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Nick’s Notes: Bolletteri’s first impressions of Kei Nishikori
On Nishikori’s 33rd birthday, we’re sharing the late coach’s earliest observations of the future US Open finalist from 2008.
Published Dec 29, 2022
WATCH: Remember the life and legacy of Nick Bollettieri, one of the sport's greatest coaches and pioneer of tennis academies, after opening Bollettieri Tennis Academy in 1978.
In memory of Nick Bollettieri, TENNIS.com proudly presents “Nick’s Notes,” an exclusive look at tips, tricks, and takes written by one of the greatest coaches of the modern era.
Today, we’re sharing Bollettieri’s thoughts on a young Kei Nishikori, who went on to become the first Asian man to reach a Grand Slam singles final:
The story and background of Kei Nishikori is very much like reading a fiction story about a boy full of dreams and how many of them are coming true.
Kei began playing tennis at the age of 5. It was quickly evident he had a natural talent for the sport. In 2004, when Kei was 13, going on 14, he was selected by Masaaki Morita Tennis Fund committee to receive one of the four Morita Foundation scholarships to train at the IMG Academy–Bollettieri Tennis Program.
The Masaaki Morita Tennis Fund was created and funded by Mr. Masaaki Morita, former Deputy President of Sony Corporation and younger brother of company founder, Akio Morita.
Mr. Masaaki Morita created the Morita Foundation with the purpose of helping develop tennis players from Japan. His vision has paid off.
Seeing his potential, Kei and his family prepared for Kei to leave Japan and begin his full time training at the Bollettieri Tennis Program at IMG Academy. When he arrived, he could hardly speak a word of English, but it was evident he had the desire and the talent to be a top player. He was lightning fast, saw the ball very early, had no fear, and had the presence of a champion.
While developing at the Academy, Kei had the support of top tennis coaches, physical conditioning specialists, mental conditioning specialists, nutritionists, managers, in addition to his academic schooling. He competed on the ITF Junior circuit and at 16 was ranked in the Top 20 in the world junior rankings. One year later he was in the top 300 of the ATP rankings. During the 2008 US Open in New York, Kei again showcased his potential when he made it to the round of 16 and defeated the world's No. 4 David Ferrer in the process.
Throughout my 60-year career I have experienced almost every type of student. Each one is different and my approach to each one is also different. For example, Monica Seles was a very unorthodox player who hit with two hands off both sides. She stood on top of the baseline and worked every ball. She was not a gifted athlete but she was willing to work hours and hours every day. Andre Agassi had the ability to see and react very quickly to almost any ball. He was a character and it was a must that I understand and listen to him versus telling what to do with everything he did. Jim Courier was a gifted physical athlete who made up for any technical weaknesses he had (backhand) by using his strengths (forehand, serve, and movement) to cover up his weakness. Maria Sharapova stands on top of the baseline and hits both her forehand and backhand as flat as possible. She is extremely competitive. Venus Williams is beautiful to watch with her more classical movement and strokes. Serena is a very physical player who only knows one way to play–I am going to beat you up no matter what you do. In addition there was Tommy Haas, Anna Kournikova, Max Mirnyi, Xavier Malisse, Jimmy Arias, Aaron Krickstein, Caring Basset, etc, etc. THEY WERE ALL DIFFERENT. IN ORDER TO EFFECTIVELY TEACH AND MOTIVATE THEM I HAD TO COMMUNICATE WITH EACH DIFFERENTLY.
Kei’s greatest assets are his foot speed, hand speed, and his ability to see and create openings in the court. Because of his unusual quickness, he has developed one of the best returns of serve on the tour. Besides Novak Djokovic, I don’t think I’ve seen anyone return as well since Andre Agassi. He has the ability to take the ball very early on both his forehand and backhand and can drive the ball through the court from either side. He can also defend very well because of his quickness. His serve, and particularly his second serve, used to be a bit of a liability. With the help of his coach, Dante Bottini, he has improved his first serve adding pop to it. He now is able to get free points off his first serve. He’s also greatly improved his second serve and can defend it very well.
Kei’s ability to withstand the intense grind of consecutive matches and consecutive tournaments and his exposure to injury was also an area that needed to be improved. With the help of his physical trainers and conditioning program, this area has also improved. Talent is one thing. To become the best, I’ve observed that players have to have heart, desire, and the willingness to make huge sacrifices to achieve their goals. This is where his other coach, and former grand slam champion, Michael Chang comes in. Michael Chang has taught Kei how to fight, scrape, and compete at a higher level. Altogether, with Kei’s IMG managers headed by Olivier Van Lindonk, IMG Academy, his physical trainers, coaches Dante Bottini and Michael Chang, Kei has a powerful team behind him and is positioned well to succeed at the highest levels.
What’s the future for Kei Nishikori? If he can stay healthy and keep improving, he has the chance to maintain his current position in the top five on the ATP rankings and to compete for the top titles in the game. He has the talent, the desire, and the support team. I’m excited to see what will unfold!