Nobody, besides Novak Djokovic, has been as consistent at this year’s Grand Slams as Kei Nishikori. Indeed, the Japanese number one has made the quarter finals at the Australian Open, the French and at Wimbledon. Each time, he has been knocked out by a member of The Big Three - Djokovic in Australia, Rafael Nadal in France and Roger Federer at Wimbledon.
This record serves as the perfect illustration of Nishikori’s career to date. With the exception of Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka, he has been the most consistent, reliable member of the chasing pack and yet despite making the final of the US Open back in 2014 Nishikori has always seemed unable to make a Grand Slam breakthrough.
At next week’s Citi Open in Washington, the current world number seven will be among the frontrunners. Nishikori will be the second seed before only Stefanos Tsitsipas. The Japanese has often found his best form on hard courts and so this represents the start of the most fruitful part of the season for Nishikori, with the Citi Open the first (unofficial) warm-up event in the lead up to the US Open.
To understand why Nishikori has never won a Grand Slam, and only has only ever made it as far as the quarter finals at three of the four majors, one must understand his game. He is a maximiser. Nishikori’s best quality is his resilience, with his defensive game giving him a footing against even the best opponents.
But he lacks the weapons to truly take the match to them. Nishikori is among the best at waiting for mistakes from his opponents, but the issue with the likes of Djokovic, Federer, Nadal and even Murray and Wawrinka is that they make so few mistakes. What’s more, the top players, particularly Djokovic and Murray, have exceptional defensive games of their own.
At 29, it’s unlikely that Nishikori will be able to fundamentally change his game. He might benefit from increasing his willingness to come to the net (look at how this allowed Federer to alter his game in his 30s), but the Japanese will always be a baseline battler. This limits how far he can go at the top level. His Grand Slam breakthrough might never come, especially with youngsters like Tsitsipas and Felix Auger Aliassime now coming to the fore.
This doesn’t mean that Nishikori shouldn’t be heralded as one of the best of his generation, though. It is a joy to watch the Japanese scrambling about the back of the court, giving his all to ensure his opponent has to play one more shot. He has taken the place of David Ferrer as the men’s game’s hardest grafter.
Nishikori won’t be the only big name at this year’s Citi Open in Washington. Tsitsipas will be the top seed and will arrive in the capital with a point to prove after a disappointing Wimbledon. Kevin Anderson, Karen Khachanov, John Isner, Daniil Medvedev, Marin Cilic, Gael Monfils, Milos Raonic and Auger-Aliassime will also take part.
It’s in this sort of company that Nishikori tends to thrive. His game is tighter than most of his peers and his form so far this season suggests his North American hard court season will be a successful one. Victory in Washington would underline his consistency, but might also emphasise his position at the top of the men’s game.