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Ninth Samurai : Kei Nishikori climbs to ATP Rank 9, while Rafael wins his record 4th Madrid title

A dream fortnight for Kei Nishikori has ended with him rising to No. 9 in the ATP rankings, making him the first Japanese player to break into the top 10.

What a fortnight it has been for Kei Nishikori! During two memorable weeks in Spain, he won the Barcelona title and finished as the runner-up in the Madrid Masters this Sunday, losing in two-and-a-half sets to Rafael Nadal.

As a result, he starts this week ranked No. 9 in the ATP rankings released on Monday, thus becoming the first Japanese man to break into the top 10. His aim for the (near) future: becoming the #1 ranked tennis player in the world.

“It was a big goal for me to get top 10, but it’s just only one week for now,” Nishikori said on the ATP website. “So I have to keep playing better tennis and keep this ranking. My goal is not to get one time into the top 10. Hopefully I can keep this ranking.”

Rafael Nadal and Kei Nishikori with their Madrid Masters trophy and shield respectively, at the Caga Magica, Madrid on Sunday

Rafael Nadal and Kei Nishikori with their Madrid Masters trophy and shield respectively, at the Caga Magica, Madrid on Sunday

Nishikori has often said that he wants to lift the game of tennis in Japan by increasing the number of children that play tennis, and that he wants to become the most successful Asian athlete ever.

Kei has hovered around the top 10 for sometime now, and is always a force to reckon with at the Grand Slams. However, he has so far failed to fully convert his potential and talent into sustained performances and trophies. Till date, he has to his name five ATP singles titles (four at the 500 level and one at the 250 level).

But his win in Barcelona and his performance here in Madrid were special for quite a few reasons.

Clay, among all the surfaces used in tennis, is perhaps the toughest to master, as due to its nature, it requires special skills like sliding, stopping, good baseline play and imparting topspin on the ball. Hence, the players who have grown up playing on the surface are tough to beat on the surface.

Andre Agassi, in his autobiography ‘Open’, refers to the clay-court specialists as the ‘dirt rats’, owing to their specialized skills which lend them a distinct advantage over others who are more used to the hardcourts and find it tough to adjust to the clay (‘dirt’).

Kei Nishikori poses with the Barcelona Open trophy last week.

Kei Nishikori poses with the Barcelona Open trophy last week.

This week in Madrid, Nishikori not only usurped two of the ‘dirt rats’, but did so in style. He got the better of Feliciano Lopez in the quarters, and then beat another champion on clay, David Ferrer in the semi-finals.

In the process, he also crashed the Spanish party, as his win disturbed what would have been an all-Spanish semi-final line-up in front of the home crowd. And then, by beating Ferrer, he made sure that there would be no all-Spanish final (Nadal-Ferrer), which we have often come to expect on claycourts.

He almost got the better of a third ‘dirt rat’ in the final as well,  leading Rafael Nadal by a set and a break, and might even have won had injury to his back not stopped him from giving his best.

In the semi-final against Ferrer, Nishikori had pulled his back, and had needed a medical time-out before the third set to tend to his back. Almost everyone thought that he would be able to merely complete the match, and no one gave him a chance after he hurt his back, especially since Ferrer has an amazing record on clay. But he made a comeback that had to be seen to be believed.

He came back all guns blazing, and Ferrer was found wanting. In the end, after nine missed match points, and a last game that lasted 15 minutes, he held his nerve to prevail.

After less than 24 hours of this draining semi-final, he took on the ‘The King of Clay’ Rafael Nadal. A tall order indeed!

But Nishikori started amazingly well and was aggressive, posing questions to which Nadal had few answers. As a result, he won the first set 6-2.

Nadal increasingly looked frustrated and out of sorts, until he also started being aggressive towards the middle of the second set, and gradually found his rhythm. He broke Nishikori back after being down a break, and in the eighth game, Nishikori pulled his back again.

He looked in a lot of pain, and took a couple of medical time-outs to tend to his back. But it was evident after his treatment that he wasn’t in his best condition and was clearly in a lot of trouble. To his credit, he persevered on and tried to give it his best till the very end, but with his movement severely restricted, Nadal took control of the match, and claimed the second set.

Nadal won seven games on the trot before Nishikori decided that he couldn’t continue any further; he was in no position to stage another of the comebacks like the one on Saturday against Ferrer.

Rafael Nadal with his 'bite' of the Madrid Masters

Rafael Nadal with his ‘bite’ of the Madrid Masters

Nishikori was very disappointed and even apologized to the crowd in the post-match address for having had to pull out like that.

“I am very disappointed about what happened in this final,” said Nishikori. “Unfortunately, I was hurting already and I tried to fight but Rafa was too good today, so congratulations to him.”

Nadal, having been at the receiving end of physical ailments so often, must have understood what it feels like to pull out like that. He was all sympathy for Nishikori, even toning down his post-match celebrations.

He said, “I’m sorry for him. When you suffer something like that, it’s really tough.

“I suffered a similar situation in Australia this year. So I know what I’m talking about and how bitter it is, especially when you’re playing an important match.”

With this result, Nadal claimed his record 4th Madrid Masters, and his 27th ATP Masters 1000 title.

Nishikori has pulled out of the Rome Masters to tend to his back. But we can be sure that in two weeks from now, when we head to Roland Garros, there will be another challenger to the regular favourites.

The challenger is the Samurai No. 9, Kei Nishikori.

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