Joy, elation, exuberance.
To be sure, those emotions were apparent in Kei Nishikori in the moments after he won his first ATP title in 2 years, 10 months and 23 days on Sunday.
But most of all, the world No. 9 looked relieved. Relieved to have walked away from a tournament on a winning note after 52 events had ended with a loss, including nine in the final stage.
The question now: Can he win two in a row and capture his first Grand Slam title?
One great aspect of the tennis season is how quickly it goes from 0 to 60 in the new year. Just weeks after clowning around on court with Naomi Osaka, his coach Michael Chang and others during an exhibition event in Nagoya, Nishikori will now set his sights on the Australian Open, played on his preferred hard court surface. With his title in Brisbane, Nishikori looks to already be in mid-season form as he heads into a crucial season.
Last year showed that his window to win a Grand Slam remains open, albeit narrowly, as some of the “Big 4” begin to fade and the next generation struggles to find consistency from week to week, match to match. That he overcame the 22-year-old Russian Daniil Medvedev, whose serve was so untouchable in their previous encounter in the Japan Open final that Nishikori managed a measly five return points, was perhaps a signal to the young guns on tour that Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer aren’t the only ones that could prevent them from achieving a Grand Slam breakthrough in the short term.
The tournament also saw Nishikori triumph over the volatile but dangerous Grigor Dimitrov and will help the Shimane Prefecture native carry the momentum he built in the latter half of last year. His improved serve — broken only four times last week — added to his always elite shot-making and undeniably stellar play in deciding sets should give him further hope for a breakthrough.
But 2018 also saw the continuation of a trend of Nishikori coming up short in big matches against higher ranked opponents.
His last win over a player as high as No. 2 came at the 2016 U.S. Open, where he beat Andy Murray, while his last win over a No. 1 came two years earlier, also in New York, with his semifinal upset of Djokovic.
Four years after that monumental effort seemingly put Nishikori on the path to Grand Slam glory, it’s fair to wonder if he has another performance like that in him. His opportunity to prove doubters wrong could come as soon as later this month.
So what are his chances in Melbourne?
With Djokovic’s dominance in the final months of 2018 bringing back memories of his four straight Grand Slam titles from Wimbledon 2015 to the French Open the next year, he’s the odds-on favorite in Australia.
If there’s reason for optimism for everyone else it would be that he’s endured a modest stretch of less-than-godlike play dating back to the Paris Masters. Still, it would be an upset if he didn’t add a seventh Australian Open to his collection.
Looking elsewhere, Nadal hasn’t played since the U.S. Open and it’s anyone’s guess what kind of form he’s in at the start of 2019. He dropped out of Brisbane citing a leg strain but says he’ll be 100 percent by the time the tournament starts. In any event, he hasn’t won Down Under since 2010.
Two-time defending champion Federer impressed during last week’s Hopman Cup, fending off singles challenges from Stefanos Tsitsipas and Alexander Zverev. Prior to that, most were lukewarm on his chances of a three-peat, but it’s hard to ever rule him out — he has a tendency to make it deep into tournaments regardless of form.
While he’s still only 21, Zverev is beginning to feel the pressure of being majorless. Not only that, the talented but temperamental German has yet to make it beyond the quarters at any slam, a feat he’s accomplished exactly once. That’s despite having won three Masters 1000 events and last year’s ATP Finals. The breakthrough is coming, it’s just a matter of him settling his Grand Slam jitters and staying out of his own head.
Beyond those four, you’d be hard pressed to name a bigger contender for the crown than Nishikori. Big South African Kevin Anderson continues to defy the odds and play his best tennis after 30, but he’s never gone beyond the final 16 in Melbourne, while Juan Martin Del Potro is back on the shelf and won’t play in the year’s first major.
Aside from Zverev, Medvedev and compatriot Karen Khachanov look to be the best candidates for a deep run among the next generation, but it might be too soon to talk about them hoisting any hardware.
With most players only playing in one tournament in the run-up to the tournament, the Australian Open has had a tendency to produce the odd surprise, even in this era of Big 4 dominance. Federer shocked even his biggest fans in 2017 when he won his 18th Grand Slam despite being the No. 17 seed, while Stan Wawrinka took his first major in 2014, powering past Djokovic and Nadal. Earlier, Marat Safin beat Federer in the semifinals at the height of the Swiss great’s powers for the 2005 title, while mostly forgotten players like Petr Korda and Thomas Johansson won during an era otherwise dominated by Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi.
If Nishikori can build on his impressive opening week and battle his way deep into matches against higher-ranked opponents, he may have a shot.
Joy, elation, exuberance. After 35 unsuccessful attempts to realize his dream and win a Grand Slam, those words wouldn’t begin to cover it.
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