Shanghai: Nishikori d. Dimitrov

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It didn’t take long to figure out the theme to Kei Nishikori’s 6-3, 6-4 opening-round win over Grigor Dimitrov at the Shanghai Rolex Masters today. Dimitrov started it by double-faulting on break point in his first service game; he finished it by double faulting on the first point of his last service game. In between, the errors flowed freely from his racquet. The Bulgarian made 34 of them, including 20 in the first set alone, double faulted eight times in total, got too fancy for his own good at the net, and won a feeble 28 percent of points on his second serve.

As you might gather from those statistics, it was an irritated and at times indifferent performance from Dimitrov. He greeted more than one of his miscues with a wry smile, though he did rouse himself enough to threaten a racquet smash once, after failing to break serve at 2-2 in the second set. Which was understandable—that was his one chance to turn the match around. Dimitrov earned his only three break points of the day in that game, but Nishikori saved them all with aggressive play.

That’s kind of how it went from Kei’s side in general. Whenever he was in trouble, he found a way to retake control, without taking on too much risk. Nishikori had particular success swinging his serve out wide in the deuce court and knocking off a winner with his backhand on the next shot. He played as solidly as he needed to, making 15 errors and winning a more than respectable 70 percent of points on his second serve.

As you can see from that last number, there was a big gap between the two players on second-serve points: While Kei won 70 percent of his, Grigor won just 28 percent. That was primarily because of Dimitrov’s sloppiness and Nishikori’s efficiency, but it also points to a structural difference them: Dimitrov has a one-handed backhand; Kei uses two. In 2013, we’ve seen a semi-resurgence—a “slight return,” as Jimi Hendrix might call it—of the one-handed backhand on the men’s tour. Stan Wawrinka, Tommy Haas, and Richard Gasquet, among others, have had very good seasons using theirs. But this match points to the shot's downsides in today’s game. Nishikori was steadier with his backhand, he could take the ball on the rise more easily, and he used it offensively on returns. He had two weapons from the baseline. As nice as Dimitrov’s attacking slice is to watch, if he’s not going to follow it forward, it’s tough to make it anything more than a rally shot. Part of the advantage of using one hand is that it's easier to transition up and volley. But Dimitrov only got to the net nine times.

Nishikori moves on to play the winner between Jurgen Melzer and Ivan Dodig. Dimitrov moves on, none too soon, to work with a new coach, Roger Rasheed. 

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