Boy to Man

by: Peter Bodo | March 26, 2014

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MIAMI, Fla.—For a long time on this chilly, breezy evening on Key Biscayne, Kei Nishikori looked like a boy sent to do a man’s job. It wasn’t just his relatively small stature (he’s 5-foot-10) in a game increasingly dominated by bigger specimens, his sloped shoulders, or even the way that, in his white duckbill cap and black-and-white kit, Nishikori evoked a monochrome image of Charlie Brown.

The impression is amply fortified by the speedy way Nishikori moves around the court, punching quick forehands and snapping off backhands, with a game short on variety but long on energy and consistency. If Nishkori didn’t exist, he probably would have been created and popularized in Japanese anime.

But by the late stages of the second set of his quarterfinal clash with Roger Federer, Nishikori might have been 10 feet tall. There he was, insolently smacking serves back at the Swiss star’s shoetops, racing to either corner of his court to dig out impossible retrieves that surprised Federer in no-man’s land, and serving his way out of trouble while showing no sign of the nerves that are supposed to afflict a 24-year-old exposed to the magnetic field of the game’s most successful and revered player.

The reward for Nishikori’s transformation from boy to man was a stirring win crafted over two hours and eight minutes of aggressive, athletic tennis. Nishikori dropped the first set 3-6 but won the final two, 7-5, 6-4.

Even Federer was impressed:

“I think Kei does really well controlling the ball. He has great technique, especially on the backhand, very simple, very short back swings, so he does a really nice job of having good timing. . . I think he does a good job, you know, with his feet. He's a quick mover. Same with his serve. I think he's done a good job using that to his advantage now.”

Early on, it was hard to imagine that Federer would have such words of praise for Nishikori. Seeming nervous under the bright lights before 12,000 spectators, Nishikori looked as if he wanted to shrink under his cap. Federer took full advantage of his opponent’s tentativeness. He had two break points in the second game and, while Nishikori managed a hold, Federer broke him at the next opportunity and rolled to a 4-2 lead.

The first inkling that things might not go quite as easily as it seemed occurred when Nishikori broke back in the seventh game. But Federer broke again and efficiently served out the set.

In the second set, Federer broke Nishikori for a 2-1 lead. But Nishikori, boldly going after Federer’s serve, broke right back. Each man then held, after which Nishikori was broken again. Once again, though, Nishikori came right back to pressure Federer’s serve with rocketing returns, and he broke back for 4-all. It proved to be the turning point of the match, as there was just one more break in the set—and that one was created by Nishikori.

“I think I’m serving well and stepping more inside the court,” Nishikori said of his improved game. “Today, I think I saved a lot of important points with my serve.”

In the third set, neither player could get the better of the other. But the snap was draining out of Federer’s forehand, and the toll of his backhand errors was beginning to mount. Worst of all, try as he might, he just couldn’t get his serve, so useful a weapon over this past month, dialed in.

“I just couldn't find my rhythm on the serve today, which was surprising, especially after how well I've played and served this week,” Federer said of the second and third sets. “He had the upper hand from the baseline.

“Then, I guess because of my serve, I started questioning a bit of my forehand, a bit of my backhand, what am I supposed to do. Here I am now going over so many second serves, which I didn't have to do at all in the first three matches. I guess it was just a bit of a shock for me, and I couldn't quite react to it.”

That was a refreshingly frank confession by Federer, who still managed to trade hold for hold with his increasingly confident opponent through the decisive set. But when Federer served at 4-5, Nishikori once again took the initiative and had the crowd favorite back on his heels with penetrating returns. Nishikori reeled off the first three points, only to see Federer save the first two match points with a forehand winner and an unreturned serve.

But Nishikori managed to get the next serve back, and after a brief rally, he laid into a backhand and sent it whistling into Federer’s backhand corner to seal the win.

The other day, Nishikori survived four match points in a three-hour win over world No. 4 David Ferrer. Today, he eliminated No. 5 Federer. Novak Djokovic, No. 2, comes next for a young man behaving a lot like a comic book hero.

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