Nowadays, the 42-year-old has joined forces with the dynamic Kei Nishikori. He commenced his role as Nishikoris coach leading up to the 2014 season, and clearly played a central role in the rise of his charge from No. 17 at the end of 2013 to his current status as the No. 5 ranked player on the planet. A few days ago, I spoke with Chang by telephone, and he expansively examined the year gone by before turning his attention to the year ahead. What impressed me more than anything else was the clarity of his convictions; the view here is that Nishikori is fortunate to have a coach who will tell him precisely what he needs to know rather than what he might want to hear.
At the outset of the conversation, I asked Chang if he believed when they started working together that Nishikori could end 2014 among the top five in the world? Chang replied, “Kei finished 2013 at No. 17. To get to the top ten was more than reasonable. Kei is obviously a very talented player and there were a lot of things I thought he could improve upon. There are still a lot of things he could improve, which is exciting as we go forward. So I felt when we started that he could really improve. He was beating some of the top players even at the level he was at. So I would have felt surprised if he didn’t get to the top ten.”
Asked if he had to go to school on Nishikoris game when he was embarking on the new job, Chang replied,” I did a fair amount of research, but I also played him a couple of years before in an exhibition in 2011 in Tokyo. So just from that eight game pro set, I learned a lot. I wasnt coaching him then or even thinking about coaching him, but as you play somebody you see certain tendencies. There were some that were quite obvious. Doing my own research and watching films of Kei playing and stuff like that, I knew exactly what I wanted to work on right away.”
Chang realized immediately where the primary focus should be. “One of the biggest things, he says “was Kei’s serve, which wasnt that much of a weapon. I felt his serve could be seriously improved. I looked at some of the stats and saw that the year before  he had served 140 aces and 150 double faults. I thought, Wow, that ace total is way too low. When I was playing out there I was serving 280 to 300 aces through the course of a year and certainly much fewer double faults. So right away we made some adjustments and this year the progress has been encouraging. He still needs to improve and still has too many double faults, although he played a lot more matches in 2014 than he did the year before. Before London at the end of this year, he had served 160 double faults and probably around 280 aces throughout the course of the year. His serve can still improve but he made progress.”
In the first major of the year, Nishikori lost a high quality and hard fought battle with Rafael Nadal in the round of 16 at the Australian Open, bowing 7-6 (3), 7-5, 7-6 (3). Was that a good indication that great things were in store for Nishikori? Chang answers, “I think it was a good eye opener for him. It was fun in many ways to watch Rafa not feel comfortable out there. That match was a good confidence booster for him. As the year went on, his mentality changed a lot. For instance, in that Australian Open match with Rafa, I felt like he had a good chance to win that match if he went out and played the way we wanted him to play, but at that point in time in his mind and heart, I dont think he really thought he could win. He had never beaten Rafa before and had never taken a set off him. For me as I watched that match from the sidelines, that was fairly evident. After the match, I said to Kei, Now you know. You are playing in a Grand Slam event against the No. 1 player in the world at this time and you should be able to walk away from this match thinking, ‘Hey, I can play with the best players in the world and I can beat them.'”
It took a while for Nishikori to let that message sink in, to realize just how good he can be. As Chang explains, “It is a progression. It is tough to all of a sudden have a mentality of believing in something. You have to see the fruit of your labor. We had worked hard during the off season but it wasnt tested yet. Then he beat Dimitrov and Berdych in Kooyong and had that good match with Rafa at the Australian Open. Gradually he thought he could start giving these guys a run for their money and maybe even beat them. As the year went on he got more and more confident and that had a lot to do with the hard work he had put in.”
One of the turning points of the year as I saw it was Nishikori’s comeback triumph over Roger Federer in Miami after Federer had taken the first set and went up a break at 4-3 in the second. Nishikori also saved match points in that tournament against David Ferrer. Although he defaulted to Novak Djokovic in the semifinals with an injury, Nishikori was beginning to believe on a larger level. Chang points out, ”The match with Federer is a good example of that [confidence growth] along with the win over Ferrer. The difference before would have been for him to kind of go away from there instead of fighting through and saying, Hey, I have got a chance here. I can win this. It is a big difference. At the end of that match with Federer, Kei wasnt waiting for Roger to miss. He was taking it to him and that is the most important part. When you are playing the best players in the world and waiting for them to miss, you are not going to win.”
