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Nishikori thrives in numbers game

Kei Nishikori slices a backhand during his second round match against Florent Serra.
by Alix Ramsay
Thursday 28 June 2012

Project 45 – it sounds awfully sinister, almost Orwellian, right up there with Big Brother and Room 101. And yet it was Project 45 that produced the charming, cheery and extremely talented Kei Nishikori, the 6-3, 7-5, 6-2 winner over Florent Serra.

The origins of this mysterious project lie in the career of Shuzo Matsuoka who, before the arrival of Nishikori, was the finest male player Japan had ever produced. Matsuoka reached a career high of No.46 in the rankings way back in 1992. So, when little Kei first showed signs of talent with bat and ball, the goal was obvious: better Matsuoka’s achievements then yours is the earth and everything that’s in it, my son. The target, then, was No.45 in the ranking, hence Project 45.

Arriving at the Nick Bollettieri Academy in Florida at the age of 14 and speaking not a syllable of English, he impressed everyone with his work ethic and despite his innate shyness and his overwhelming homesickness, he simply never gave up. Here was a real talent, and a hard working one to boot. Had it not been for a serious elbow injury in 2009 and 2010, we might all have heard a lot more about Nishikori before now.

He broke through that magic “45” ranking barrier last year by reaching the semi-finals of the Shanghai Masters (he lost one Mr A Murray of Dunblane), and since then Nishikori has been working his way ever upwards. This week, he is the 20th best player on the planet and, as such, he wasted little time in disposing of Serra (just 105 minutes, to be exact).

From dropping the first two games, he ran away with the nine of the next 10 games to leave himself a set and a break to the good. Serra managed to slam on the breaks and make more of a fight of it for the rest of the second set, but he could not control Nishikori for long. Come the third set, the Japanese engaged fourth gear and accelerated through the last four games and on into the third round.

Now Nishikori has his eyes on another of Matsuoka’s records – the quarter-finals here in SW19. Matsuoka reached the last eight here in 1995, eventually losing – as many men did in those days – to Pete Sampras. You would think by this time, Matsuoka would sick of the sight of his young challenger (you work hard for a lifetime to achieve something and then along comes some whippersnapper and, in the twinkling of an eye, he matches all you have done) but not a bit of it. The mentor is in regular contact with his pupil and is forever encouraging Nishikori to believe that he can do more and play better.

“He always send me an e‑mail after the match, how it goes,” Nishikori said. “He just send me now, too. So he's always helping me.

“I think this tournament, Wimbledon, is every tennis player look up and I think that all the tennis begins from here, the grass court, and everybody's dreams this tournament. For me, also. So, it's important tournament for me.

“It's always my goal to get quarterfinal here. Every Grand Slam. But, yeah, I play well today. I will have tough draw anyway. I either have to play Del Potro or have to play my friend, so it's both tough match for me.”

His friend is his compatriot Go Soeda who, as Nishikori was heading back to his digs, was taking on the might of Juan Martin Del Potro. Both men could cause Nishikori problems on Saturday so, for the moment Project Quarters has been put on hold; Project Fourth Round is all he can afford to think about now.

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