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Japan’s Kei Nishikori Triumphs at Washington’s Citi Open

WASHINGTON, D.C.—Marin Cilic gave Japan’s rising son a tough match in the semi-finals of Washington’s Citi Open, a small gem of a tournament that warms players up for the end-of-summer U.S. Open. It was competitive enough to say he coulda had he only woulda.

You see this in every sport, but in tennis it is raw because it is one-on-one and when the battle is close it is close indeed, point for point until one side breaks, the other breaks through.

Cilic took the first set with an early break but lost his touch in the second, got creamed. Came back in the third and there it was again, point for point until Nishikori broke through and held on.

Both coulda, only one woulda. Coaches call it hunger.

The question, competition-wise, about Croatia’s gentle giant, Marin Cilic, and Japan’s soft-spoken samurai, Kei Nishikori, always has been: Are they hungry enough? We thought it was settled last summer when they met in the final of the U.S. Open, beating, to get there, the hungriest of them all: in the semis, Nishikori stopped Novak Djokovic, Cilic out slugged Roger Federer.

Now, on a less spectacular stage, though by no means a minor one, Nishikori seemed to lose it suddenly, wilting under Cilic’s relentless pounding. The Croat dominated the first set with his big serve and his volleys and his strong forehands, kept Kei Nishikori on the deep defensive.

Defensive players like Nishikori cannot win until they figure out how to turn the tables on the other fellow. The last time defense beat offense in men’s singles tennis was in the late 1920s during the heyday of the crocodile, Rene Lacoste, whose philosophy was to hit the last shot on every point. That was his philosophy and his strategic insight. It worked for a while. Then attackers like Fred Perry and Don Budge arrived on the scene and Rene Lacoste went into haberdashery. This was decades before the Open era, when tennis players had to think about earning a living in a normal trade.

The great defensive players of today are passive-aggressive personalities on the court. The have fantastic returns of serve. The ball comes at them faster than their optic nerves can follow – Nishikori himself allowed as much in describing his match against Sam Groth, who has the fastest serve on the Tour and whom he beat on the way to meeting Cilic – and yet they wham it back into the opposite corner or “down the line” directly in front, and the server, who has been propelled by his own power into the forecourt, is miffed and flummoxed.

Of course, this does not always work. The defensive man also must have reliable groundstrokes from the baseline, notably a backhand made of steel so he can engage in long rallies. This takes nerves of steel, too. His object is to move the other man around, wear him down. He has to take big hits, whip them back, lob and pass – no joke when you are up against Marin Cilic or Sam Groth, who tower over the net like the basketball-sized players they are. Long arms, big shoulders; and anyway, that is not enough. You still need aggression.

Groth and Nishikori and Cilic are the same age, or almost. They are in the mid-20s. They have been on the tour for 10 years, take a year or two in Groth’s case when he played Australian-rules football, a cross between soccer and rugby. If you tackle the ball handler in Aussie-rules, he must give up the ball. Your side gets it. You go on offense without missing a beat. This is what happens in defensive-aggressive tennis. You somehow get the ball back, guessing where that beyond-visibility projectile has landed, and you find the opening that lets you turn the tables. You take control of the point, turn predator.

This is why you have to hand it to the top man in tennis (at the moment), Novak Djokovic, and the number-three man, Andy Murray, who was seeded No.1 in this tournament, which is the Citi Open, ex Washington Star Invitational and Leggs Mason Classic, more fundamentally Washington, D.C.’s claim to being a meaningful stop on the Tour. You take the S-2 straight up 16th Street from Lafayette Square in front of the White House and get off at Kennedy Street, walk across to the Rock Creek Tennis Center. It is Park Service property, but the racquets do the talking here not the federal gasbags. Okay, non sequitur, but you know what I mean.

Djokovic and Murray are the best defensive players this year, as they were last year and probably still will be next year, because they possess an almost preternatural ability to send everything back at the other man until suddenly and seemingly out of nowhere (but of course it is somewhere) they zip a winner, what tennis pros call a winner, what you would call a completion in football or a whiff in baseball, and the point is theirs. This is something the great Lacoste did not do. His philosophy was to return the ball and wait. If necessary return it again, wait some more. But the world no longer works like that.

Not the tennis world, at any rate. Kei Nishikori over the past 10 years has become better, stronger, faster, smarter, and he lays claim now to being as hot and dangerous a defensive-aggressive player as the mighty men from Serbia and Scotland. He has achieved the No 5 rank this year, the highest rank ever reached by a Japanese or any other Asian not from Australia, which is not an Asian country but the Australian tennis men themselves now refer to their Open as the Open of Asia and the Pacific, so go figure. Nishikori is beyond Japan as Djokovic is beyond Serbia and Murray is beyond Scotland. They are all, when they are not playing without pay for their homelands in Davis Cup competition, in another country, called The Tour.

Nishikori managed to turn the tables on Groth in the first set of their quarters match, then again in the second, winning both with a single break of his opponent’s serve, 6-4, 6-4. This was surprising to the extent that Groth himself has improved hugely in the past year. His serve, seldom under 130 mph, is deadly as ever. He plays the classic Australian grass court game, serve and volley, fastest, hardest, fiercest style in the sport, and his net game is superb when it works with dangerous sliced volleys into remote corners or to the sidelines. It is not enough in today’s game, there are too many players now who can take it and dish it back, so he has had to work on ground strokes which, admittedly, would be most kindly described as erratic. At the Citi Open, his baseline backhand, with the gorgeous old-school one-handed swing, is a sight to behold. But it has a tendency to fly off the handle and go into the stands. There are about eight thousand seats in the Stadium at the FitzGerald Center in Rock Creek Park where the tournament takes place, and frankly any one of the spectators has an even chance of catching a Groth fly ball. It is quite extraordinary. It does not win points, however.

