Agassi, Roddick, Murray…Nishikori?


61922917Don’t believe the hype, I thought.  When it sounds too good to be true, it usually is.  The Japanese media had descended upon San Jose in 2008 to witness first-hand the skills of a surefire tennis champion, Kei Nishikori, the much-touted 18-year-old who was born in Shimane but had moved to Bradenton, Fla., four years prior.

Forget the fact that Japan wasn’t exactly a tennis powerhouse; that his home nation hadn’t produced a single top-100 male player since Shuzuo Matusuoka in 1995; this kid, the son of an engineer and a piano teacher, was reportedly The Next Great Thing.  My fellow reporter Matt Cronin and I found ourselves surrounded by TV cameras in the HP Pavilion pressroom, facing a barrage of questions: “Have you seen Kei Nishikori play?”  “Do you think he will be No. 1?”  “When do you think he can win a Grand Slam?”

Hold on a minute here, people; let’s not get ahead of ourselves.  Although Nishikori, a speedy, hard-hitting baseliner, had just scalped James Blake to win his first ATP title in Delray Beach (becoming the youngest player to win an ATP title since Lleyton Hewitt in 1998) and would go on to be named 2008 ATP Newcomer of the Year, it was a bit premature to enshrine him in the hallowed halls of the Newport Casino.  Let’s see he how handles the day-to-day/week-to-week grind of the pro tour first before we rush to any conclusions.

Nishikori came out on the short end of a 6-2, 6-4 decision to Andy Roddick that evening in San Jose, but the match wasn’t as routine as the score might suggest.  In fact, I couldn’t help but think that Nishikori did, in fact, have some game; that he had a certain ahead-of-his-years swagger that might just take him somewhere.  There were no huge weapons, but he was a more-than-adept retriever who wasn’t afraid to go for the stripes and had the firepower to do so. With the eyes of his countrymen focused squarely upon him, he looked anything but intimidated.  At one point, he drilled a ball toward Roddick’s body in the mid-court, prompting the American to exclaim, “GET THAT CRAP OUT OF MY FACE!”  Nishikori had clearly gotten under Roddick’s skin, and the then-world No. 6 continued to jaw at his foe the rest of the set.

“I just told him to stick it the next time and finish it,” said Roddick of Nishikori’s perceived headhunting attempt.  “I had zero problem with it, but if he’s going to do it and has the whole court open and is basically going to sacrifice the point, at least get some skin or something.”

Later that year, Nishikori impressed on a bigger stage, outlasting Spaniard David Ferrer in five sets to reach the fourth round at the U.S. Open — the first top-10 win of his career.  He would go on to reach a career-high ranking of No. 56 in early 2009 before a right elbow injury sidelined him for the remainder of the year.  He underwent surgery in August of that year, and his once promising career soon looked more mediocre than meteoric.  In 2010, he returned after a six-month layoff, but outside of back-to-back Challenger titles in Savannah and Sarasota, one had to wonder if there was still any hope for Japan’s great hope.

Brad Gilbert thinks there is.  The former X’s and O’s man for Roddick, Andre Agassi and Andy Murray has announced that he will coach Nishikori in 2011.

On the surface, it seems a curious move for Gilbert, who guided Agassi to six Grand Slam titles between 1994 and 2002, was courtside for Roddick’s one-and-only Slam title at the 2003 U.S. Open, and played a key role in raising Murray’s game to a top-five level. But it shouldn’t be too much of a stretch for Gilbert, who already spends a significant amount of time on the road as a TV analyst, and serves as a guest coach at the Bollettieri Academy, where Nishikori trains year-round and where he once roomed with Gilbert’s son, Zach.

“Kei is a fierce young competitor,” said Gilbert.  “He knows what he wants from the game.”

“Brad’s knowledge as a former top player, as well as his coaching success, is something that can help me become a better player,” said Nishikori, who will continue working with his IMG Academies team, including Dante Bottini.

There is certainly some risk for Gilbert, who, should Nishikori flame out, would sully his somewhat sparkling curriculum vitae of working with elite-level performers.  But should Nishikori find his way back into the top 50 and beyond, it would be some reclamation project, wouldn’t it?