Kei Nishikori should be considered a dark horse for the French Open title, writes Raz Mirza
By Razwan Mirza - Tweet me: @RazMirza
Last Updated: 07/05/14 4:23pm
Kei Nishikori took advantage of world No 1 Rafael Nadal's shock defeat by Nicolas Almagro in the quarter-finals of the Barcelona Open to win his first clay-court title in style.
His second title of the season and the fifth title of his career came after a crushing 6-2 6-2 victory over Colombian Santiago Giraldo at the Real Club de Tenis to become the first non-Spaniard to win the event since 2002.
Nishikori, who was playing for the first time on clay under new coach and former French Open champion Michael Chang, will now turn his attention to causing some damage at Roland Garros.
His best Grand Slam appearance to date came when he reached the quarter-finals of the Australian Open in 2012 as the hardcourts looked to be the 24-year-old's best chance of success.
Indeed, his previous four titles before Barcelona all came on outdoor hard, although his latest success suggests he can compete against the very best on the red dirt.
The 12th-ranked Shimane-born star reached the fourth round in Paris last year before falling to Nadal, and will fancy his chances of going further at Roland Garros this time.
He is in great form having beaten Roger Federer on his way to the semi-finals in Miami before winning the title in the Catalan capital.
His aggressive game and superb court coverage will make him one to avoid when the draw is made in Paris, and Nishikori is growing more confident of his clay-court abilities.
I was winning all the European juniors events. Now it's much tougher than hard courts and I was struggling a bit, but I've been playing well these past couple of years so there's no fear to play on clay.
"I was good on clay when I was little," he said.
"I was winning all the European juniors events. Now it's much tougher than hard courts and I was struggling a bit, but I've been playing well these past couple of years so there's no fear to play on clay."
Nishikori, who joined Nick Bolletieri's famed Florida academy aged 13, was named ATP Newcomer of Year in 2008 and has since gone from strength to strength on the tour.
In 2010, he became first Japanese player to finish in the Top 100 since Shuzuo Matsuoka in 1995 and in the same season he made his Roland Garros debut - losing to Novak Djokovic.
Two years later he took advantage of playing on home soil by landing the second title of his career in Tokyo and last year he nailed his only title of the year in Memphis.
He is virtually a rock star in Japan, but his followers will worry about the number of injuries he picks up.
Nishikori pulled out of his Miami Masters semi-final with Novak Djokovic on March 28 due to a groin injury and ended up missing three weeks of the season.
He has also suffered right elbow, left hip and knee problems in the past which puts a question mark over whether he is able to challenge the best over a five set match.
But Nishikori's mental strength and positive attitude has shone through this season, despite the blip in Miami and he has already added to his second successive Memphis crown by adding that big title in Barcelona.
He may well be humble and mild-mannered in person, with a laid-back style of speaking, but all that changes when he steps onto the court.
At 5 foot 10 inches, his speed and footwork around the court are vital aspects of his game to counteract the power he often faces in opponents.
Nishikori was accompanied by Chang in Spain and it seems that his new coach is adding an extra ingredients to his game.
"He hasn't changed much in my clay game," he said of the 1989 French Open winner.
"But he does give me a lot of information, I can learn a lot from him."
Japan's rising star has targeted not just a place in the top 10 but a spot at the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals in London in November and why not after his maiden win on clay.
"This title and (my showing in) Miami helped my confidence, especially this week on clay," he said.
"There are three big tournaments coming up in Madrid, Rome and Roland Garros so I hope I can do well and increase my (ranking) points. My next goal is to get to the top 10."