.

There was a particular injustice to Nishikori drawing Djokovic twice in two weeks while on his comeback trail. It’s not just that Djokovic is one of the greatest players in history; it’s also the fact that the Serb has a very similar game to Nishikori, but does every single thing a tiny bit better. Nishikori has a great return, but Djokovic has an even better one; Nishikori has a fabulous backhand, but Djokovic has an even more consistently powerful one; Nishikori is very quick on his feet, but Djokovic is even quicker.

Still, Nishikori shrugged that injustice off and reached the fourth round at Roland Garros, where he was outmuscled by Dominic Thiem. There was no shame in that, but what was to follow was a matter of concern: Wimbledon was the only Slam where Nishikori had never reached the quarterfinal. For some reason, grass presented too many problems for his (relatively) small frame to conquer.

All that changed at Wimbledon 2018, and in the most emphatic fashion possible. Nishikori withstood a serious (for once) challenge from Bernard Tomic in the second round, before turning on the style in a stunning straight-sets takedown of Nick Kyrgios.

The Australian had nowhere to hide in that masterclass of a match. Nishikori seemed to be flying on the court at some points, and returned every single missile that Kyrgios’ frustrated racquet could muster.

Another gifted flame-thrower awaited in the next round, in the form of Ernests Gulbis. Nishikori calmly took care of him too, showing everyone that all the talent in the world (there was a remarkable sequentiality to Nishikori’s Wimbledon draw, pitting him against three talented headcases one after the other) was not enough to counter his speed and compact hitting.

But after all that, he was drawn to meet Novak Djokovic yet again. The Serb was just about getting back to his metronomic best around this time, so the fact that Nishikori managed to take a set off him has to be considered a success.

“After coming back from injury, I’m enjoying the challenge this year,” Nishikori said after his Wimbledon run. “I feel like I’m going to be tough again. My wrist is okay now. I’m going to try and get into the top 10 again. That’s my goal and motivation.”

As far as goals go, that wasn’t a bad one at all.

Wimbledon was the only Slam where Nishikori had never reached the quarterfinal. For some reason, grass presented too many problems for his (relatively) small frame to conquer. AFP

Wimbledon was the only Slam where Nishikori had never reached the quarterfinal. For some reason, grass presented too many problems for his (relatively) small frame to conquer. AFP

A lull period followed though, as he lost to Alexander Zverev, Robin Haase and Stan Wawrinka in Washington, Toronto and Cincinnati respectively. But at the US Open – the only Slam where he has reached the final – the spark was lit again.

In one of his most grueling matches of the year, Nishikori overcame a furious onslaught from Marin Cilic to make his third semifinal in New York. That battle had everything – groundstroke brilliance from both, inexplicable choking from both, tremendous fight from both – and after the win the Japanese had to be feeling that his prophecy about “being tough again” had come true.

But that was followed by another meeting with – you guessed it – Djokovic. And this time Nishikori was up against a fully recovered, full-flight Djokovic; it was never going to be a contest.
Nishikori has kept plugging away since then, despite his seemingly cruel luck. He produced another spectacular performance in the Tokyo semifinal; he and Richard Gasquet simultaneously played the best tennis they have ever played for one pulsating set, before the hometown hero broke the Frenchman’s resolve and ran away with the second.

The match against Federer in Shanghai was similarly goosebump-inducing. Nishikori nearly had all the answers that day, and mind you those were some darned tough questions the Swiss was asking. Federer rained down big serves, and Nishikori came up with reflex returns. Federer hit full-throttle backhands on the rise, and Nishikori took them even earlier and redirected them down the line.

The Japanese ended up on the losing side, but the important thing was that he had reached another quarter-final. That took him 180 points higher up the rankings ladder, and 180 points closer to qualifying for London.

The failure to close out tournaments still sticks out like a sore thumb – Nishikori has famously gone more than two years without a title win, and his loss to Medvedev in the Tokyo final was particularly disappointing. But his quiet, almost unnoticed march to London is a testament to his understated perseverance.

Right now, Nishikori is ninth in the race at 3000 points, with Dominic Thiem ahead of him by 535 points and John Isner trailing by 70. Del Potro, currently in third position, has all but withdrawn from the Finals, so as things stand the Japanese would be the eighth – and last – man to qualify.

But Isner is back in action after his Asia break, and if he wins Stockholm this week he’ll have moved 180 points ahead of Nishikori. That would leave everything to play for in the year’s last two tournaments – Basel or Vienna next week, and Paris the week after that.

If Nishikori reaches the semifinals or better in those two tournaments, he will have confirmed his London berth. But even if he doesn’t do that, he could still get by if he merely outperforms Isner over the next two weeks.

It’s not an impossible task, especially for someone as committed to his craft as Nishikori. And you get the feeling that the tennis world at large would be happy if the Japanese does get to London; it would be a fitting capstone to his impressive comeback year.

It would also, of course, give us yet another chance to see how even the best players in the world can die a thousand times when pitted against Nishikori’s sneaky good shot-making. Getting felled by a ninja’s sly skills may not be a good way to die, but it makes for quite the show.

Updated Date: Oct 19, 2018 16:39:29 IST