Kei Nishikori’s victory in the Rakuten Japan Open final on Sunday was not just a testament to his exceptional physical ability, but further evidence that he has the mental toughness to go all the way to the top.
The very top.
Witnessing what I did last week convinced me that Nishikori has both the talent and fortitude to become the No. 1 player in the world.
At this point, the only thing that will prevent that from happening is injury.
Watching Nishikori day after day on the hard court at Ariake Colosseum, I saw an elite athlete in possession of the most important trait at that level — confidence.
I asked Nishikori after Sunday’s triumph what he thought the singular reason was for his incredible showing this season, which has seen him win four tournaments, make the finals of two others, and the semifinals of two more.
“Is it the coaching, the practice, or your confidence?” I said.
“It’s everything that you have mentioned,” Nishikori replied. “My coach Michael (Chang) has helped raise my game. I am practicing more, I have a belief in myself, and I am maintaining my body.”
Nishikori said he actually traced his boost in confidence to last season.
“When I started beating some of the top 10 players last year, that really helped my motivation,” he commented. “That has carried over to this year.”
He had to play five matches in five days in Tokyo, beginning just two days after winning the Malaysian Open and flying in from Kuala Lumpur. After Friday’s match with France’s Jeremy Chardy in the quarterfinals, it was obvious that Nishikori was in incredible pain.
He grimaced and limped into the post-match press conference with an ice pack wrapped around his lower back. When asked about his condition, he said he thought he would be able to hold up for two more matches, which is exactly what he did.
Both contests went three sets against Germany’s Benjamin Becker in the semifinals and Canada’s Milos Raonic in the final.
While just getting to the weekend might have been enough in their home tournament for many players, Nishikori knew the fans wanted more. Especially following his historic runnerup finish at the U.S. Open.
The Shimane native delivered in impressive fashion. It wasn’t just that he won, but that he outlasted two very good players while clearly hurt.
Fans love athletes that have guts, and Nishikori has them in abundance.
“This week has been tough physically on and off the court and because of that, it has been mentally tough,” noted Nishikori on Sunday. “Going into the match (against Raonic) I couldn’t think about strategies. The fact that I was able to play today had a lot to do with my team — my trainer and my coach.”
Nishikori was asked if he had broken an imaginary barrier by battling through injury to prevail at the tournament.
“As far as going beyond my physical limits — I thought I was doing that in the match against Chardy,” he stated. “I think the fact that I continued to train has helped.”
In the past, players who have done well at Grand Slams have often struggled when they took the court in their subsequent tournaments. In Nishikori’s case, that hasn’t occurred.
“I have watched that happen to other players and that is true,” he said. “It is puzzling for me that I am actually doing well. I have not experienced a letdown and have been able to keep my focus. Maybe the fact that my coach is very strict is helping.”
When Nishikori became the first Asian man to break into the top 10 (at No. 9) back in May he said that his next goal was to make the top five. Just five months later, he is knocking on the door.
When the ATP Tour rankings were released on Monday, Nishikori was a career-high sixth.
Nishikori has beaten all the players ranked ahead of him, with the exception of No. 2 Rafael Nadal (who he is 0-7 against all-time).
Nishikori has bested No. 1 Novak Djokovic twice, No. 3 Roger Federer twice, No. 4 Stan Wawrinka once, and No. 5 David Ferrer four times.
So can Nishikori really become No. 1?
The feeling here is that he can.
The reality is that Nadal (14 Grand Slam titles) and Federer (a record 17 Grand Slam titles) have reached a plateau of greatness that offers them nowhere to go but down in the coming years. Both are living legends, perhaps the two best players ever, but age and injuries are starting to take their toll on them.
Nadal is only 28, but knee and wrist injuries have forced him to miss three Grand Slams in the past three years. It appears he is in a battle against time as he attempts to overtake Federer for the all-time record.
Federer is 33 now, father to four children, and two years removed from his last Grand Slam victory (at Wimbledon in 2012). He has won just one Grand Slam in the past four years.
Djokovic would appear to be the primary obstacle in Nishikori’s way in his quest for No. 1. Djokovic is just 27, but Nishikori knows deep down that he can beat him on a given day. He did it last month on the big stage in the semifinals of the U.S. Open.
At 24, Nishikori has time on his side. He is just entering his athletic prime.
When asked about the other young guns that are ascending the rankings with him these days, including Raonic (who he is 4-1 against), Nishikori provided a concise analysis.
“We challenge each other so we really can’t be friends, but we motivate each other to do better,” he said.
Nishikori is soaring now, and what he has that the others don’t is the certainty that he can go up against the giants of the game and prevail. This means more than any shot in his repertoire.
Hall of Fame NFL quarterback Joe Namath may have put it best when it comes to believing in yourself.
“When you have confidence, you can have a lot of fun,” he said. “And when you have fun, you can do amazing things.”
Like become the No. 1 player in the world.