Kei Nishikori winning over the hearts of Japanese fans and media
In the Wimbledon television compound, the BBC gets the prime real estate. But there are also two studios for a pair of Japanese networks, Wowow and NHK. They're here because Wimbledon is an iconic sporting event. They’re here for Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova, all of whom won Thursday.
But really they’re here for Kei Nishikori, the first Japanese player to enter the top ten in the ATP rankings. As a Japanese broadcaster explained -- maybe unaware of the faint praise involved -- “In Tokyo, in Japan, he’s like your Justin Bieber.”
The other reflexive -- and frequent -- comparison you hear in the tennis world is between Nishikori and Ichiro Suzuki. It might not represent the height of sensitivity; but the parallel is not without validity. Like the Yankees’ outfielder, Nishikori makes up for a deficit of power with speed and defense and precision and economy and hand-eye coordination. Not unlike Ichiro, there’s a language barrier that can make Nishikori a bit hard for English-speaking fans to know.
The other day John McEnroe pontificated about getting rid of umpires. When media presented the suggestion to Ernests Gulbis, the outspoken Lativian, we got this gem that went viral. When Nishikori was asked about it, he responded, “I don't know. I won't say too much.”
The man, though, can play tennis. He’s already beaten Roger Federer on hardcourts this year. And he came close to beating Rafael Nadal on clay at the Madrid Open before he suffered a back injury. He’s won 30 matches and a pair of titles in 2014.
Thursday on Court 18, Nishikori took on Denis Kulda, the American qualifier who must have felt as though he were playing an older and better version of himself. Nishikori powered around the grass, seldom missed and hit the ball harder than one could reasonably expect of a man who stands 5-foot-10 and weighs just 160 lbs. Nishikori was great in the first set and only got better, winning 6-3, 6-2, 6-1.
The Japanese fans and media that ringed the court took delight in his great play, along with the sponsors who pay millions for Nishikori to endorse their various products -- from cars to noodles. (Nishikori has so many commercials parches sewn onto his shirt that it resembles a quilt.) But as he left the court, Nadal and Serena were starting up and the result was largely overlooked. Not that Nishikori thumped his chest or drew much attention to his success. Postmatch tweet:
Very happy with my win today. Cooling down now http://t.co/yz5CjjwPt8— Kei Nishikori (@keinishikori) June 26, 2014
Nishikori is currently ranked No.12 and, behind closed doors, the tennis bean-counters root for him to continue his ascent. A champion from Japan, a country of 125 million people, means a big influx of capital. Whatever. He’s already brought the gospel of tennis to an entire country. For that, the sport already ought to say Arigato, Nishikori-san.
Five thoughts from Thursday at Wimbledon
• Casual fans will see Rafael Nadal’s scoreline over Lukas Rosol, throw in the word “revenge” and call it a day. But it’s matches like this that give insight into the world No. 1's mental strength. For all his protestations that this was just another match, Nadal was visibly tight at the beginning of the match. He lost the first set and was down a break in the second, and the match was looking an awful lot like 2012. Nadal made some inroads and broke Rosol’s serve; forced the 6-foot-5 Rosol to bend in order to hit shots; cranked a winner down set point to go down 0-2; and, after stealing a tiebreaker, rolled home 4-6, 7-6, 6-4, 6-4. This was a triumph of will -- the kind champions pull off -- and said as much about Nadal as a win later in a tournament.
• We're (nearly) finished with round two, and there haven't been any major upsets, yet. Sure, Victoria Azarenka and David Ferrer fell on Wednesday, but given their individual situations, their upsets weren't shocking. And on Thursday Nadal, Serena, Sharapova and Federer all moved on without incident. The more the favorites continue to win, the closer we move to blockbuster matches in the quarterfinals and beyond.
• A tip of the ballcap to Nick Kyrgios for rallying back after losing the first two sets and staving off nine match points to knock off Richard Gasquet. At 19 years old, he's the youngest player in the draw, but Kyrgios is headed for big things. (But what on earth is Gasquet doing, failing to close this one out?)
• Alison Riske, the endearing American and grasscourt specialist, took out Camila Giorgi, while fellow American Madison Keys ousted Klara Koukalova. The two will pair up for doubles tomorrow.
• Jo-Wilfried Tsonga closed out Sam Querrey 16-14 in the fifth set, a continuation of their match from yesterday. Tsonga plays qualifier Jimmy Wang tomorrow, which means he's played every day so far this week.
Several of you have asked why the Wimbledon seeding formula applies only to the men and not the women. We were told that the event is simply following the wishes of the WTA which prefers that their ranking system governs. If someone has the time -- alas I do not -- to re-seed the draw using the formula, I’d be interested to see the results. I wonder, for instance, that Sharapova would still be No.5 and thus be out of Serena’s quarter.
Can you give me insight as to why BBC tennis commentary is so different (and quiet). Just a style? I'm not used to it.
• When Garbine Muguruza beat Serena Williams at the French Open, one of my favorite readers wrote:
"As for Muguruza, as an American announcer might say, 'What a spectacular display of tennis from one the sport's most promising young talents, signaling that she is ready to become a serious force in the game.' Or, as a British announcer might say, 'Well done.'"
Any specific reason why mens doubles are five-set at Wimbledon, but no where else?
• In a word: Tradition.