Tennis, sushi and beer!
It was a very thrilling prospect – the youngest final of 2012 so far, two up and coming stars of the ATP in the final of the Rakuten Japan Open. Kei Nishikori, 22 years of age and living up to the home crowd’s expectations. Milos Raonic, the fast rising 21-year-old Canadian has been on the radar of every tennis enthusiast ever since he popped on to the scene in 2008 with his lanky frame and boom-like serve. It was difficult to pick a clear favourite in this one – Nishikori was the home favourite and had annihilated Tomas Berdych in the quarters, Raonic had comprehensively beaten Andy Murray in an exciting semi final, after saving 2 match points.
The match started out with some raucous appreciation for Nishikori from the crowd. Every point he won – either a winner or a Raonic error – met with thunderous applause. Riding on home support, he comfortably held to open the proceedings. Raonic started strong as well – his first serve was an ace that elicited oohs from the crowd! However, from 40-0 up he played a poor game and Nishikori broke immediately.
Raonic couldn’t find his first serve, and Nishikori took every opportunity to step inside the baseline and draw another error from the Canadian. In no time, the scoreboard was 3-0 in favour of the Japanese. But Raonic cleared his nerves and came back to break Nishikori to even things at 3-all. The quality of the match improved further, with each player making incredible serves, returns and ground shots to win points. The tension in the air was palpable, with each player holding serve thereon, and a tie breaker seemed like an inevitable outcome – but not before Raonic saved 2 set points serving at 5-6. It was Raonic who drew first blood in the breaker, going 3-0 up. But Nishikori kept hitting back, and his running backhand was particularly on display, at one point bringing Raonic on his knees! The Japanese took the breaker 7-5.
Raonic seemed to concentrate on putting his first serves in as he opened the second set – slamming 3 aces to go 1-0 up. By the time the set reached 2-all, it seemed like one player was fresher than the other. Though Raonic kept raining un-returnable serve after un-returnable serve to keep his end clear, the longer the exchanges, Nishikori seemed to have the upper hand. But at 3-4, Nishikori serving, Raonic suddenly had an added spring in his step as he pounded the Japanese’s second serve to break for 5-3. The Canadian survived a breakpoint in the next game with an ace, and sealed the set with another un-returnable serve.
The third set began with a routine Nishikori hold. But in the next game, a brilliant backhand pass down the line helped him break the Raonic serve. Another break serve saw the Japanese with a double break. 4-0 Nishikori. Raonic particularly felt the pressure on his second serve (he won only 38% of the points when he didn’t land his first delivery), as Nishikori ran amok whenever the Canadian missed a first serve to break his game completely. Raonic just couldn’t keep the ball in play long enough to challenge Nishikori, and continued spraying errors off both wings. The Japanese, meanwhile, fed off the strong crowd support and started playing some sublime tennis to go 5-0 up. Confidence flowing in his veins, he produced an absolute gem of a drop shot – backhand pass combination to go up 15-40 in the next game and gain 2 match points. Though Raonic saved both of them, he couldn’t mount a comeback like he did against Murray and eventually put an overhead forehand volley into the net, surrendering the championship to Nishikori.
Nishikori becomes the first man from the Japanese shores to win this competition, and thus creates history. He is a talent to watch; so is Raonic. Though the lanky Canadian completely disappeared in the final set, through the week he did show us glimpses of the massive talent he possesses. Both of them were endearing in the presentation ceremony as well – Raonic with his lavish praise for the crowd support and ‘sushi’, and Nishikori with his innocent wonder of what he’ll do with a year’s free supply of Corona beer. With players like these, tennis is sure to continue its exciting journey. And we want to see more of it!