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Kei Nishikori — a poor man’s Andy Murray

Matt Zemek

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Kei Nishikori
Susan Mullane - USA TODAY Sports

A featured discussion of Kei Nishikori doesn’t have to include Andy Murray, but I prefer to use Murray as a reference point: One highly complicated tennis career deserves another.

Kei Nishikori can relate to what Andy Murray has endured, but he also lacks the achievements Murray can still admire on the Scotsman’s own trophy case.

Andy Murray has three major titles, two Olympic gold medals, an ATP Finals championship, a bunch of Masters 1000 titles, and large numbers of Masters and major semifinals and finals. Yet, because that major count is only three, Murray has had to suffer. Specifically, he has had to bear the criticism that there is no Big 4, just a Big 3. I am not here to litigate that point. I will merely note its existence.

Kei Nishikori doesn’t have the three majors. Precisely because he has made only one major final, and no major semifinals outside of the U.S. Open, it is reasonable to say that he just doesn’t measure up — not to the Big 3, and not to Murray.

Insisting that Kei Nishikori has been uniquely disadvantaged by playing in this particular era feels like giving him too much credit for a lot of tennis observers.

Not to me.

This generated plenty of reaction:

The first point to make about Kei Nishikori in the current era of men’s tennis is that if you compare him to most of the other members of Andrew Burton’s Generation Grigor cohort — players born from 1989 through 1993 — Kei has made a LOT more major quarterfinals than the group: 12.

Grigor Dimitrov: 4.

David Goffin: 3.

Nikoloz Basilashvili: 0.

Pablo Carreno Busta: 2.

Tennys Sandgren: 1.

Steve Johnson: 0.

Dan Evans: 0.

Pierre-Hugues Herbert: 0.

Diego Schwartzman: 2.

The pickings are very slim.

Only Milos Raonic, with 9 major quarterfinals, has come particularly close to Kei’s number of major quarterfinals. Kei has admittedly not done as well as he should have in Paris at Roland Garros. Not making at least one semifinal there is one of the more perplexing aspects of his record.

That said, his losses in three Roland Garros quarterfinals came to an in-form Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, an in-form Andy Murray who had discovered how to play on clay, and then Rafael Nadal this past June. That is not an embarrassing run of losses, to be sure.

Nishikori can’t be viewed as Andy Murray’s equal, and neither can he be viewed as Andre Agassi’s equal.

Though Agassi has eight major titles and a Grand Slam while Murray has only three majors, the reality of Murray playing in the Big 3 era compared to Agassi playing in the conspicuously weak ATP period of 1997-2003 makes those careers much more similar than the five-major-title difference would initially suggest. Murray and Agassi are both “rich man” versions of the player Kei Nishikori is.

If you accept the notion that Agassi — with his return game, overall defensive acumen, court coverage, and his ability to take the ball early — is an ideal version of the player Nishikori has been, the idea that Kei could have won five majors in Agassi’s time becomes very realistic.

Remember this about Agassi: Though he won eight majors, it could have been so much more — partly because he lost a few major finals against opponents he expected to beat (Andres Gomez and Jim Courier at Roland Garros), and partly because he went through mini-crises in his personal life which caused him to plummet in the rankings on separate occasions.

If Agassi had not had those occasional black-hole moments in his career, and had been more consistent the way Andy Murray was from 2010-2016, he might have won 11 or 12 majors, certainly at least 10.

Kei Nishikori has been a top-15 player for five of the last six years and a top-10 player for four of the last five,  interrupted by ongoing injuries which forced him to work his way up the rankings for the better part of 2018.

Do we assign the same weight to a career slump or interruption based on whether it occurred due to injuries or to one’s personal life? Maybe. Maybe not. I personally feel that while every athlete must live his or her own life, AND deserves empathy for any troubles one might experience, it is nevertheless more of a verdict on a tennis player if struggles are based on handling the stress of tour life compared to being sidelined by injury.

Every professional has to go through the process of juggling various responsibilities. Every professional is helpless in the face of injury. I therefore give Kei Nishikori some points for not having as volatile a career as others. This enters into my analysis of what he would have (could have) achieved had he been born in 1974 instead of 1989, which would have made him a 24-year-old player entering the 1999 tennis season.

Age 24 is when Nishikori began to make his ascent, beating Novak Djokovic in the 2014 U.S. Open semifinals and reaching his first major final in New York. When I said Kei would have won at least five majors, I was specifically thinking about the five years before Roger Federer truly took off at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 2004.

If you took Nishikori’s level of tennis over the past five years — removing the one year in which he had to regroup — and planted it in the period from 1999 through 2003 and added the 2004 French Open, you could find five major titles.

Obviously, you should expect more specificity from me. I will try to deliver it.

I mentioned a 15-year age difference for a reason.