Nishikori kept elevating his game and raising his morale on every surface. Having won Memphis indoors during the winter on hard courts, he ruled in Barcelona on the clay, and then in Madrid he was playing perhaps the match of his life against Nadal in the final. Timing the ball immaculately off both sides, hitting winners at will, confounding the Spaniard with his controlled aggression, Nishikori was ahead 6-2, 4-2 before Nadal rallied to seven consecutive games for a 3-0 final set lead. An injured Nishikori retired at that point, but his performance in building a substantial lead had been breathtaking.
Chang says, “Even though it was disappointing to lose that match and it kind of shot the rest of his clay court season because he never really recovered from the injury going into the French Open, it is one of those things where you try to take something positive from it. I am always trying to take positive things from his matches, whether he has won or lost. In that particular situation, I am talking to him and saying, Think about something here. You are playing Rafa Nadal, who is no doubt the greatest clay court player that the game has ever had. He is Spanish and you are playing him in Madrid on the dirt and you are beating him 6-2, 4-2 with him at his best in a final. How many guys could say they have done that? Nobody. Barring the injury, Toni [Nadal] was saying Rafa should have lost that match, probably 6-2, 6-2. So that was another confidence booster.”
Nishikori was still hurting when he lost in the first round of the French Open, but he played well in a four set loss to Milos Raonic in the round of 16 at Wimbledon. On the hard courts in the summer leading up to the U.S. Open, Nishikori played only in Washington but was out thereafter because he had surgery to deal with a foot problem. He did not play in the Masters 1000 events at Toronto and Cincinnati, and was seemingly ill prepared for the U.S. Open. Nishikori seriously contemplated bypassing the Open, but Chang talked him out of that notion.
Chang explains, ”He played only a couple of matches in Washington so people say he was not prepared going into the U.S. Open, but what people dont know is he was actually pretty well prepared physically. Once he got hurt at the French we worked really hard to make him physically healthy for Wimbledon, which he was able to do. Right after Wimbledon he came to California and we trained very hard prior to Washington. In Washington, a cyst developed on his foot. Even though he missed Canada and Cincinnati he was physically fit already. So he had surgery and couldnt do anything as far as movement or anything like that, but I told him to keep up with his physical work. And he was saying, I don’t know if I can play the U.S. Open. And I said, Look, the cyst is not an injury. It is something that you have had surgically removed and it is not a huge surgery. It is minor surgery and they have taken it out now. So once the skin heals you are not going to have that pain anymore.”
Nishikori was still deeply concerned. As Chang says, He told me, “I still feel it. I told him that was normal after a surgery. I said, ‘We are going to the Open and if for some reason it is just too bad, you pull out the morning you are supposed to play. But I don’t want to hear that you are going to pull out a week prior to the U.S Open. That is ridiculous to me. If we get past the first two rounds at the U.S. Open, even if you are feeling your foot a little bit, by the time we finish the second round you will almost be through the first week of the U.S. Open. If you can get through those first two rounds, anything can happen.'”
Chang was speaking prophetically, and Nishikori wisely listened to his coach. As Chang reflects, “I was talking a little bit through experience. I told Kei about a situation I had at the French in 95 when I got to the finals against Muster. I was actually really close to pulling out of that tournament. I had strained my right pectoral muscle and couldnt hit a forehand, so I almost pulled out the morning of my first round match against Diego Nargiso. My brother [and coach] Carl said I could default on the spot if it was too painful, so I went out and played. He hit everything to my backhand and I hardly had to hit any forehands. I won the match and I then had treatment, treatment, treatment. As the tournament went on, I got better and basically the injury went away and I was able to play the rest of the tournament without having to deal with it.”
