Mark J. Terrill/AP Images

Of all the reasons Yoshihito Nishioka’s Indian Wells run to the fourth round felt like the high point of the tournament, the obvious was that he stands just 5-foot-7 in a game of bigs. Even if you knew nothing about the sport, your eyes told you he was an underdog. The 21-year-old came in unheralded with a No. 70 ranking, and barely slipped into the tournament as a lucky loser. Then, as if the bracket wanted to prove a point about size, he was paired against the most physically imposing, hardest-hitting opponents: He beat big-serving Ivo Karlovic, then beat big-everything Tomas Berdych, then came within two points of upsetting Stan Wawrinka, the chunky No. 3 seed who loads up his groundstrokes like cannon fire.

The Japanese newcomer also offered a welcome burst of geographic diversity, rounding out the tiny subset of the final 32 players—Kei Nishikori, Malek Jaziri, Nick Kyrgios—who didn’t hail from Europe or the Americas.

In sum: This new guy was short and good. He will continue to be short, but the big question is whether he will continue to be good—a much thornier proposition in a sport where ascension demands brutal consistency, tournament after tournament, with no teammates to pick up the slack.

Advertisement

Wednesday afternoon offered a small shred of evidence. Fresh off a 12-slot rankings leap, Nishioka won his opening round at the Miami Open over No. 79 Jordan Thompson. After going down a break early and capitulating the first set, likely to preserve energy, Nishioka came back to win 1-6, 6-4, 6-3, relying on his usual mix of loopy forehands and attacking backhands. His real test will come in the next round, since he has just secured a meeting with the other major underdog story of Indian Wells: America’s top-ranked player, Jack Sock.

Sock, previously celebrated here for his tweeners, won the two most significant matches of his career last week. First he saved several match points to defeat No. 13 Grigor Dimitrov, who I continue to see as one of the best players on tour this season, boasting a 17-3 record. Then Sock cut down Kei Nishikori, notching his first win over a top-five player, before (understandably) getting rolled by Roger Federer in the semifinal.

Sock’s totally alien forehand form—there’s a forehand in his kink, somewhere—produces inarguable results. It goes as fast as hell, and with nearly Nadal-style topspin. Please don’t try it at home, though, unless you’re curious about how it might feel to snap every tendon in your dominant arm:

As Sock continues to patch up holes in his game, his backhand has become less a liability and more a reliable, if unexceptional stroke. After receiving a first-round bye in Miami, he’ll be well-rested. Expect Nishioka to doggedly chase down every ball Sock beats down in this second-round matchup, an ideal one to watch if you’re interested in young upstarts still on the cusp of proving themselves.