Tennis

Kei Nishikori faces daunting challenge against 'King of Clay'

by Joel Tansey

Staff Writer

Robin Soderling. Novak Djokovic. Kei Nishikori?

The native of Shimane Prefecture on Tuesday will attempt to join one of the most exclusive clubs in tennis: Players who have beaten Rafael Nadal at the French Open.

The Spanish legend is an other-worldly 90-2 on the red clay in Paris — a record that, if anything, understates how dominant he has been. In fact, the 11-time champion has rarely even been tested and has only twice been pushed to a deciding fifth set — once against big-serving American John Isner in 2011 and again in 2013 against Djokovic in what is widely considered to be one of the best matches in the tournament’s history.

A mixture of poor scheduling luck and Nishikori’s habit of making life tough on himself in the early rounds of Grand Slams has conspired to make the Japanese star’s monumental task that much tougher. With play suspended due to darkness after Nishikori took a two-sets-to-one lead over Benoit Paire on Sunday night, Nishikori returned to the court Monday and needed another two hours or so to book his spot in the quarters. Altogether, it has taken him a grueling 13 hours and 22 minutes to get through four matches. Compare that with Nadal, who has spent just 9 hours and 8 minutes on court through the first four rounds and has dropped a single set, and it’s pretty clear the “King of Clay” will have fresher legs on Tuesday.

The head-to-head matchup also heavily favors the world No. 2. Nadal has a 10-2 lifetime edge on Nishikori, including a fourth round, straight-sets win in 2013 at the French Open. The Spaniard is a perfect 3-0 in their meetings on clay.

Add up all of that and it’s fair to wonder if calling Nishikori’s chances “slim” might be a bit optimistic.

But a couple of factors may give him a glimmer of hope.

Firstly, Nishikori’s two wins over Nadal have come in their past five matchups, an indication that he may be getting more comfortable with Nadal’s top-spin heavy forehand and relentless, punishing groundstrokes after losing the first seven of their matchups in a row.

Moreover, signs of Nadal’s advanced age — he turned 33 on Monday — are slowly beginning to show. It took him until the Italian Open, the last significant tuneup event before the French, to capture his first title of the season — his longest title drought to open a season since 2004, when he was just breaking onto the tour as a teenager. Losses on clay this year to Stefanos Tsitsipas, Dominic Thiem and Fabio Fognini indicate that Nadal is no longer unbeatable on the dirt, either.

Nadal also wobbled slightly against Belgian David Goffin in the third round last week, dropping the third set by a 6-4 score. Standing 180 cm, Goffin profiles similarly to Nishikori in that they are both undersized, aggressive baseliners with excellent two-handed backhands.

Goffin needed to play at an unsustainably high level just to push Nadal to a fourth frame, making 17 winners to just four unforced errors in the set. But the result, and his similar style of play, could give Nishikori an ounce of belief that, if he can play the match of his life, he might just be able to dethrone the king.