No. 10: Kei's Magic Box of Tricks

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What do you do when there are no more matches to watch in 2014? Take a look back at the year's best, of course. From today through next Friday, I'll be counting down TENNIS.com's Top 10 matches of 2014, one classic per day. Here's No. 10.

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There was a lot of talk about a changing-of-the-generational-guard in men’s tennis this season. It didn’t actually happen in the end: When 2014 was over, the three top-ranked players were the good ol’ Big 3—Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, and Rafael Nadal. And after a furious finish, the fourth man in their club, Andy Murray, didn’t wind up far behind them. 

That doesn’t mean nothing was different this year. At the most obvious level, there were two new Grand Slam winners in Stan Wawrinka and Marin Cilic. But Wawrinka, who will be 30 in March, is hardly the face of a new era; and judging by his dismal performance at the year-end ATP World Tour Finals, Cilic isn’t going to take over the tour in 2015.

To me, the matches in 2014 that best represented the slow churn of time on the men's tour were played between Kei Nishikori, 24, and David Ferrer, 32. The two men met four times; each match went the three-set distance, and each was won by Nishikori. The previous year they had met twice, and Ferrer had won in straight sets both times. This year, the younger man learned how to hang with the older one, and to beat him at his own grinding game. In the process, Nishikori, who finished a career-high No. 5, showed what it takes these days to make the leap into the tour’s top tier. You don’t just need a little bit of everything; you need a lot of everything.

The string quartet between Nishikori-Ferrer had one other thing in common: They were all opuses. Judging by the scores, the best of them may have happened in Key Biscayne in April, when Nishikori won 11-9 in a third-set tiebreaker. That match was also a key to Kei’s season; two days later he beat Roger Federer and began his ascent. But I didn’t see Nishikori-Ferrer in Miami, and I can’t find any highlights from it (if you know of any, please link in the comments). So I'll go with the three-hour, three-set semifinal they staged a month later in Madrid; it was also a barn-burner, and it’s ending was just as dramatic. Ferrer, with some help from the Spanish crowd, saved nine match points in a 17-minute final game, but he couldn’t save the 10th. Nishikori won 7-6 (5), 5-7, 6-3.

Here are some thoughts on the above clip from this, our 10th best match of 2014.

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—This is the New Kei of 2014. He has always had the shots—Nadal and Federer both noted the purity of his ball-striking when he was a teenager—but it wasn’t clear in the past if he was sturdy enough to stay with the best. On this day, Kei is sturdy and gritty: He comes back from 2-5 down in the first set to win it in a tiebreaker; that's what you might expect Ferrer to do on clay, in Spain. As we can see here, Nishikori does it by first playing Ferrer’s game, and then surpassing it. In the early going, Nishikori is comfortable trading backhands with his ironman opponent until he can get around to crack a forehand. Ferrer has no weapon to counter it.

—The clip above is a highlight reel of a match, but it’s also a highlight reel of what made Nishikori so much better in 2014. His serve is well-placed, he’s opportunistic with his returns, he’s patient from the backcourt, he can finish at the net, and he has the X-factor in this match-up, his forehand drop shot. 

—For years, Ferrer has served as a litmus test of ATP excellence, a barrier between the best and the rest; he’s reliable against the tour’s rank and file, but rarely beats the elite. Now that he’s well into his 30s, the elite he can’t beat is bound to grow larger. If these four matches showcased Nishikori’s rise, they also showcased Ferrer's relative decline. He finished 2014 at No. 10, his lowest year-end ranking since 2009; last season he wound up at No. 3.

Watching this clip, though, I don’t notice any major signs of age from Ferrer. He can’t produce the pace and shot variety that Nishikori can, but Ferrer has never been a big hitter or brilliant ball-striker. The evolution of sports is less about older players getting worse than it is about younger players getter better, and doing new things. 

—At 5-6 in the second set, Nishikori sends a full-cut, down-the-line backhand close to the sideline. My first reaction was that this shot, which landed in, showed how confident he was at that stage; he doesn't try anything this risky earlier in the video. But risk doesn’t always come with reward at the top of the men’s game, especially on clay. Nishikori, just a little impatient, loses that game and the set.

—This clip shows a few points from the 17-minute final game, and the 10 match points Nishikori needs to finish it. But you don’t get a sense of the drama. (I've included a 37-minute video from the match below, for the hardcore.) By the end, Ferrer was breathing fire, and the Madrid audience, which is as one-sided in the home players’ favor as any in tennis, is breathing with him. But Nishikori survives it all. You can see how much it took out of him, and how much it meant to him, when he holds his head and closes his eyes after it’s over. 

The next afternoon Nishikori would play even better in going up a set and a break on Nadal in the final. But the previous day’s tennis took its toll: Kei would be forced to retire with a back injury in the third set; Ferrer, in a way, had helped win the tournament for his countryman. For Nishikori, it was proof that it’s a long way to the top in men’s tennis, and it’s a hill that can only be climbed step by step. He took four of them against Ferrer this year. 


The Top 10 Matches of 2014

No. 1: Djokovic d. Federer at Wimbledon
No. 2: Sharapova d. Halep at Roland Garros
No. 3: Kvitova d. V. Williams at Wimbledon
No. 4: S. Williams d. Wozniacki at WTA Finals
No. 5: Wawrinka d. Djokovic at Australian Open
No. 6: Murray d. Robredo at Valencia
No. 7: Federer d. Wawrinka at ATP World Tour Finals
No. 8: Federer d. Monfils at U.S. Open
No. 9: Kvitova d. Kerber at Fed Cup
No. 10: Nishikori d. Ferrer at Madrid

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