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Can Kei Nishikori finally join tennis' exclusive group?
By Thomas Neumann, ESPN.com
A measured approach isn't a new philosophy for a professional tennis player, but in Kei Nishikori's world, it's a strategy he hopes will lead him to a breakthrough season.
He isn't the type to make brash predictions, although after a successful 2016 campaign in which he ended No. 5 in the world, Nishikori should be feeling confident as this season begins.
"There are many things to do to get better [in order] to win a Grand Slam, but I think I'm getting closer every year," Nishikori said recently at IMG Academy, his longtime training home. "Especially [last] year -- 2016 was very consistent for me. It's the first time I think I've played good tennis all through the year. I think it was a big step for me. Hopefully [this] year, I can make a big jump."
Indeed, last year was notable for Nishikori in myriad ways. He defeated Rafael Nadal to win Olympic bronze in Rio, the first time a player from Japan has ever won a medal in tennis. He won the Memphis Open for the fourth consecutive time and reached the final in four other tournaments. He reached the semifinals of the US Open, losing to eventual champion Stan Wawrinka, and the quarterfinals of the Australian Open, losing to eventual champion Novak Djokovic.
Having just turned 27, the window of opportunity for Nishikori to win his first Grand Slam championship appears to be opening.
The top two players in the ATP world rankings, Andy Murray and Djokovic, both turn 30 this year. No. 4 Stan Wawrinka will turn 32 in March. Although few observers would predict a steep decline from that terrific trio, which has combined to win each of the past eight Grand Slams, it's worth noting that Grand Slam titles at that age are a rarity. Roger Federer and Wawrinka are the only 30-somethings to win a Grand Slam tournament since 2003.
Still, it won't be easy to join a highly exclusive group.
Going all the way back to 2010, the only players to have won Grand Slam titles are Djokovic, Murray, Wawrinka, Federer, Rafael Nadal and Marin Cilic, who defeated Nishikori in the 2014 US Open final. That's a mere six players who have hoarded the past 28 Grand Slam titles. Additionally, Nishikori will have to contend with world No. 3 Milos Raonic, 26, is also seeking his first Grand Slam title.
"I think [Kei] still has so much potential," said Dante Bottini, who has coached Nishikori since 2010. "If you ask me, yeah, I think he can reach the top. But it's a really tough thing to do. He needs to keep working. I think he still has two or three more years to try and reach it. He's been playing better and better and growing. Physically, he's at his best."
Nishikori will need to balance his aggressive style with a mixture of prudence and poise. He began playing a more aggressively after adding former world No. 2 Michael Chang as an adviser in 2013, but he knows there's a big difference between aggressiveness and recklessness.
"Before that, sometimes I was waiting for a mistake from the opponent," Nishikori said. "I'm very comfortable playing this way now. That's something I have to do to beat the top players. There has to be balance, and I think I'm getting better and better."
Said Bottini: "The idea is for him to play patient-aggressive. Obviously, if he has the right shot, go for it. If you miss it, that's OK. Don't worry about it. Sometimes in different moments of the match, you get a little more excited or nervous, and you make the wrong decision. But that's a part of learning."
Nishikori opened 2017 with a three-set victory Wednesday over Jared Donaldson at the Brisbane International. Of course, the first big test of the year begins in less than two weeks at the Australian Open. Nishikori has reached the quarterfinals in Melbourne three times, including last year, when he lost to Djokovic.
In February, Nishikori will play ATP events in South America for the first time in five years, in lieu of appearances at Memphis and Acapulco. He returns to Buenos Aires, where he reached the quarterfinals in 2012 before losing to Wawrinka. Nishikori is then slated to play the Rio Open for the first time in his career. After that, he will take a week off to gear up for the masters events at Indian Wells and Miami.
Forbes ranked Nishikori at No. 82 on its 2016 list of the world's highest-paid celebrities, ahead of luminaries such as Usain Bolt, Brad Pitt and Gisele Bundchen. But those close to him say he's diligent about avoiding any distractions associated with the trappings of fame and wealth.
"He's a very focused young man, and he wants to make history," said Nishikori's agent, Olivier van Lindonk. "That's where his focus is, not on money or endorsements. The goal is to put him in a position where he can perform well. We want no regrets. Whether he's going to win 10 Grand Slams or no Grand Slams, we want him to look back and say, 'OK, we did everything we could to put him in a position to perform as well as possible.'"
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