Kei Nishikori was ready to pull the upset of Rafael Nadal and make his mark on the masters tennis circuit in Madrid on Sunday. In the first set, Kei Nishikori was quicker and stronger than Nadal, dominating 6-2. Truthfully, Nadal looked overmatched on his home turf against the 24-year-old Japanese tennis star. Even Nadal’s uncle, Toni Nadal, acknowledged that Rafael was outplayed by Kei Nishikori, “(Kei Nishikori) played better than us the whole time.”
So how did Kei Nishikori end up losing to the player Andre Agassi recently called the best player of all time? The same thing that has derailed Nishikori’s career since he moved to the ATP circuit in 2007: injuries. A back injury that had flared up in Nishikori’s semi-final match against David Ferrer. Although he was able to pull out the win in a three-hour battle against Ferrer, Nishikori couldn’t regain form against Nadal.
After taking a 4-3 lead in the second set, Kei Nishikori needed an injury timeout to receive treatment on his sore back. He wouldn’t win another game against Nadal and would withdraw as a result of his injury problems. Rafael Nadal went on to win his fourth Madrid Masters. Toni Nadal added, “We had a lot of luck today. We didn’t really come back, he was hurt.”
Unfortunately, that seems to be the theme of Kei Nishikori’s career so far in big matches against big name players. In March, Nishikori was primed for a huge match up with Novak Djokovic in the semi-finals of the Miami Masters. Nishikori had already defeated David Ferrer and Roger Federer to advance. Playing as the 20th seed, it appeared that Nishikori was primed to make his run at a top ten ranking. However, a groin injury would cause him to step out of the match, giving Djokovic a walkover and eventual victory over Rafael Nadal.
Knee injuries shortened several tournaments for Nishikori in 2013, keeping him from reaching the potential that so many feel he is capable of. Tennis great Michael Chang is now coaching Nishikori and has dramatically improved his forehand. Nishikori has battled Rafael Nadal several times now and proven that he may belong in the tennis elite. As of the latest ATP rankings, Nishikori was ranked ninth and climbing.
Kei Nishikori apologized to the media and fans after the match on Sunday. “Unfortunately I was hurting today and I was too hurt to fight.” Based on the first set and a half played in the final on Sunday, Nishikori appears poised to move up in the tennis world. If he wants to achieve his potential and get over the hump, the biggest obstacle to overcome will be staying healthy.
[Image via AFP: Pierre-Philippe Marcou]