WATCH: Kei Nishikori completes 4-6, 6-2, 2-6, 6-4, 6-4 comeback win over No. 23 seed Karen Khachanov.

Advertising

The legendary baseball player Satchel Paige once posed this question: “How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you were?”

Kei Nishikori might well scratch his head to come up with an answer. Though only 31 years old, his professional tennis life has been arduous, from winning an ATP title as a teen to Grand Slam epics to assorted injuries and surgeries, a bout with COVID and, fittingly, as shown yet again today at Roland Garros, career-long mastery in how to wage a five-set battle.

In a second-round match that lasted one minute short of four hours, Nishikori upset 23rd-seeded Karen Khachanov, 4-6, 6-2, 2-6, 6-4, 6-4. The win upped Nishikori’s five-set record to a glittering 26-7. Nishikori’s first-round victory over Alessandro Gianessi was also a five-setter. He’s now won ten of his last eleven five-setters, the only loss coming last year in the second round of Roland Garros to 74th-ranked Stefano Travaglia.

Don't count Kei Nishikori out of any match at a major. Don't.

Don't count Kei Nishikori out of any match at a major. Don't.

Though Nishikori is currently ranked 49th—his lowest ranking in nearly ten years—he’s been ranked as high as fourth in the world and on four occasions has finished the year inside the Top 10. That kind of track record made Nishikori unlikely to be intimidated by his higher-ranked opponent. Added to the mix was that coming into this match, Nishikori led Khachanov in a burgeoning rivalry, 3-2, including winning their most recent match, also in clay, last month in Madrid.

But another factor was the matchup. The 25-year-old Khachanov has exceptional firepower from the ground, as well as an intermittently explosive serve. At 6’6” tall, Khachanov appears the embodiment of the contemporary game, what a friend of mine calls “Big Boy Tennis.”

“We played a lot of matches and we know how to play," Nishikori said of Khachanov. "I kind of know what I have to do. I think he took little bit risk today. He played little more aggressive.”

Eight inches shorter and six years older, Nishikori has traditionally relied on his sharply placed backhand, excellent movement and superb concentration. As time has moved on and injuries have taken their toll on the Japanese star, I’ll concede that in recent years I’ve wondered if his days as an elite player have passed, his game vulnerable to contemporary powerhouses.

Advertising

My body say no, but my mind was just, keep playing.—Kei Nishikori

Today, though, Nishikori proved not merely consistent and focused, but also pleasingly innovative—and, therefore, increasingly disruptive. Nishikori came to net 33 times, winning 22 points. Included in this were several serve-and-volley efforts. Considering that Nishikori won 165 points in this match, that figure of 22 might not seem much. But in the bigger picture, it was part of the way Nishikori continually kept Khachanov physically off-balance, mentally unsettled and emotionally disturbed.

The wise use of diverse tactics can accomplish much on the path to getting inside an opponent’s head. Perhaps the serve-and-volley tactic came at the recommendation of one of Nishikori’s cornermen, superb netrusher Max Mirnyi, a longstanding mate of Nishikori’s from their shared background at the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy (now IMG Academy).

Khachanov has exceptional firepower from the ground, as well as an intermittently explosive serve. But mentally he may not be as strong.

Khachanov has exceptional firepower from the ground, as well as an intermittently explosive serve. But mentally he may not be as strong.

Advertising

Khachanov’s discomfort became abundantly clear in the early stages of the fifth set. Serving at 2-all, 15-30, Nishikori opted to serve and volley, drawing a return error from the Russian. Later in the game there came a trademark Nishikori backhand down-the-line winner. And when Khachanov overcooked a forehand and eventually lost the game, he yelled out, punched his racquet strings with his index finger—so severely that he drew blood and required a visit from the tournament physio.

That was just the most dramatic of Khachanov’s emotional outbursts. Perhaps he carried the scar tissue of having lost his only previous five-setter at Roland Garros, to Alexander Zverev three years ago. Either way, the last thing a player wants deep into a fifth set is to deal with a self-inflicted injury.

Meanwhile, Nishikori showed no emotion, subdued in all the good ways. His quiet intensity was reminiscent of another five-set maestro who’d also worked with Nick Bollettieri, Aaron Krickstein.

“My body say no, but my mind was just, keep playing,” said Nishikori. “So I was able to win the fourth set without thinking anything. Of course, fifth set you want to fight till the end. Even though I was tired, I was keep playing. At the end I got my chances coming and I grab it, play good I think the last game.”

Serving at 4-5, love-15, Khachanov double-faulted. At love-30, he arrived at the net awkwardly and made it easy for Nishikori to lace a forehand passing shot. On the first match point, Nishikori closed it out with an untouchable inside-out forehand.

“I think fifth set I'm really playing good tennis, more than any sets,” said Nishikori. “Even though I'm tired, I think I'm playing better and more free, more aggressive, not being passive. Yeah, I think I do many good things, especially in the last set.”

Satchel Paige also said this: “Age is a case of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it don’t matter.”