Cilic, from Bosnia and Herzegovina and who, at six-foot-six has the elegant height of many south Slavs, compared to Groth’s powerful rugged 6-foot-4 Aussie height (Nishikori is five-foot-eleven), has more control over his ground strokes and it is not recommended, as with Groth, to hit to them until he whacks one into the stands. Cilic must be outfoxed and out hit. That is what Nishikori did in the semi-final. Unlike the final at the U.S. Open last year, when he was intimidated both by the grandiosity of it all – the first non Australian Asian male ever in any final of a grand slam event – as well as by the Croat’s power, Nishikori kept his nerve and stuck to plan. He stayed firm in the deciding set for, well, a decisive win.

Kei Nishikori came to America at 14 on a tennis scholarship with his tennis kit, shoes, shorts, shirt, racquet, and not a word of English. His English is fine now, not as good as his tennis, and without arrogance (he is reserved, polite, but not shy) he insists he can go all the way, win the major that eluded him in last year’s final at Flushing Meadows, the sprawling grounds in Queens, N.Y. next to the Mets baseball field, where the U.S. Open is played.

Maybe so, but the task at hand is to resist still another huge service man, the highest-ranking American as well as the tallest at six-foot-eight, who in fact almost chose basketball over tennis for his career move, the No 15 in the world at present, John Isner. The whole tournament, it must be said in passing, was queered by the stunning upset in the first round of still another tall man, world No 3 and top seed here, Andy Murray. Andy Murray lost to a man who has never won a tournament in his life and who played one of the great matches of the season, the entire summer hard court season as they call the run toward the U.S Open. Teymouraz Gabashvili is the most recklessly passionate hard hitting ground stroke man you will ever see, the Ivan Karamazov of tennis, swinging into the ball with an abandon only possible in one of those insane Russian novels, and it works.

It works up to a point. He gets Murray because Murray is temperamental, exasperated, self-critical to an extreme, knocked off balance and it is one of those days when Murray, in person one of the most thoughtful students of the game, stops thinking and just seems to curse himself, you moron he mutters, you idiot, get it, but he does not get it, and the slash and burn frenzied Russian wins in straight sets, a stunner.

Gabashvili fell in the next round as foretold by his past record, and now, without Murray in the lineup, Cilic knocked out by the Florida samurai, it is up to John Isner to grasp for a trophy that has eluded Americans since Andy Roddick raised it in 2007. Isner, to get here, played the most dramatic match of the tournament against the Californian Steve Johnson, a game so tense you could perspire in the nearly cool evening. Isner-Johnson was the high point of the tournament, two big Americans defying each other with big serves, huge returns, little else. The play rarely went beyond three shots per point and yet it was tense as High Noon, with lower stakes of course. Playing their parts, Isner won the first set on an ace, Johnson the second on a risky and impeccable down the line forehand. In the third, neither man would be broken, with Johnson holding firm at the net against smashing forehands directly to his body.

No one was breathed. After, everyone understood Steve Johnson had what they call a breakthrough tournament, a good player emerging into the ranks of contenders, poised to crack the top 20 by the end of the year or surely in the new one if he continues this way. In succession this week he outhit, out ran, out served, out-shot-placed contemporaries whose respect he has earned, but who expected to beat him, the Australian ace Bernard Tomic and the big talented Nebraskan Jack Sock, a Wimbledon doubles champion. And now in the tiebreaker, he is 6-4, a point away from beating John Isner, highest ranked American.

He plays to form, moving Isner around the court, trying to make him flub a groundstroke. Instead he goofs, sends an ordinary forehand wild. There is still one match point in Johnson’s pocket, but it is Isner’s serve now and Isner serves an ace, as what else would he do? Now it is 6-6, and Isner serves again, right down the center line and another ace. Johnson saves the match point and gets ahead by a point, with just four shots exchanged. Match point for him again, but Isner aces two in a row. He accelerates the pace now, a whipped returns of Johnson’s serve followed by an attack to the net, and he gets the turn to serve again at 10-9. That is all he needs.

This should have been it, if tennis were theater. All sports are theatrical, but theater they are not, and the final between Nishikori and Isner, while by no means a poor match, cannot meet the same standard of drama. Isner can break Nishikori once, and he does, in the course of taking the first set, but over time the Floridian from Japan gets his bearings, the bigger man gets fatigued. It’s never over till it’s over, but still you know which way it is likely to go. Everyone was breathing.

Nishikori, true to form, sticks to the defense-offense strategy that suits a contest against a stronger but slower man. Sure enough, by the middle of the second set Isner is not moving enough to keep up with Nishikori’s fast pace. It only takes one break to win, if you hold on to your own services. What matters for Nishikori is keeping the ball in play consistently, moving it around the court, pouncing on the chances Isner gives him when, stretched by a shot to one side of the court, he cannot return it with much pace. The scores are close, 6-4 Isner, 6-4 Nishikori, 6-4 again the same, and there you have it and it’s all you need to have.

They shake hands, congratulate each other, thank the crowd, thank the tournament managers and its owner, the Washington Tennis and Education Foundation, which uses the revenue to keep kids in school and on the courts, and off they go, for the Tour must go on.

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