If Kei Nishikori had been born in 1969, he would have run into Prime Sampras at the U.S. and Australian Opens. Boris Becker was still relevant. Pat Rafter would have been more of a challenge.

If Kei Nishikori had been born in 1979, his age-24 season would have been 2004, and we don’t need to explain that he would have been born too late.

Being born in 1974, though, would have put Kei’s best years into that five-year slot in which men’s tennis was at its weakest in the Open Era.

This period — 1999 through 2003, plus the 2004 Roland Garros tournament — is a period in which Andriy Medvedev, Magnus Norman, Alex Corretja, Albert Costa, Martin Verkerk, Gaston Gaudio, and Guillermo Coria made Roland Garros finals.

This was a period in which Todd Martin and Juan Carlos Ferrero made U.S. Open finals.

This was a period in which Thomas Enqvist, Arnaud Clement, Thomas Johansson, and Rainer Schuettler made Australian Open finals.

We can all agree that the serve has limited Nishikori the most in his career. The 1999-2003 (plus 2004 RG) segment of men’s tennis history involved a bunch of players without imposing serves. Some of the above names were huge hitters, but not most.

It is true that Kei Nishikori has spent too much time on court in first weeks of majors, but this past Wimbledon showed that he could be efficient in the first week. It is why he gave Roger Federer a good challenge in the quarterfinals.

Sometimes, Nishikori has entered the quarters of a major with nothing in the tank, but several other times, he merely got outplayed.

Nishikori is 3-9 in major quarterfinals. His nine losses: 3 to Djokovic, 2 to Andy Murray, 1 to Tsonga, Wawrinka, Nadal, and Federer.

Nishikori is 1-2 in major semifinals. His two losses: Wawrinka and Djokovic, who both then won the U.S. Open in their next matches.

With the one possible exception of Tsonga (in France), Nishikori hasn’t lost to an inferior opponent in the 11 majors where he reached the final eight and didn’t get to the men’s final.

When one looks at the paucity of high-end talent in men’s tennis from 1999 through 2003 (plus the 2004 French Open), and when one specifically notices the lack of serve-centric tennis at that point in time, Nishikori would have thrived.

No, he wouldn’t have won Wimbledon, which still featured huge-serving tennis and was a server’s paradise. (Maybe he could have won in 2002, but that tournament was a one-off. Fitting Nishikori into that part of the equation doesn’t seem reasonable to me. He would not have won Wimbledon then.)

However: Given the players who made Australian Open and French Open finals in that time, I feel very comfortable saying that Nishikori would have found a way to win multiple majors in Melbourne and Paris — at least four in total, possibly five.

Keep this in mind: Kei Nishikori winning twice in Australia or France in a five-year period means he would have won 40 percent of the time in Australia, 50 percent of the time in France if I include 2004. It is not as though Kei would have won a majority of those tournaments in that time window, but he would have been able to seize opportunities with shutdown players not always there.

Kei Nishikori

May 29, 2019: Kei Nishikori — ©Karla Kinne/Tennisclix 

I don’t think Nishikori would have beaten Gustavo Kuerten in every Roland Garros final, but probably one out of two if they had met. I would view Australian Open finals against Andre Agassi the same way.

Then, at the U.S. Open — where Nishikori has beaten Andy Murray, Wawrinka, and Djokovic over the past five years — it doesn’t seem like a stretch to say he could have plucked one title in New York from 1999-2003, most likely the 2001 title in which a tired and imprecise Pete Sampras would have been vulnerable in the final against a strong returner. Kei could have done what Lleyton Hewitt successfully did.

David Nalbandian had match point against Andy Roddick in the 2003 U.S. Open semifinals. Kei Nishikori could have done what Nalbandian did and taken that final step. He also could have landed in the other half of the draw and reached the final instead of Ferrero.

People who engaged me in this discussion mentioned racquet and string technology. It is a fair point to raise.

My immediate response is that Kei Nishikori has such natural timing on the return of serve and owns superb instincts. That kind of hand-eye coordination would carry over to other (earlier) eras of tennis and enable him, much like Agassi, to do a lot of damage in return games, such that a less-than-imposing serve would not have mattered that much.

If you accept that Andy Murray and Andre Agassi aren’t that dissimilar due to the distorting effects of the Big 3 and the weakness of men’s tennis at the very start of the 21st century, and if you accept that Nishikori is a poor man’s Andy Murray, the idea that he could have won at least five majors from 1999 through the 2004 French Open doesn’t feel like a reach.

Matt Zemek is the co-editor of Tennis With An Accent with Saqib Ali. Matt is the lead writer for the site and helps Saqib with the TWAA podcast, produced by Radio Influence at radioinfluence.com. Matt has written professionally about men's and women's tennis since 2014 for multiple outlets: Comeback Media, FanRagSports, and independently at Patreon, where he maintains a tennis site. You can reach Matt by e-mail: mzemek@hotmail.com. You can find him on Twitter at @mzemek.

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