Kei Nishikori is the fifth-best tennis player in the world and even his practice sessions get mobbed in his native Japan. His trademark shot is the down-the-line backhand, a smoothly flicked frozen rope. You might have last seen him in January taking Roger Federer to five sets in the quarters of the Australian Open. When Nishikori lost to the No. 50 player in the world last weekend, it was easy to dismiss as a blip: Alexandr Dolgopolov’s devilish game can trip up anyone, and every year he manages some nice upsets against the elite. But when he lost in his very next match to No. 76 Thomaz Bellucci in the first round of the Rio Open Tuesday, he began to set off some low-level alarms.
Bellucci hasn’t beaten a top 10 player since 2012 and Nishikori, usually even-keeled even in loss, hasn’t flipped his shit like this in who knows how long:
(One Kei obsessive suggests it’s the third time he’s ever done this in his 10-year career, which, though hard to verify, makes it all the more anomalous. Great form on that spike, though—instant crumple and high bounce.)
After his 6-4, 6-3 loss, top-seeded Nishikori said that the clay behaved differently than he’d expected: “Probably the condition changed a lot from last week: bounce really high and the balls are really heavy. The ball is the most difficult to adjust. I couldn’t feel anything today. I think it wasn’t my day,” he said.
Nishikori’s game hinges on his fine movement, and his precision and consistency from the baseline—the serve has never been a strength. But it’s looked particularly limp as of late. In his match against Bellucci, he won only 63 percent of his first-serve points, down from his year-to-date average of 72 percent, and got broken three times. In his previous match, Dolgo feasted on it for some of the most merciless return winners we’ve seen this year.
One section of the peanut gallery believes that undersized players like Nishikori will struggle to keep up with the physicality of the modern game. There’s some superficial evidence for this idea: Survey all the young prospects and you’ll struggle to pluck out someone who’s under six feet tall. The future is skewing farther and farther towards large genetic anomalies who thwack big serves and groundstrokes without sacrificing too much flexibility or mobility. (Alexander Zverev is the proven example here, and you can see some even more extreme cases, like American seven-footer Reilly Opelka, on the come-up.) But on the other hand, 5-foot-11 sapling David Goffin just cracked the top 10 for the first time in his career after matching up nicely against power-hitters at Rotterdam, beating Grigor Dimitrov and taking Jo-Wilfried Tsonga three sets in the final. Even if the smaller player doesn’t reap a bushel of easy points on serve, he can clearly compete once he gets the rally going.
There doesn’t seem to be too much meat to this size-based critique: the plain answer is that these diminutive baseliners can still win, but, now just as before, they’ll need to rely on their bodies to hold up to the damage of long rallies over five sets. Goffin, at age 26, is now getting it done, at least in best-of-three. Nishikori is 27, 5-foot-10, 165 pounds, and depressingly fragile. He had the eventual champion on his heels in Melbourne, and if not for some hip issues and flagging stamina, Federer might’ve seen his dream run cut short. Nishikori’s facial expression during his late-game medical timeout spelled out the agony:
The body was always at issue for Kei; recent performances seem to suggest that he’s now dogged by some mental doubt, as well.