Chang conveyed that story to Nishikori. He recalls saying, “You never know what will happen but you have to give yourself a chance. The doctor says you should be pain free pretty soon so you have to trust that. So Kei was saying, Okay, Okay. Initially he didnt want to make the trip to New York but I said, No. if you are going to make that decision, you make it in New York. That was the mentality going forward.”
The rest, of course, is well documented. Nishikori made history of magnitude by becoming the first Asian man ever to reach the final of a singles major. He toppled Raonic in five sets in the round of 16, overcame Australian Open champion Stan Wawrinka in a five set quarterfinal, and bested Djokovic in a four set semifinal before losing the final to an unconsciously brilliant Marin Cilic. Did he talk much about the foot once he got on this remarkable roll in New York?
“No, says Chang. “He wasnt talking about that anymore. Its funny how with tennis players:it is one of those things where if you are winning, a lot less things bother or hurt you, but if you are losing it can be that it doesnt feel right. That is normal for a tennis player. So obviously Kei was feeling pretty good.”
In any case, how surprised was Chang by Nishikori’s heroics at the Open? ”Kei has a very good five set record and he won that five setter with Raonic, but the points werent super long. The match with Wawrinka was different and physically very tough. I wasnt sure how he would recover from back to back five set matches because he had never won back to back five set matches before. But the great thing was he had two days off before playing Novak. That gave him extra time to recoup and recover. He was feeling pretty good for that match and it was interesting because as the fourth set started I could visibly see Novak was tired. It was a great accomplishment for Kei to get through that match with Djokovic. Maybe in some ways he was surprised but if you take bits and pieces from what was going on earlier in the year, it was one of those things where he should have been able to do what he did. It doesn’t mean you can always do it, but Kei was great.”
Nishikori had beaten Cilic five of the seven times they had clashed across their careers. But Cilic was in the zone.
According to Chang, “There is no question that Marin played very well. He probably played his best tennis of the year at the U.S. Open. That was evident not only in his match with Kei but also in his match with Roger. But I do think Kei was physically tired in that final with Marin, and a little nervous as well. It was a little disappointing but how many guys are going to basically play three really tough matches with two players ranked in the top five and one who was 6 in the world at the time, or seeded five. It is not normal that you have that tough of a draw. But I liked how Kei responded after that. Some players win a Grand Slam tournament or get to a final and go through the motions the rest of the year. I was conscious of that and did not want that to happen with Kei. He did a great job of continuing to work hard and did very well in Asia, winning back to back tournamentsanother first time thing for him. That propelled him to do well and make a good run to qualify as one of the top eight for London [the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals].”
In his London debut, Nishikori made it to the semifinals, cutting down Andy Murray, losing to Federer, defeating Ferrer, and then taking a set off Djokovic in the penultimate round. ”It was a very good effort from Kei,” asserts Chang. “It is not easy to do well the first time you play in that tournament. After he lost to Roger, Kei was a little bit dejected but I reminded him that we were not done yet. Players are so used to losing a match at a tournament and then going on to the next tournament. Kei played a good match against Novak in the semis. Novak played a flawless first set and Kei picked it up to win the second set. It was a lot of fun to see those guys playing toe to toe and a lot of great tennis was played. In the first game of the third set, Kei had a couple of break points and if he had won that game to keep things rolling the third set would have been a different story, but it was a good tournament for him.”
What seemed apparent to me watching Nishikori all year long is that his combination of natural power, timing, quickness and ball control places his ground game right up there with the best in the game. How does Chang feel about that assessment?
“I think that is pretty accurate, he responds. “We have worked hard on making some adjustments in his ground game, adding a little more variety with Kei able to do a few different things. It has been paying off well against guys playing from the back but also guys attacking or maybe just relying on forehands. Kei can do a lot of really good things off both wings and that gives him the ability to play against different styles and guys who have different weapons. Can Keis ground game improve? Absolutely. He can definitely get better and that is exciting.”
