Kei Nishikori’s dominating victory in the final of the Memphis Open on Sunday was the culmination of a week which saw him pushed to three sets in each of his three previous matches.
For most players this would be putting themselves in a precarious position. The odds would eventually catch up to you by frequently requiring a third or fifth set of matches to prevail.
That is unless you are Kei Nishikori.
What do I mean?
An incredible statistic has emerged over the past year, as Nishikori has won five tournaments and made the final of the U.S. Open, that tells the story.
In the history of the Open era (since 1968), who has the highest winning percentage in matches that reach the deciding set?
The Shimane native has won a phenomenal 78.9 percent of matches that had to go the distance. While that may be a stat that would generally only resonate with hard core tennis aficionados, in this case it would likely also amaze the casual fan.
The true magnitude of Nishikori’s achievement comes into view when looking at the other players in the all-time top five:
No. 2 — Bjorn Borg (74.4)
No. 3 — Novak Djokovic (72.9)
No. 4 — Rafael Nadal (70.0)
No. 5 — Jimmy Connors (69.0)
Working in sports media we often come across numbers that are impressive, but this one is literally off the charts. Nishikori tops a list that includes some of the greatest to ever play the game.
Borg, Djokovic, Nadal and Connors have won 42 Grand Slam events between them and 286 total tournaments. Two of them are in the Hall of Fame and the other two certainly will be.
Just for good measure, No. 6 on this list is 11-time Grand Slam champion Rod Laver at 68.7.
Nishikori, now ranked No. 5 in the world, is a whopping 71-19 in 90 career matches that have gone the distance. He has played fewer of the full-set contests than the others on the list, but that is only because they had longer careers.
The sample size is enough to illustrate that it is not luck. Nishikori is nearly five percentage points better than Borg in this category.
Tennis matches at the elite level in the present day are generally decided by heart and guts. There are numerous players who have superior levels of technique and fitness. Some may serve or return better than others, but the margins at the top are minuscule.
Presuming that both players are healthy when taking the court, it comes down to the ability to dig deep and come up with the key shots in the critical moments to put an opponent away.
Eight-time Grand Slam winner John McEnroe, who is eighth on the list at 68.6, was once asked what separates the good players from the great ones.
“What is the single most important quality in a tennis champion?” McEnroe replied. “I would have to say desire, staying in there and winning matches when you are not playing that well.”
Nishikori’s fortitude was on full display in Saturday’s semifinal against American Ryan Harrison. Two points from defeat in the second set tiebreaker, with a sore right wrist and a blister on his left foot, Nishikori could have just packed it in.
As I watched on TV, I could sense that Nishikori still had a chance. So did the American announcers, who were full of praise for his effort in difficult circumstances.
Sure enough, the 25-year-old dug deep and stormed back to take the set before triumphing in the third.
He then went on to defeat South Africa’s Kevin Anderson in the final the next day for his eighth ATP Tour title and became the first player ever to win the Memphis Open three years in a row.
“I have grown up in America at the IMG Academy where I always learned how to fight,” Nishikori said in a statement to The Japan Times. “Every day I was playing against the best (and often older and better) players than me, so I always learned to never give up.
“It is also my style of play. I don’t have the big serve where I can hit 35 aces in a match, but I do have a way to fight myself into every match. To never give up and fight till the last point.”
Nishikori’s confidence is booming and his poise under pressure will only continue to grow.
The combination is proving to be a championship formula.