Surely, the No. 5 seed is on the right half of the draw. With nine time champion Rafael Nadal almost certain to meet top seed Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinals on the opposite half—and Andy Murray likely to meet the winner of that eagerly awaited clash of titans in the penultimate round—Nishikori finds himself with a realistic chance to secure a spot in his second major final. He will face the Russian Teymuraz Gabashvili, a journeyman who may be playing the finest tennis of his career at the age of 30. Gabashvili is ranked No. 74 in the world at the moment, but by virtue of his showing in Paris he will move considerably higher after the tournament. And yet—although Gabashvili has recorded three impressive straight set victories in a row over No. 11 seed Feliciano Lopez, Juan Monaco and Lukas Rosol—Nishikori should prevail comfortably in that clash.
A triumph over Gabashvili would lift Nishikori into his first French Open quarterfinal in five career appearances. Conceivably, he would confront the ever dangerous Tomas Berdych in that round. Nishikori and the big hitting Berdych have not collided in head to head competition since 2012, when the Japanese competitor prevailed in Tokyo on hard courts. Nishikori holds a 3-1 career lead over Berdych, although the big fellow from the Czech Republic came through in their only clay court duel three years ago in Monte Carlo. Berdych has been a reliably top notch player all year long, and has moved to a career high location up at No. 4 in the world. He is a tremendous ball striker, technically sound off both sides, powerful and precise, and a supreme physical force at 6’5” and 200 sturdy pounds.
A Berdych-Nishikori battle in the last eight would be enticing. Berdych will have to subdue the highly charged Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the round of 16, but he should be up to that task. In any case, no matter who Nishikori meets in the quarters, he would be my pick to win. And that would set up a potentially explosive appointment between the 25-year-old and 2009 Roland Garros champion Roger Federer. To be sure, Federer could have some arduous assignments himself before landing in the semifinals. Despite having handled Gael Monfils twice in the past at the French Open (in 2008 and 2009), he has been beaten by the Frenchman in three of their last five encounters overall since 2013. Monfils had two match points against Federer at the 2014 U.S. Open before falling in five tumultuous sets. Since then, he eclipsed Federer in their last two contests, both on clay. But he has been pushed back to back in five set skirmishes at Roland Garros and may well be too depleted to stay with a fresh Federer for four or five long sets. His win today after Pablo Cuevas was the match of the tournament, filled with ineffably creative and bruising rallies, featuring two stalwart competitors ceding no ground and using every inch of the court. It was captivating, modern day clay court tennis at its most appealing. But I envision Federer halting Monfils in four hard fought sets, and then gaining the same result against compatriot Stan Wawrinka. I believe he will have an appointment in the penultimate round with Nishikori.
My feeling is that Nishikori has a slightly better than even chance of defeating anyone on his half of the draw. But the tallest task would be overcoming Federer on such a monumental clay court stage. The fans would be thirsting for a Swiss triumph. Federer would believe in himself and his chances. It would probably be a five set skirmish providing each man with ample opportunities. The tennis would inevitably be crackling and inventive on both sides of the net. Yet I believe Nishikori is ready to reach his second major final, even if it does require a singularly gigantic effort on his part.
Since his magnificent run to the U.S. Open final last September, Nishikori has had some first rate results mixed with disconcerting performances. After he lost the title round match in New York to a sublime Marin Cilic, Nishikori finished off his 2014 campaign reasonably well. He won tournaments in Kuala Lumpur and Tokyo last autumn, and went to the semifinals indoors at Paris and again at his debut appearance in the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals in London.
Not accidentally, Nishikori was beaten in both Paris and London by Djokovic, the same man he ousted on an oppressive afternoon in the semifinals of the U.S. Open. Nonetheless, Nishikori seemed entirely capable of going deep and, under the right circumstances, even winning the Australian Open at the start of the 2015 season. But he ran into a scorching Stan Wawrinka in the quarterfinals and was overwhelmed and overpowered by the Swiss 6-3, 6-4, 7-6 (6). Wawrinka put on a scintillating shotmaking display and served stupendously on that occasion. In many ways, poor Nishikori never knew what had hit him. He was denied the opportunity to meet Djokovic in a second straight major semifinal. That must have hit Nishikori hard. It clearly hurt. He seemed deeply dispirited by the severity of his defeat.
Be that as it may, Nishikori moved on from that setback stoically, winning the ATP World Tour 250 Memphis Open in the winter, defending his clay court crown in Barcelona less than a month ago. But the fact remains that Nishikori has been found wanting elsewhere. He gave a lackluster performance against David Ferrer, losing to the Spaniard in the hard court final at Acapulco back in early March. He was ushered out of Indian Wells by the wily, left-handed Lopez. In Miami, Nishikori could not contain an inspired John Isner. The towering American was at his absolute zenith that day, serving phenomenally, returning with surprising authority, conviction and precision. But Nishikori clearly did not perform anywhere near his loftiest standards.
On went Nishikori to the clay court circuit, where he fared well without firing up much imagination. In winning Barcelona, he stopped Gabashvili in the opening round, dropped only one set all week, and halted Pablo Andujar in a well-played final. Defending titles is never facile, so that was good work from Nishikori in Spain. But in his next two clay court tournaments, Nishikori was less than stellar. He got to the semifinals of the Masters 1000 event in Madrid, but was thoroughly outplayed by Andy Murray. In Rome, Nishikori split sets with Djokovic, but the Serbian was way too good down the stretch, claiming the final set 6-1.
Plainly, Nishikori has not embarrassed himself since the U.S. Open, not by any stretch of the imagination. But his results have been unremarkable. He has not found a way to fully recapture the magic of his play in New York. Nishikori’s form against his leading rivals has been largely disappointing. He has been searching to find a level of comfort as a top five player, to explore avenues leading toward improvement, to turn himself into a champion who raises his game almost automatically at the propitious moments.
I don’t believe he will win this tournament, but he has a good chance to be in the final. Considering how much he has struggled to find the upper level of his game this season, simply playing for the world’s premier clay court title a week from Sunday would be a triumph in and of itself.