I mentioned to Chang that it seems as if Nishikori’s two-handed backhand and return of serve are right up there among the best in tennis along with Djokovic and Andy Murray in those departments, and said that his backhand can hold up against anyone. Chang says, “There is no question that most guys will tell you on tour that Kei has one of the best backhands out there. I don’t think he has any issues now going toe to toe off his backhand with anyone, even if it means going backhand to forehand against Rafa. His forehand is a great shot as well and it can become a bigger weapon.”
Yet sound technique is only part of the equation in becoming a top of the line champion. The right mindset is another crucial factor. I have been baffled at times by watching Nishikori float in and out of matches, having golden patches followed by bad ones, then recovering his equilibrium. Chang says, ”That is something we are working on. It kind of goes with the territory of finding the right mentality. We are working on things to make him more consistent throughout the course of a match. It is something that separates the guys who are ranked 20 or 30 in the world from some of the top guys. The top guys are looking for their opportunity and taking advantage of it. Kei has certainly gotten a lot better at that but it is something we are addressing more and more. He will only get better.”
How much better can Nishikori become in 2015? He said in a quietly confident way during the World Tour Finals that he believes he could break into the top three or perhaps even the top two next year. How does Chang see it? “It is always good to make some goals. Kei did give me some goals he wanted before we started for last year, and they were by no means small goals. I think they were getting to the top ten, reaching the semifinals of at least one Grand Slam and the last one was making it to London. This year he has mentioned some things for next year but we havent actually talked about it yet. I will continue to remind him that to reach more of these goals he will have to continue putting in the hard work to give himself the opportunity. He is No. 5 in the world and he was very close to becoming No. 4 in London. To get to No. 3 or No. 2 your steps are bigger yet they are also smaller. To go from No. 17 to the top ten is a huge jump, but once you get to the single digits and try to move from 5 to 4, 4 to 3, 3 to 2 and 2 to 1, those are smaller numbers but bigger steps.”
Can Nishikori capture a major in 2015? Chang is optimistic, saying, “The opportunity for him to win a major is going to be three for him at all four Slams. There is no question about it. As far as going out there and saying we are going to win one, I dont want to be in a situation where I am talking about Kei winning a Slam. I would rather continue taking things step by step and match by match rather than looking it as a whole. Sometimes when you look at it as a whole you get absorbed in that and only focus on that. I dont want that to happen to us or to him. It is in the back of our minds but it has to happen point by point and that is the proper mentality.”
It may largely come down to more enhancements on the serve for Nishikori in 2015. Chang beefed up his serve decidedly in the mid-nineties, and that alteration allowed him to win many more free points on his first delivery, even if his numbers dropped in many matches below 50%. How does he feel about Nishikori perhaps pursuing the same policy in an effort to make it to the next level?
Chang answers, “For me, part of the reason for going for more on my first serve was because my second serve got so much better. It got to a point where I was pretty high on my winning percentage on second serves so if I was winning that many free points on my second serve and not hitting that many double faults. It gave me the freedom to go for my first serve more. You have to be smart about that. Kei’s serve overall has gotten much better but like I said his double faults have to come down significantly. We can do some different things on his first serve to make it better overall because if he can start off the point and maybe get more free points, that makes it easier for him. All of these things make a big difference in the overall scheme of things. We want to make Kei’s service games easier.”
Be that as it may, the single most important goal for Nishikori must be to stay as healthy as possible in 2015. He has to avoid as many setbacks to his body as he encountered over the past year. Does Chang see is that way? ”Yes, he replies. “ Kei has made significant progress in this area, and probably the most evidence of that was the U.S. Open. To play that many tough matches and recover and not have injury come from it was a really positive thing for Kei. From this point on it will hopefully get better and we wont have to worry so much about injuries here and injuries there. If I have one goal for next year that would be for Kei to go out there and play 95 percent of the year healthy. To go through the year without having an injury or something happen that takes you out for two to three weeks at a time would be a huge accomplishment and that alone would take his tennis to the next level.”
If and when that happens, it will be time for every top player in the game to stand up and take notice more than ever about one Kei Nishikori. With Michael Chang in his corner, Nishikori seems destined to fully realize his talent over the next couple of years
<Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for tennischannel.com since 2007. You can purchase Steve’s latest book “The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time” here.
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